Hanoi is a hectic collage of sights, sounds and smells. Masses of motorbikes roar down roadways, and bike and car horns are constantly honking. Women wearing traditional conical straw hats carry poles with baskets on each end, small shops overflow with colorful embroidery and food vendors sell cooked pigeons with their heads still on.
For more than 4,000 years, from a humble fishing village to a busy seaport, the city has thrived along the banks of the Red River in northern Vietnam. The seaport was given the name Ha (river) Noi (in) by King Minh Mang in 1831. Hanoi is the country's intellectual and cultural heart, and draws the best and brightest artisans from around the country. Many streets in the old district are named after the products made there at one time, and you can still come across shrines here and there dedicated to an artisan's god.
As the northern capital, Hanoi was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. Still, there are reminders of the past, including French colonial architecture and 1,000-year-old temples and pagodas. The capital city, home to 6.5 million people, boasts parks with gnarled banyan trees and many lakes, some peppered with swan boats. The Hoa Lo Prison or "Hanoi Hilton" where U.S. Sen. John McCain was imprisoned as a POW is now the site of a high-rise. Fine hotels and high-end shopping also beckon tourists.
Nearby Halong Bay is one of Vietnam's most celebrated attractions, with about 2,000 limestone islands that make up a spectacular natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. A trip on the water of the bay is the kind of awe-inspiring experience travelers crave. Sit in a Vietnamese junk (boat) on silk couches and drink green tea or local beer as you cruise into the mist past giant, craggy limestone formations protruding from the sea.
According to legend, a dragon sent by the gods to help the Vietnamese fight Chinese invaders, fell into the bay and formed the islands. In fact, these islands have seen their share of warring -- the bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin, where Vietnamese and U.S. forces first fought.
The islands are mostly uninhabited, and many form odd shapes -- one looks like a man's face in profile, another like two roosters fighting. Their sheer cliffs and otherworldly presence have inspired writers, poets and artists. And it's easy to see why. The place is magical.
--written by Fran Golden
- Visit a Remote Ethnic Market
- Kayak Among Mist-Shrouded Islands
- Dine Like an Emperor on Imperial Cuisine
- Cycle the Mekong Delta
- Stalk Rare Birds in Cat Tien National Park
- See a Wet and Wild Water Puppet Show
- Stay in a Twisted Fairy-Tale Hotel
- Go Night Fishing with a Squid Fleet
- Get an Outfit Tailor-Made
- Make Peace with the War
- Take a Cooking Class -- Chop, Chop!