Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is an enchanting city, where traffic teems and the noise and bustle can seem overwhelming at times, but where centuries-old architecture, pagodas and temples still provide pockets of tranquility. Most visitors to Hanoi will want to take in some of its main attractions, such as the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography, the Temple of Literature and the Hoa Lo Prison complex—but if your budget is tight and you’re looking for some free ways to enjoy the city, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
1. Hoan Kiem Lake
You can’t miss this small lake in the center of Hanoi, and it provides an oasis of peace and beauty. It’s a beautiful place for a stroll under shady trees, and you can while away time watching the locals practicing tai chi, or gazing at the pretty white pagoda in the center of the lake. A perfect spot for a picnic, a snooze, and a rest.
2. The Botanical Gardens
Hanoi’s Botanical Gardens are centrally located in the city and open from early morning until late at night. This is another good place to visit if you want some brief respite from the noise and the bustle of the traffic. Explore the lush landscaped areas, the sculpture gardens and the lakes and see a different, calmer, more laid back view of Hanoi.
3. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
OK, so it may be a little macabre, but you’ll find it fascinating just the same. Visitors to this mausoleum can view the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh and (for a small fee) also view the next door museum which will help to explain why the Vietnamese hold him in such high regard. Security at the mausoleum is tight, and immodest attire is not permitted—nor is photography. If you do plan to visit, check on their hours of operation ahead of time, as the mausoleum is closed for two months during the year and the standard opening hours are short.
4. The Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is the heart of Hanoi, and it’s easy to spend a day or more just wandering its alleys and taking in the local flavor. From amazing street food to handicrafts and hidden temples, there’s always something here to hold your fascination. Vendors and locals are friendly and welcoming, and often keen to strike up a conversation in order to practice their English.
5. Hanoi’s Old Architecture
Hanoi is blessed with many beautiful buildings, including some that show strong French colonial influences, such as the Presidential Palace and the Fine Arts Museum. The easiest way to take this in is to just pick up a map and plan your own walking tour. From an hour to a whole day, there’s plenty to discover around each and every corner.
6. Hanoi’s Temples
Hanoi has a great variety of temples, from the grand to the tiny, and many of them are either free to enter or require only a very modest payment. A great place to start is back at Hoan Kiem Lake, where you can enter the Ngoc Son Temple or Temple of the Jade Mountain for free. This small Confucian temple lies on an island which you approach across a picturesque red bridge.
Another recommended free to enter temple is the Bach Ma Temple or the Temple of the White Horse, in the Old Quarter of the city; this small but pretty temple honors a white horse, said to have guided the Emperor Ly Thai To to Hanoi in the 11th century.
7. Long Bien Bridge
This historic cantilever bridge crosses the Red River. A walk across it is well worth your time—it teems with mostly pedestrian traffic and affords interesting views across and into the city and the surrounding countryside. It is definitely a place to savor the atmosphere and to get a different perspective on Hanoi.
These seven activities will give you a free, but truly invaluable insight into life in Hanoi as the local people see it. Add in a trip to an early morning street market and you will get the complete flavor of what it’s like to call Vietnam’s capital city home.
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