HANOI, Vietnam -- At first glance, Hanoi is a hornet’s nest of motorbikes swarming Vietnam’s capital city. But look beyond the sea of roaring engines and beeping horns and a land of old-world Asian charm awaits, with wide tree-lined streets shading old French colonial-style villas.
Vietnam remains very cheap by Western standards, so it’s possible to grab a big steaming bowl of pho — a brothy, aromatic beef or chicken noodle soup that serves as the country’s staple dish — off a sidewalk cauldron for the price of a cup of coffee.
Still, in a city dotted with sleepy lakes and Buddhist temples where much of life is lived on the street, some of the best experiences truly are free. Here are five picks:
• Stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake: The lake is the centerpiece of central Hanoi. Its shady banks are a meeting place for young teenagers chatting on mobile phones alongside aging war veterans playing chess. Early in the morning, the lake comes alive with crowds of Vietnamese doing an array of exercises, ranging from serene tai chi to booming aerobics. Take a walk around the water and look for the famous turtle that many Vietnamese believe is sacred. If you spot it surface, make a wish because it’s considered good luck!
• Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: The embalmed body of Uncle Ho, as Vietnamese affectionately call their late founding president Ho Chi Minh, can be viewed inside an enormous granite mausoleum. For many Vietnamese, the trip to Hanoi to see the famous revolutionary who liberated them from French colonial rule is considered a must-do. The mausoleum offers regular changing of the guard ceremonies, but is only open during certain hours and days. Proper dress and a respectful attitude are required. Cameras are not allowed inside.
• Old Quarter walking tour: The 36 ancient streets that make up Hanoi’s Old Quarter are a maze of madness filled with treasures. The streets are narrow and so are the houses, but that doesn’t stop the constant crush of motorbikes and the increasing number of cars mixing with bicycles, tourists and rickshaws known as cyclos. Despite the chaos, the Old Quarter should not be missed. Its lanes are overflowing with everything from touristy trinkets to fine silks, along with the wares for which each street is named. Locals still go there to buy everything from bamboo to buttons. Tuck into a small traditional market within the Old Quarter or a big one, such as Dong Xuan, for another colorful glimpse of daily Vietnamese life and foods.
• Temples and a cathedral: Hanoi is packed with beautiful Buddhist temples, many of them ancient. Just follow the scent of burning incense and step away from the chaotic streets to take a moment to reflect and soak in the calm. The One Pillar Pagoda is among the city’s most famous sites, but many Vietnamese flock to the Tay Ho Pagoda overlooking the city’s large West Lake to leave offerings and pray, especially on auspicious days. Another option is to visit St. Joseph’s Cathedral or attend a mass inside the landmark neo-gothic Roman Catholic church with its weathered facade and stained glass windows.
• French architecture: Close your eyes on many wide, leafy streets in Hanoi, and it’s easy to be transported to another century. A short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake stands the French-built grand Hanoi Opera House, which has been beautifully restored and is a favorite spot for young brides and grooms posing for wedding pictures. Just across the street is the landmark Sofitel Metropole Hotel — where Graham Greene penned parts of his famous novel, The Quiet American — and the nearby Government Guest House, both great examples of French colonial-style architecture full of history. The stately Presidential Palace near Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is another popular site located not far from many elegant foreign embassies and villas.