Fog hangs low over the water’s surface leaving Hoan Kiem Lake obscured in the gentle morning light.
From within the mist, a streak of bright colour catches the eye. Walking closer it fully reveals itself; a striking blood-red structure spanning the water, its majestic appearance reflecting in the lake.
This is Cau The Huc which translates to ‘Morning Sunlight Bridge’. While warm rays from above are yet to reach the lake this morning, the bridge illuminates with grace and simplicity.
One of Hanoi’s most iconic structures, it connects the lake shore with the petite Jade Island, home to the ancient Ngoc Son Temple. This ornate building attracts not only Confucian and Taoist worshippers but also throngs of tourists.
It opens at 8am each day and is best inspected early before the tour groups arrive. There is no better place to spend the early part of your day in Hanoi than sitting by this attractive inner-city lake.
Boost your energy levels with some thick, potent Vietnamese coffee over breakfast at French cafe Avalon Lounge just north of The Huc Bridge. From here, you will witness the frenetic energy that unfurls across the city each morning, steadily gathering pace until finally the city exhales again in the late evening.
Duly nourished, leave the cafe behind and meander past the eastern edge of the lake to the informative National Museum of Vietnamese History. Housed in a gorgeous, golden-coloured traditional French-inspired building, you will find an array of fascinating artefacts, including bronze remnants from northern Vietnam’s Dong Son culture, some of which are up to 2000 years old.
Continue your education in Vietnamese culture by catching a taxi five minutes west to the Vietnam Military History Museum. Weathered helicopters, impressive fighter planes and imposing tanks are strewn through the grounds of this engaging museum.
This part of the city, bordering the embassy precinct, is far more open and picturesque than the typically cramped streets in most of Hanoi. Take advantage of this by walking along its wide boulevards to the nearby Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a hulking edifice dedicated to the memory of Vietnam’s renowned leader.
Having boosted your knowledge of the nation’s history, reward yourself with a sumptuous late lunch at seafood restaurant Cau Lac Bo in the nearby upmarket neighbourhood of Truc Bach overlooking the beautiful West Lake. Far larger than Hoan Kiem, and equally as scenic, West Lake is ringed by walking paths beaten by energetic Hanoi locals and is used as a base by many friendly fishermen.
Just a few minutes’ walk from Cau Lac Bo is the attractive and historic Tran Quoc Pagoda.
Built on a small peninsula that juts out into West Lake, it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, with worshippers gathering to pray and light incense sticks.
As light begins to fade, walk from Tran Quoc down Quan Thanh Road for about 20 minutes into the myriad alleyways of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The busiest and most engaging neighbourhood of Hanoi, it is particularly appealing on weekends, when you can scour for souvenirs at its gigantic Night Market.
Finish your day with some drinks and dinner at the Old Quarter’s Rooftop Bar and Restaurant overlooking the bustle.
The next morning, earn yourself a tasty and thrifty meal by sitting down at one of the Old Quarter’s many streetside eateries. Slurp up a bowl of pho beef noodle soup for $3 or munch on a toasted banh mi — a delicious baguette filled with salad and pork or pate.
Descend straight into the action by walking through the Old Quarter to the hectic Dong Xuan Market. This enormous three-storey covered market has hundreds of small stalls. Dong Xuan attracts plenty of tourists, although most are curious observers rather than customers as the market caters mainly to locals who visit to make wholesale purchases of clothes.
About 1km south of Dong Xuan, swap shopping for spirituality in the grand hall of St Joseph’s Cathedral. The lofty facade of this 129-year-old neo-gothic Catholic church is charmingly faded. Its interior, though, has been meticulously maintained and is magnificent.
In this old neighbourhood, directly west of Hoan Kiem, are some of the finest local restaurants in the city. In the alleyways beside and behind the cathedral are seemingly endless cheap eateries serving delicious Vietnamese specialities such as cha ca (fried fish), cao lau (pork noodles) and goi cuon (fresh spring rolls).
St Joseph’s Cathedral may be grand but it cannot compete with the majesty of the sprawling Temple of Literature, 2km to its west. Established in 1070, this beautifully preserved historical complex was the site of the country’s first university.
For many centuries it was a hub for scholarly pursuits and now commemorates some of the finest minds the nation has produced. With its manicured gardens, pretty pavilions and prayer nooks, it is a peaceful, contemplative place to spend an afternoon.
In contrast, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre puts on quite a raucous show across town in its headquarters alongside Hoan Kiem Lake.
Intertwining stories of rural Vietnamese life with historical tales and legends, this lively show is performed five times a day, with tickets starting from $4. Its vibrancy and uniqueness is itself a reflection of Hanoi and a fitting way to end a busy two days in the city.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre has multiple daily one-hour shows. Tickets can be purchased through most hotels in Hanoi or through the theatre’s website
Much of Vietnam swelters in humidity all year round. At the northern tip, Hanoi is fortunate to have a milder climate, which makes it far more forgiving to foreign tourists. The best time to visit is between November and February when there is little rain and daily maximum temperatures hover between 20-25C.
Published under license from Well Travelled