After the hectic streets of the Old Quarter, the grand boulevards and wide pavements of Hanoi’s French Quarter to the south and east of Hoan Kiem Lake are a welcome relief. Again, it’s the architecture here that’s the highlight, with a few specific attractions spread over a couple of kilometres. The houses you see today, which like those of the Old Quarter survived largely due to lack of money for redevelopment, run the gamut of early twentieth-century European architecture from elegant Neoclassical through to 1930s Modernism and Art Deco, with an occasional Oriental flourish.
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Here are some of the best attractions in the Hanoi French Quarter:
A grand example of the Parisian-style architecture for which the quarter is famous is the stately Hanoi Opera House (now officially known as the Municipal Theatre) situated near the eastern end of Trang Tien. Based on the neo-Baroque Paris Opéra, complete with Ionic columns and grey slate tiles imported from France, the theatre was erected on reclaimed land and finally opened in 1911 after ten years in the building. It was regarded as the jewel in the crown of French Hanoi, the colonial town’s physical and cultural focus, until 1945 when the Viet Minh proclaimed the August Revolution from its balcony.
After Independence, audiences were treated to a diet of Socialist Realism and revolutionary theatre, but now the building has been restored to its former glory after a massive face-lift. Crystal chandeliers, Parisian mirrors and sweeping staircases of polished marble have all been beautifully preserved, although, unfortunately, there’s no access to the public unless you go to a performance. Otherwise, feast your eyes on the exterior – particularly stunning under evening floodlights or, better still, the soft glow of a full moon.
One block east of the Opera House, the building that houses the National Museum of History is a fanciful blend of Vietnamese palace and French villa, which came to be called “Neo-Vietnamese” style. The museum was founded in the 1930s by the Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient, but after 1954 changed focus to reflect Vietnam’s evolution from Paleolithic times to Independence. Exhibits, including many plaster reproductions, are arranged in chronological order on two floors covering everything from prehistory to 1945, while the building across the street at 216 Tran Quang Khai covers the post-1945 era.
On the ground floor, the museum’s prize exhibits are those from the Dong Son culture, a sophisticated Bronze Age civilization that flourished in the Red River Delta from 1200 to 200 BC. The display includes a rich variety of implements, from arrowheads to cooking utensils, but the finest examples of Dong Son creativity are several huge, ceremonial bronze drums, which were used to bury the dead, invoke the monsoon or celebrate fertility rites. The remarkably well-preserved Ngoc Lu Drum is the highlight, where advanced casting techniques are evident in the delicate figures of deer, birds and musicians ornamenting the drum’s surface. Other notable exhibits on this floor include finds from excavations in Hanoi’s citadel, a willowy Amitabha Buddha of the eleventh century, pale-green celadon ware from the same era and a group of wooden stakes from the glorious thirteenth-century battle of the Bach Dang River.
Displays on the museum’s second floor illustrate the great leap in artistic skill that took place in the fifteenth century following a period of Chinese rule. Pride of place goes to a 3m-tall stele inscribed with the life story of Le Loi, who spearheaded the resistance against the Chinese and founded the Later Le dynasty, which ruled the country from 1428 to 1788. Also on display is an extensive collection of ceramics and exhibits relating to the nineteenth-century Nguyen dynasty and the period of French rule. A series of ink-washes depicting Hue’s Imperial court in the 1890s is particularly eye-catching, as are the embroidered silks and inlaid ivory furniture once used by the emperors cloistered in the citadel.
The Museum of Vietnamese Women has undergone a complete overhaul in recent years and is now one of Hanoi’s most interesting attractions, with detailed video presentations on each floor about different aspects of the lives of Vietnamese women. It starts off with a look at street vendors, whose presence on the streets of the city with their baskets of goods suspended from bamboo poles is one of the country’s most indelible icons. Women’s role in the country’s wars is the focus of the second floor, while the third floor focuses on family life and the top-floor features an eye-catching display of ethnic minority costumes.
The Hanoi Towers complex looms over the sanitized remnants of French-built Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war as a wry comment on its harsh conditions and often brutal treatment. The jail became famous in the 1960s when the PoWs, mostly pilots and crew members, were shown worldwide in televised broadcasts. There’s a heavy dose of propaganda in the two rooms dedicated to the PoWs, peddling the message that they were well treated, clothed and fed.
The museum mostly concentrates on the pre-1954 colonial period when the French incarcerated many nationalist leaders at Hoa Lo, including no fewer than five future general secretaries of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Some of the cells – which were still in use up to 1994 – have been preserved, along with rusty shackles, a guillotine and instruments of torture. Other rooms display photos and information on the more famous political prisoners.
Featured Image: The National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, Vietnam © Jayant Bahel/ Shutterstock