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Once a commercial cluster of ancient merchant guilds, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is made up of 36 streets still retaining the original layout and architecture of old Hanoi. Street names indicate the specializations and merchandise formerly sold on each street, although today visitors will find an assortment of shops, small artisans and local eateries.
HOAN KIEM LAKE
Bordered by the Old Quarter in on the north and the French Quarter on the south, the Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword in Vietnamese) and its picturesque Jade Island feature prominently in Vietnamese literature and legends. The tree-rimmed 10-hectare oasis is a popular place for recreation among Hanoi residents and tourists alike.
Set within two city districts, Hanoi’s French Quarter contains the capital’s finest examples of colonial French architecture from the first half of the 20th century, including the Opera House, the Presidential Palace, St. Joseph Cathedral, the Metropole hotel, and the Hanoi Museum of History. Wide, tree-lined boulevards are home to numerous art deco homes, French villas, cafes, hotels, bookshops and fine-dining restaurants.
HOA LO PRISON
Built by the French to contain political prisoners, and later used by North Vietnamese to house prisoners of war, only a small portion of the original Hoa Lo Prison still stands, converted into a museum and memorial. Dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American pilots imprisoned there from 1964 to 1973, the name Hoa Lo refers to the kilns of the pottery village which was razed by the French in 1980 to build the prison they named the Maison Centrale (Central House).
ST JOSEPH CATHEDRAL
Built in a neo-gothic style reminiscent of medieval Europe, Saint Joseph Cathedral was constructed from 1882 to 1886 with funds raised by a French missionary, Monsignor Puginier. The focal point Roman Catholicism in Hanoi, the cathedral is flanked by two 31.5 meter towers, with masses held several times a day beneath rib-vaulted ceilings and tall, stained glass windows.
TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
Hanoi’s Temple of Literature (Van Mieu in Vietnamese) is one of the most culturally-rich attractions in the city, and the site of the ancient Imperial Academy where mandarins and sons of royalty once studied for the royal exams. Dating back to 1070 when it was modeled on a temple in Confucius’ Chinese hometown, the 14-acre compound contains a multitude of serene courtyards, pathways, pavilions and gates, as well as the names of successful doctor laureates inscribed on a series of tortoise-mounted steles.
The seat of power in Vietnam from 1010 until 1810, the Hanoi Citadel echoes the bygone grandeur of the Imperial Court. The Citadel’s collection of palaces and monuments includes the official residences of the royal family, before the grounds were inhabited by the Vietnamese army, and were later partially destroyed by French colonialists.
BA DINH SQUARE
A required stop for foreign tourists to Hanoi and the site of many a Vietnamese pilgrimage, Ba Dinh Square is surrounded by a collection of notable attractions, including the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One-Pillar Pagoda. The square is known as the site where Ho Chi Minh read the Proclamation of Independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the preserved body of the beloved leader can be viewed inside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
Hanoi’s largest lake and a favorite spot for recreation, West Lake bears the country’s oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc, as well as one of the country’s oldest high schools, Chu Van An, on its green banks. A portion of the lake is divided by Thanh Nien Causeway to form the Truc Bach Lake, where the Quan Thanh Temple has stood since the reign of Hanoi’s founder, Ly Thai To, in the 11th century.
MUSEUM OF ETHNOLOGY
Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology houses exhibits dedicated to the art and culture of 54 officially recognized Vietnamese ethnic minorities. Regarded as one of the finest museums in the country, a modern building preserves documents and artifacts of each ethnic group, with reconstructed minority homes on exhibit within the grounds outside.
Designed by Ernest Hebrad and famous for its seamless blend of French and Vietnamese architectures, The History Museum was completed in 1932 and remains the city’s best example of Indochina architecture. Exhibited artifacts collected by the French Far East Research Institute offer a survey of Vietnamese history from 500,000 B.C. to the 1940s.