Photo: Flag shop on the streets of Hanoi.

Hanoi escape

With its picturesque lakes, bustling streets and wealth of attractions for visitors, Hanoi is an ideal destination for a long weekend away or a stop on a backpacking trip.

The city is full of interesting things to see and do, and is close to some of the region's most stunning natural scenery, such as Halong Bay and Tam Coc.

Many visitors base themselves in the bustling and historic Old Quarter, a maze of narrow streets and alleyways with shops selling tours, souvenirs, handicrafts, and all kinds of goods. It's well worth spending a few hours just wandering around the Old Quarter - but take a map, as you will invariably get lost.

And while you've got your walking shoes on, enjoy a pleasant stroll around Hoan Kiem lake, an oasis of tranquillity in the heart of the city. By the shore of the lake is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, where visitors can see the traditional -- and entertaining -- Vietnamese art of water puppetry.

Hanoi's most iconic monument is probably Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of 'Uncle Ho' is on display. For most tourists it's a curiosity, but many Vietnamese people go there to pay respects to the man who led Vietnam's fight for independence. The mausoleum is only open in the mornings, and not every day, so check the opening times before you go.

Next to the mausoleum is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Here, visitors can learn more about the man and about Vietnam's struggle for independence, although it's not among the bestof Hanoi's museums. Also nearby are the colonial-era Presidential Palace and a preserved stilt house which Ho Chi Minh once lived in.

The superb Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, just outside Hanoi, features an array of interesting exhibits and information about the different ethnic groups that make up Vietnam. The exhibits are well presented and informative, and the museum is a must-see for anyone interested in Vietnam's peoples and cultures.

Another place of interest is the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, in what remains of the notorious Hoa Lo Prison - known as the 'Hanoi Hilton' by American POWs in the Vietnam War. Most of the original prison was demolished in 1993, but what is left has been carefully preserved and is well worth a visit. The prison was built by the French in 1896, and many Vietnamese nationalists were incarcerated and tortured there. Among the exhibits are fetters that were used to shackle prisoners and a guillotine that was used for executions. Later, US POWs were kept at Hoa Lo, and some of their mugshots are now on display there. Among the POWs were John McCain, now a leading US Senator, and Douglas 'Pete' Peterson, who later became the first US ambassador to Vietnam after the war.

Visitors who have the time should definitely consider a trip to one or more of several places of interest near Hanoi. The spectacular Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, draws many tourists with its islands, caves, and magnificent seascapes. Inland, but with equally stunning scenery, is Tam Coc, with its limestone rock formations rising from green rice paddies. Other attractions near Hanoi include Tam Dao Hill Station, the Perfume Pagoda and the Mai Chau Valley.

Hanoi is full of tour operators offering day and overnight trips to these and other places. Those going to Halong Bay should consider taking a tour that includes at least one night on a boat. Shop around to make sure you get the deal that's best for you and remember to take your camera.

Although Hanoi is not a big party town, and some visitors find it surprisingly quiet at night, there are a number of good places to eat, drink and unwind after a hard day's sightseeing. A couple of beer hoi (fresh beer) stalls on Ta Hien St, in the Old Quarter, sell ridiculously cheap beer and are popular with backpackers. On the same street is Bar Le Maquis, a friendly little late-night place. Other nightspots worth checking out include the Funky Monkey, Polite Pub and the trendy New Century Nightclub, all in the Old Quarter. Further afield seek out Barracuda Bar on the Red River, or E'te southwest of the Temple of Literature.

Good food can be found on almost every street corner in Hanoi. For cheap eats, try a bowl of the famous pho (noodle soup) or a baguette with cheese or pate', washed down with a cup of sweet and strong Vietnamese coffee. For something a bit different try the Cyclo Bar and Restaurant (Duong Thanh St), which serves French and Vietnamese food. Here, customers sit in cyclos which have been converted into tables.

Accommodation is also plentiful in Hanoi, especially in the Old Quarter, and visitors should be able to find a decent room for around $8 to $15. See our story "What is a good guesthouse in Hanoi?" for more information.

Last updated on 21st May, 2015.

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