Drive north 120 miles from Hanoi and you'll find more than 2,000 limestone islets and islands jutting from Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At Vietnam's most iconic natural attraction, tourists swim from some of the island's beaches, explore caves, visit the four floating fishing villages and overnight in junk-styled ships. Ongoing concerns are the government's resettlement plans for the local population and maintaining water quality.
Located in Ninh Binh Province, Cuc Phuong National Park is Vietnam's first and largest park and is a two and a half hour drive from Hanoi. Dense rainforest, caves, and karst mountains are home to more than 300 species of birds, and around 100 species of mammals. Visitors can explore numerous trails, rent bicycles and visit the endangered primate rescue center.
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, in the heart of Hanoi, first housed the royal residences of the Ly Dynasty in 1010. In 2010, the remaining high walls and sprawling grounds were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although many structures were razed by the French, work is afoot to unearth ruins. Note: From 1954-1975, D67 Tunnel and house was the Vietnam People's Army headquarters.
Peek inside an Ede village home or climb a ladder into a Tay stilt house at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Exhibits demonstrate the differences (and similarities) between the country's 54 different ethnic groups, including food preparation and ritual clothing for weddings and funerals. Walk the gardens and make sure to take in a traditional water puppet theatre show.
Off the Beaten Path
The Vietnam Military History Museum features a bizarre sculpture made of American and South Vietnamese plane parts, but for a more reflective experience go to Huu Tiep Lake (really a pond) to witness a downed B-52 left to rust in a quiet, upscale neighborhood. At a café nearby you can sip Vietnamese coffee while contemplating this contentious time in history.
Most Iconic Place
Many Vietnamese make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime to visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. The famous revolutionary leader lies in state in Ba Dinh Square, near the centrally located Presidential Palace. To visit Uncle Ho, go early as lineups are long, and make sure he hasn't left for his annual visit to Russia (October-November) to be "refreshed."
Hoa Lo Prison was where the French Colonial regime incarcerated, and beheaded, political prisoners. During the American War, POW's dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton. After the prison was demolished in the 1990s, the gate house was made into a museum housing a French guillotine, photos of incarcerated American pilots and items such as Senator John McCain's flight suit and parachute.
Neighborhood to Explore
The quiet enclave of Truc Bach is located on a small body of water where Senator McCain's plane was downed. Early morning you'll see line dancers and da cau players toeing a birdie. On hot afternoons, stop for a cool coconut water by the water, wander through the market, or rent a swan paddle boat for a leisurely sunset cruise.
The area around the Opera House in the French Quarter offers tree-lined streets and lovely cafes where you'll find some respite from the city's frenetic pace. Bookshops, boutiques, galleries, museums and fine dining draw well-heeled bohemian types, high-end shoppers and art aficionados from noon to night in a never ending parade.
Beer, Beer, Beer
Bia hoi establishments all over the city specialize in frosty, fresh draught beer. At four percent alcohol, imbibers tend to quaff more than one as they sit on plastic stools crunching salty snacks. One of the most popular bia hoi gathering places is at the corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets in the Old Quarter.