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.
Entrance 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 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.
Located 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.
Enter via the imposing Khue Van Cac, a double-roofed gateway built in 1805, its wooden upper storey ornamented with four radiating suns. Central to the third courtyard is the Well of Heavenly Clarity – a rectangular pond – to either side of which stand the temple’s most valuable relics, 82 stone stelae mounted on tortoises.
Passing through the Gate of Great Success brings you to the fourth courtyard and the main temple buildings. Two pavilions on either side once contained altars dedicated to the 72 disciples of Confucius, but now house administrative offices and souvenir shops. During Tet (Vietnamese New Year) this courtyard is the scene of calligraphy competitions and “human chess games”, with people instead of wooden pieces on the square paving stones.
The fifth and final courtyard housed the National Academy, regarded as Vietnam’s first university, which was founded in 1076 to educate princes and high officials in Confucian doctrine. Later, the academy held triennial examinations to select the country’s senior mandarins, a practice that continued almost uninterrupted until 1802 when Emperor Gia Long moved the nation’s capital to Hué. In 1947 French bombs destroyed the academy buildings but they have now been painstakingly reconstructed, including an elegant two-storey pavilion housing a small museum and an altar dedicated to a noted director of the university in the fourteenth century, Chu Van An. Upstairs, three more statues honour King Ly Thanh Tong, the founder of Van Mieu; Ly Than Tong, who added the university; and Le Thanh Tong, instigator of the stelae. The exhibits are mostly post-eighteenth century, including 1920s photos of the temple, and students’ textbooks, ink-stones and other accoutrements, such as a wine gourd for the fashion-conscious nineteenth-century scholar. Recitals of traditional music are held in the side-pavilion according to demand.
The hall, a long, low building whose sweeping tiled roof is crowned by two lithe dragons bracketing a full moon, stands on the courtyard’s north side. Here the king and his mandarins would make sacrifices before the altar of Confucius, accompanied by booming drums and bronze bells echoing among the magnificent ironwood pillars. Within the ceremonial hall lies the temple sanctuary, at one time, prohibited even to the king, where a large and striking statue of Confucius sits with his four principal disciples, resplendent in vivid reds and golds. Between the altar and sanctuary is a Music Room, where musicians playing traditional instruments provide a great opportunity for photos.
Just north of Ho’s mausoleum lie the grounds of the Presidential Palace. The palace was built in 1901 as the home of the governor-general of Indochina – all sweeping stairways, louvred shutters and ornate wrought-iron gates of the Belle Époque – and these days is used to receive visiting heads of state. It’s closed to the public but you can admire the outside as you walk through the palace gardens to Ho Chi Minh’s house.
Just south of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda rivals the Turtle Tower as a symbol of Hanoi. It is the most unusual of the hundreds of pagodas sponsored by devoutly Buddhist Ly Dynasty kings in the eleventh century and represents a flowering of Vietnamese art. The tiny wooden sanctuary, dedicated to Quan Am whose statue nestles inside, is only three square metres in size and is supported on a single column rising from the middle of an artificial lake, the whole structure designed to resemble a lotus blossom, the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. In fact, this is by no means the original building – the concrete pillar is a real giveaway – and the last reconstruction took place after departing French troops blew up the earlier structure in 1954.
Dien Bien Phu, a road lined with gnarled trees and former colonial offices, interspersed with gingerbread villas, is home to the white, arcaded building of the Military History Museum, opposite a small park with a statue of Lenin. The museum chronicles national history from the 1930s to the present day, a period dominated by the French and American wars, though it’s noticeably quiet on China and Cambodia.
Two kilometres west of Hoan Kiem Lake, the wide, open spaces of Ba Dinh Square are the nation’s ceremonial centre. It was here that Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration of Independence to half a million people on September 2, 1945, and here that Independence is commemorated each National Day with military parades. You’ll see the National Assembly Hall, the venue for Party congresses, standing on the square’s east side.