Hanoi’s most important cultural and historical monuments are found in the Ba Dinh district, immediately west of the Old Quarter, where the Ly kings established their Imperial City in the eleventh century.
The venerable Temple of Literature and the picturesque One Pillar Pagoda both date from this time, but nothing else remains of the Ly kings’ vermilion palaces, whose last vestiges were cleared in the late nineteenth century to accommodate an expanding French administration. Most impressive of the district’s colonial buildings is the dignified Residence of the Governor-General of Indochina, now known as the Presidential Palace. After 1954 some of the surrounding gardens gave way in their turn to Ba Dinh parade ground, the National Assembly Hall and two great centres of pilgrimage: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Museum.
The nearby Botanical Gardens, however, survived to provide a welcome haven from modern Hanoi’s hustle and bustle. East of Ba Dinh Square the citadel encloses a restricted military area. Its most famous feature is the Cot Co Flag Tower that dominates the extreme southwest corner, next to one of Hanoi’s most rewarding museums, the Military History Museum. Although there’s a lot to see in this area, it’s possible to cover everything described below in a single day, with an early start at the mausoleum and surrounding sites, leaving the Fine Arts Museum along with the Military History Museum and Temple of Literature until later in the day.
Ba Dinh District Attractions
Ho Chi Minh's MausoleumEntrance to the Mausoleum is free. Visitors to the mausoleum (note the very limited opening hours) must leave bags and cameras at one of the reception centres, the most convenient being that at 8 Hung Vuong, from where you’ll be escorted by soldiers in immaculate uniforms. Respectful behaviour is requested, an appropriate dress code (no shorts or sleeveless vests) and removing hats and keeping silence within the sanctum. Note that each autumn the mausoleum usually closes for a few weeks while Ho undergoes maintenance.
In the tradition of great Communist leaders, when Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 his body was embalmed, though not put on public view until after 1975. The mausoleum is probably Hanoi’s most popular sight, attracting hordes of visitors at weekends and on national holidays; from school parties to ageing confederates, all come to pay their respects to “Uncle Ho”.
Inside the MausoleumInside the building’s marble entrance hall Ho Chi Minh’s most-quoted maxim greets you: “nothing is more important than independence and freedom”. Then it’s up the stairs and into a cold, dark room where this charismatic hero lies under glass, a small, pale figure glowing in the dim light, his thin hands resting on black covers. Despite the rather macabre overtones, it’s hard not to be affected by the solemn atmosphere, though in actual fact Ho’s last wish was to be cremated and his ashes divided between the north, centre and south of the country, with each site marked only by a simple shelter. The grandiose building where he now lies seems sadly at odds with this unassuming, egalitarian man.
The Temple of Literature HanoiLocated in Nguyen Thai Hoc, you can find the entrance to the temple on Quoc Tu Giam. The temple is open daily April–Oct 7.30am–6pm; Nov–March 8am–6pm. The price for entry is 30,000đ.
Hanoi’s most revered temple complex, the Temple of Literature, or Van Mieu, is both Vietnam’s principal Confucian sanctuary and its historical centre of learning. The temple is also one of the few remnants of the Ly kings’ original city and retains a strong sense of harmony despite reconstruction and embellishment over the nine hundred years since its dedication in 1070.
Entry is through the two-tiered Van Mieu Gate. The temple’s ground plan, modelled on that of Confucius’s birthplace in Qufu, China, consists of a succession of five walled courtyards. The first two are havens of trim lawns and noble trees separated by a simple pavilion.