HANOI, Vietnam Early on a balmy evening, cars, bicycles and cyclos
(tricycle taxis with the passenger seats in front) pull up to the
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in the city’s Hoan Kiem district.
As passengers disgorge and file up a long staircase, young ushers
hand out paper fans, a tradition as much as a necessity, in case it
gets too stuffy inside.
When the lights go down, pure magic begins. Intricately designed
ceramic puppets animated by puppeteers standing waist deep in water
and wielding long bamboo poles splash and dash through a small
pond, enacting scenes from rural Vietnamese life. It’s a surefire
crowd-pleaser, and even the most cynical theatergoers come away
But just in case anyone needs reminding that this is the 21st
century and Vietnam is poised to take its place at the table of
modern Asian nations the sound of cell phones snapping open the
minute the performance is over should do the trick. Soon, young and
old are busy chattering, making plans for dinner or a cafe
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam with a population of 3 million,
sits right in the middle of the fertile Red River delta in the
northern part of the country. For most Americans, the name Hanoi
conjures up memories of a long ago, bitterly-fought war, one that
the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War.” But more than half
the population of Vietnam was born after the end of the war in
1975, and for them the war is ancient history. They’re busy making
money, buying cars, cell phones and computers, and enjoying the
good life. The surprise for most American tourists in Vietnam, and
Hanoi in particular, is that it is very American-friendly. And
The center of Hanoi, both geographically and spiritually, is
Hoan Kiem Lake, which separates the cramped, fascinating Old City
and the French Quarter, with its tree-lined boulevards. Indeed, the
French influence from years of colonial rule is everywhere, but
mostly in the grand old buildings and the city’s frenetic cafe
To the west of this area is the former Imperial City, with its
wide, open parks and Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh declared the
country’s independence in 1945.
In fact, there are reminders of Uncle Ho, as he is still fondly
called, everywhere. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which contains the
patriarch’s waxed remains (he was famously against such
preservation), draws busloads of tourists, foreign as well as
Nearby is Ho’s modest house, with its highly polished downstairs
meeting room and simple upstairs bedroom with a single telephone.
It is rumored that the carp he fed daily will still jump out of the
water if you clap your hands. And, of course, at every turn, there
are the ubiquitous souvenir stands, where one can buy Ho Chi Minh
cigarette lighters, coffee cups and key chains. The best time of
year to see Hanoi is in the autumn, when it cools down from the
usual broiling 80- and 90-degree days. January and February are
also good months, although the rainy season begins around that
The best way to see Hanoi is with a guide and an air-conditioned
car. Although many Vietnamese speak fluent English (and love to
engage Americans in simple conversation), the city is difficult to
navigate without a guide, especially if you have a limited amount
The major tourist sites are well worth a stop in addition to the
monuments and buildings near Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, there is the
Temple of Literature, built in 1070 and the site of Vietnam’s first
university. The 82 stele, or stone tablets, commemorate the work of
early doctoral students. It’s a strangely peaceful oasis in the
middle of a bustling commercial district. Fashionistas will notice
that the long, elegant ao dai (literally “long dress”), favored by
so many Vietnamese women in the early part of the last century and
now worn by all the female flight attendants on Vietnam Airlines,
is back in style. Modern-day tailors, like Le Van Hao on Cau Go
Street, will fit them to visitors at prices that range from $50 to
But Hanoi is not only about the preservation of tradition,
although there is certainly enough of that. Wander through the Old
City and you will see a bustling cafe society, with new restaurants
and fast food joints on every corner. And the proliferation of
cyber cafes speaks to the speed with which Vietnam has flung itself
into the Internet age.
Nha Tho Street, with Saint Joseph’s Cathedral at the end, is
typical of the mix of old and new. The church, built in 1880, was
patterned after Notre Dame in Paris. But the surrounding area, with
its funky and fashionable restaurants and boutiques, has been
dubbed “Le Marais” after the trendy Paris quarter, which only means
rents will surely start to rise.
Can Starbucks be far behind?
|WHERE TO STAY|
Sofitel Metropole Hanoi
Built by the French in the early 1900s, this gorgeous property in
the heart of Hanoi has hosted the likes of Graham Greene, Charlie
Chaplin and Jane Fonda. The lobby bar is polished and elegant, good
for a drink any time of day, and the Opera wing, although lacking
the old-world charm of the older building, provides
international-class luxury. The Metropole also offers business and
fitness centers, and a full range of in-house services. Rates:
$144-$178, double; $330, suite.
Hilton Hanoi Opera
With a view of the famous Opera House from the pool, this five-star
hotel also boasts a convenient location. The building’s façade
blends right in with the neighboring architecture, and the rooms
are first-rate, with generously proportioned bathrooms and sitting
areas. Three restaurants serve Chinese and French cuisine, with a
famous Sunday brunch that brings in both tourists and locals.
Vietnamese ceramics and indigenous furniture decorate some rooms.
Rates: $85-$115, double; $215, suite.
Sofitel Plaza Hotel
Some rooms feature stunning views of Truc Bach and West lakes,
which local fisherman still ply early in the morning. Although not
in central Hanoi, this luxury property is just minutes from the Ho
Chi Minh Mausoleum and the diplomatic district. There’s a swimming
pool on the fourth floor with a retractable roof. Early morning
joggers along the lake will run into Vietnamese doing Tai Chi,
ballroom dancing and various other forms of exercise. A full range
of services includes in-room dataports, two restaurants and travel
services. Rates: $89-$134, double; $307, suite.
Hotel Nikko Hanoi
The Japanese-style rooms are luxurious and simple. Located near
Lenin Park, the 15-story hotel features Japanese, Chinese and
French cuisine. The Sunday dim sum is the best in the city, and
Restaurant Benkay has a terrific, if pricey, Japanese menu. The
rooms have wooden furniture and spacious closets, as well as
in-room dataports and the usual business and personal services.
Rates: $190-$210, double; $410, suite.