Chiang Mai, Thailand
With an old world flair, a trip to Hanoi feels like stepping back in time. The streets are bustling with motorbikes whizzing by and street food markets bustling with locals doing their daily shopping. Locals walk around the main lake to practice English with foreign tourists and young children can be seen scuttling to school. The French Colonialism fuels the atmosphere as cafes line every block and patrons can be seen seated outside into the sidewalks, enjoying traditional drip coffee and watching the world go by.
Hà Nội divides into seven districts (quận): Hoàn Kiếm (the Old Quarter to the north and the French Quarter to the south), Hai Bà Trưng to the south, Ba Đình and Đống Đa to the west, Cầu Giấy and Thanh Xuân to the far southwest, and Tây Hồ to the north. Most streets in Vietnam are called “đường”, though Hà Nội still sometimes uses the word “phố” and, in the Old Quarter, “hàng.” Downtown Hà Nội is small but disorganized, with streets changing names almost every block, a good map is helpful. Large color maps are available from guesthouses, bookstores, the international post office, and hawkers around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the heart of central Hà Nội. The Old Quarter, enclosed between the Hà Nội citadel Military Complex, Sông Hồng (the Red River), and Hoàn Kiếm Lake, is divided in two by twin one-way streets going north from Hoàn Kiếm Lake (starting as Lương Văn Can and Hàng Đào) which form good points of reference in the district’s confusing labyrinth. A backpacker’s heaven of small shops, restaurants, bars, tourist cafes, and hotels—the area north of and around Hoàn Kiếm Lake—is also the oldest and most interesting district, although nightlife, cuisine, and accommodations in the area south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake and even west of the Citadel also increasingly attract visitors. From the Citadel, Đường Lê Duẩn leads south to Bảy Mẫu Lake in the more residential Hai Bà district (down Khám Tiền) to Đống Đa’s pagodas and small lakes. Farther north, up Đường Hùng Vương, the Ba Đình district overlooking Hồ Tây (the West Lake) hosts the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, most embassies, and the majority of Hà Nội’s expats.
With its Chinese architecture, majestic French colonial buildings, and tree lined lanes, this ancient city of lakes extends a reserved but genuine welcome—the essence of the North Vietnamese. The Old Quarter has stepped up as the city’s tourist enclave, with tourist hotels, travel cafes, and Western restaurants popping up left and right, but the other quarters have some hidden gems as well.
Get ready for an experience of a lifetime. Here is a list of our favorite attractions to help you make the most of your visit. Click the links to learn more about tours and activities.
Vietnam’s greatest writer is universally recognized as Nguyen Du, who wrote Truyen Kieu (Tale of Kieu), an epic in verse. Truyen Kieu is about the tragic life of an aristocratic woman, and it openly criticizes imperial society and describes the hardships of the peasants’ life. Vietnamese of all ages and social classes can recite passages from the epic. Though this and all other early Vietnamese literature was written in the Chinese chý nom script, when the French occupied Vietnam, they sought to curtail Chinese influence by banning Chinese and instituting the Latin-based quoc ngý script. Literature written in the vernacular flourished by the 1920s and 30s and played a significant role in the nationalist struggle against colonial power.
Pre-modern Vietnamese art was a reflection of traditional Chinese styles. Painting, never as popular in Vietnam as in other Asian countries, usually involved landscapes as well as figural themes such as dragons and unicorns. Portrait painting was popular among wealthier families for the purpose of ancestor worship. Lacquer painting was first introduced during the 15th century and involves applying up to 12 layers of paint extracted from tree sap to a wooden background; while time-consuming, the practice’s results are visually stunning. The method was traditionally used to decorate pagodas and palaces. Early sculpture focused on figure-carvings of the Buddha, although the lotus flower was also a hit theme. The Hindu kingdom of Champa produced great sculpture, much of which is on display at the Chàm Museum in Ðà Nong. During the colonial period, painting and sculpture were heavily influenced by French Impressionism. During the 1930s and 40s, Vietnamese modernist artists reawakened national interest in art. Styles diverged during the war-torn decades following WWII. In the south, the style was more romantic, with the occasional violent, realist streak; in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, inspirational and occasionally ludicrous propaganda scenes abounded. Unsurprisingly, themes other than Socialist Realist ones were “discouraged” by the state. In fact, they still are—though to a much lesser extent.
Traditional Vietnamese architecture, which stresses line symmetry and harmony, is largely influenced by the Chinese. Although some have been destroyed or have weathered over time, many pagodas, temples, and palaces have been preserved and still stand today. The Imperial Palace in Hue remains an impressive monument to intricate but simple style. In the south, the Chàm influence is more apparent and is markedly distinct from the northern style, with more blocky, meticulously carved surfaces and an emphasis on Hindu religious figures.
Indigenous Vietnamese dances differ greatly across regions, as each minority group traditionally performs rituals specific to its own village. Every year during the Celebrations, men and women celebrate the new year with a ritual dance (called the Unicorn Dance in the south and the Dragon or Lion Dance in the north) that signifies peace, complete with elaborate choreography and costumes. All theatrical productions involve some sort of musical accompaniment. Hát tuong and cải lương (reformed opera) are popular in Central and Southern Vietnam. Tuồng was influenced by Chinese opera in plot, costumes, and instrumentation, while cải lương combines elements of tuồng with Western musical traditions. A third popular genre, múa rối nước (water puppetry), originated in the north. Wooden puppets cavort across the surface of a shallow pool, acting out fairy tales. Puppeteers, standing knee-deep in water behind a screen, manipulate the puppets with rods.
Folk songs (don ca) originated in the countryside and were sung at festivals and in the fields. Musical theater is also characterized by regional variation. Most famous is the northern hát chèo, which combines singing, acting, and dancing. Đông Sơn drums, dating back to the earliest dynasties, are still used today, as are the Đàn bầu (monochord) and bamboo flute. During the American War, Western-style music became popular, particularly in the south. Lyrics were often politically charged and served as a means of resistance, although the government restricted complete freedom of expression.
It may be hot, but nothing can keep the Vietnamese from upholding Ho Chí Minh’s high standard of physical fitness. Uncle Ho was a major advocate of exercise and sports, and ever since he came to power in 1945 and initiated mandatory exercise in high schools, the country has maintained an active national routine. Recently, international teams in sports such as swimming, table tennis, and karate have become increasingly more important to national pride. Martial arts are particularly popular. Vietnam has become a power in the Southeast Asia (SEA) Games: they hosted the event in 2003 and won the third most medals out of 11 participating countries in 2005 (behind only host the Philippines and rival Thailand). Football (or soccer, in the US) is wildly popular all over the country, and the Vietnamese team is regarded as an up-and-coming power in Southeast Asia. The team won silver in the 2003 and 2005 SEA Games; irritatingly, it was the Thailand who beat them both times. Luckily, the women’s team redeemed them, winning the 2005 gold. The Vietnamese have never qualified for a World Cup, however. Another extremely popular street sport is shuttlecock, or da cau, a game in which the participants juggle a shuttlecock over a net with the feet and knees—some-thing like badminton without the rackets.
No matter where you are traveling, common sense begs that you be polite, considerate, and patient. But in Vietnam this is especially important, and even a simple smile goes a long way. In a country where price tags rarely exist and bargaining is a way of life, the only way to get by is to enjoy the process. Be persistent, as even a firm “no” will not always signify that the discussion is closed. At the same time be both courteous and patient—if you expect promptness, you will almost certainly be disappointed. If you must criticize, try to find a way to express your complaint as a joke. Displays of anger are frowned upon—they will cause your conversation partner to lose face, which shames him in front of his peers and plays a large role in Vietnamese social interactions.
Be sure to remove your shoes before entering a temple, and when invited into someone’s home, note whether your host takes off his shoes, then do the same. Dress modestly throughout the country, as Vietnamese styles of dress differ greatly from standards in Western countries, and be especially careful of your clothes when visiting religious sites. When you’re unsure, follow the locals, not fellow tourists. Women should be especially conscious of their dress, particularly in the countryside, where conservative clothing is the best way to go. Vietnamese women prefer light skin to a tan, so most wear long-sleeved clothing as much out of vanity as respect for tradition—follow the trend. Shorts are worn only by Westerners, and in any context they’re either inappropriate or awkward-looking; wear trousers instead. Nude or topless sunbathing is out of the question.
As a gesture of respect, take off your hat and bow your head slightly when addressing elders or monks. In Vietnam, anyone older than you gets extra-special treatment, so be sure to follow local customs of addressing your elders and superiors. The Vietnamese also tend to be a humble people; don’t be surprised when compliments are met only with modest recognition or even self-effacement.
The feet are regarded as the least holy part of the body. Don’t point the bottoms of your feet at any person or Buddhist image, as this is considered rude. Conversely, Vietnamese regard the head as the most sacred part of the body, so never touch a person’s head, even a small child’s.
Don’t leave chopsticks sticking out of a rice bowl; it is thought to resemble the incense burned for the dead, and is considered bad luck. Most locals wipe their chopsticks off before use—a special napkin is usually provided for this purpose. If you take a Vietnamese friend out for a meal or drink, be sure to count their bill on yours—your company likely will, especially since your money likely goes much farther than theirs. Don’t be stingy with toasts when dining with Vietnamese; prepare to hear a lot of “chúc” (cheers). As a general rule, refrain from being the first to dig into the delicious meal in front of you, no matter how tempting it may be.
Give or receive objects or gifts with both hands. Wrap gifts in lucky green or red paper; never black and white. Money is discussed very openly in Vietnam, so don’t be put off if people are frank and inquisitive about your earnings. If you prefer to keep your financial life private, just smile and politely evade a direct answer.
Because of Confucian influence, the Vietnamese value family tremendously; in conversation with locals, be attentive to family details. Don’t be surprised if stares and shock abound should you mention that you are unmarried. If you are of marriageable age (in Vietnamese terms), just be sure to assure your friends that settling down is not far in your future, and unnecessary worry will be averted. Women may find it useful to wear a simple ring on their wedding finger.
Personal space doesn’t exist, per se, in Vietnamese society. Try not to be offended; pushiness is a way of life. Physical contact is usually the result of intense curiosity and is not intended as an offense. Even pointing and calls of “Westerner”—ong tay for men and bà tay for women—very rarely denotes any-thing ulterior or sinister, particularly in areas less frequented by tourists.
Homosexuality is not openly discussed or accepted in Vietnam, though major cities like Ho Chí Minh City and Hà Nÿi have a small but growing gay nightlife. Most gay men remain closeted, and the gay community stays mostly underground. Public displays of affection between both heterosexual andhomosexual couples are considered distasteful. At the same time, people of the same sex often hold hands while walking. If you see it, don’t be surprised, and perhaps more importantly, don’t assume the couple is homosexual. The Men of Vietnam, by Douglas Thompson (Floating Lotus, 1998), is the first comprehensive guide to Vietnamese gay culture. Utopia-Asia also offers tips for gay travelers in Vietnam.