When translated, Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, means “between rivers” – and rightly so. Embraced by the immense Red River, it also cradles bodies of beautiful lakes. Still, there is more beyond its geography that makes Hanoi what it is. Having seen its share of the cruelty of war, this city has endured. Today, it exists between two worlds: the influence of Colonial French and the genuine Vietnamese soul. It appears caught in a web of modernism and history; fast changing times and age-old traditions.
The city has not fought these seemingly contradicting influences. Rather, it has embraced the best of these worlds, forming today the heart of North Vietnam’s politics, education and culture. About six hundred pagodas and temples will vie for the tourist’s eye in Hanoi. Be sure, though, to take a look at Tran Quoc. Not only is it the country’s oldest pagoda, it is also built on an island in the centre of West Lake, which is the city’s largest. The legendary Tortoise Tower also stands alone in an island in Hoan Kiem Lake, where you might be lucky enough to spot the endangered soft-shell turtle.
The tomb of Ho Chi Minh holds the leader’s remains. The museum dedicated to him shows personal items and traces his life. Nearby is his residence, a traditional Vietnamese house built on stilts. The great Socialist leader, who championed the liberation and unification of the country, refused to live in the Presidential Palace, a great architectural marvel in Hanoi that was built by the French colonisers.
The Old Quarter used to house the best artisans and merchants of silk, baskets and silver. Today, one can wander around these streets and get lost in the red-roofed residences and guild homes, many of which still house skilled craftsmen. No longer bustling as a centre of commerce, the Old Quarter retains its reputation among tourists. A weekend market brings much activity in this area, with hawkers selling food, clothing and souvenirs.