Photograph by Fabio Nodari, ClickAlps/REDA/ Getty Images
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Hanoi's city center lights up at dusk.

Photograph by Fabio Nodari, ClickAlps/REDA/ Getty Images

See Hanoi like a Nat Geo Explorer

Vietnam’s vibrant capital is an enchanting blend of old and new.

Vietnam’s diverse capital of Hanoi is a dynamic blend of old and new Asia. Hanoi is regarded as a melting pot of Vietnamese gastronomy, with all sorts of delicacies coming in from different provinces. In addition to a rich cultural heritage, the city’s many lakes always provide me with a sense of peace. (See gorgeous pictures of Vietnam—from above and below.)

My work

My project develops bilingual learning materials (Bahnar-Vietnamese) based on Bahnar cultural resources. We go to local communities to gather folklore including riddles, proverbs, and fairy tales and develop them into bilingual learning materials. Primary schools in two provinces in the highlands use these materials to teach Bahnar as a first language and Vietnamese as a second language.

Traveling for good

Consider supporting Koi Bento and Em Hair Salon, which are both run by NGOs and provide training for youth.

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Diners eat at a restaurant outside the Dong Xuan market.

What's in my bag

Traffic in Hanoi is terrible, particularly for foreigners who aren’t used to it. A colorful scarf may be useful to wave when you need to cross the chaotic streets during rush hour.

Traditional crafts

Hanoi is famous for its traditional handicraft villages, such as Bat Trang pottery village, Hang Bac silver-making street, Dong Ho picture village, and Van Phuc silk village.

Local etiquette

When visiting temples and pagodas, keep your arms and legs covered. As with most cities, remember to hold your bag close in front of you to avoid pickpockets. At shops and markets, feel free to bargain.

Don’t kiss in public places or show public displays of affection. Holding hands is acceptable, particularly as you cross busy roads. When eating, do not stick your chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice, because this is the symbol of two burning joss sticks used for funerals.

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The Temple of Literature is Vietnam’s first university and a Confucian temple.

Take a class

Visitors can make their own pottery at the Bat Trang pottery village. This experience is quite interesting.

Savor the flavors

Hanoi’s finest local food is served at small, open-air, one-dish restaurants. They make delicacies like bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls), pho (noodle soup) with chicken or beef, and nem (spring rolls). Pho can be found anywhere, but some of my favorite places are Pho Ly Quoc Su, Pho Thin, Pho Vuong, and Pho Bat Dan.

Cultural heritage

Hanoi is the best place to experience traditional Vietnamese arts such as opera, theater, and water puppetry. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is situated in the center of Hanoi, very close to Hoan Kiem Lake.

The city also has a variety of pleasant little watering holes. For a vivid taste of local street life, pull up a plastic squat stool on a street corner or in one of the many cozy, open-air bars serving the locally brewed fresh beer, bia-hoi.

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The tomb of Ho Chi Minh is located in Ba Dinh Square, where he read the Declaration of Independence in 1945.

Travel back in time

What first comes to many tourists’ minds when they think of Hanoi is the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam), Vietnam’s first university and a Confucian temple. Students often come here to pray for success before exams.

Since Vietnam is a Buddhism-oriented nation, its capital has been the center of Buddhism for centuries. There are about 600 temples and pagodas in Hanoi. The Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in the city and is also one of the most gorgeous and sacred. The Mot Cot Pagoda is another symbol of the capital; its special architecture is similar to a lotus on the top of water.

Take a walk around the Old Quarter to get a sense of Hanoi’s past. The area’s narrow streets and tube houses still retain their shape from the 19th century. Walk west of the Old Quarter to visit Ba Dinh Square, where President Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945. Other famous sites include the Parliament House, Presidential Palace, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. To learn more about Vietnam in general and Hanoi in particular, visit the ethnology, military, and history museums. These will give a more complete picture of this beautiful and historic city.

Tam Thi Ton is an education specialist working at ChildFund Vietnam, an international NGO. Follow her on Facebook.