There are so many things to see in Hanoi and the real question is not ‘How to spend a weekend in Hanoi” but how much can be possibly be fitted into one weekend?
A good place to begin is the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex. This attraction was developed around a old French palace. The first unique feature is having to enter the museum passing through a rigorous security system. Guards ensure visitors do not stray from the accepted area during tours that can require several hours if all areas are visited. The first area, devoted to Ho Chi Minh photos and biographical information has explanatory data in English, French and Vietnamese.
The next area contains the body of Ho Chi Minh. Upon entering here, visitors are given a list of rules that must be strictly observed including no photography allowed. Visitors are required to leave such equipment at a check-point. Guards have authority to issue warnings and/or escort offenders out of the mausoleum. Guests are encouraged not to miss a massive statue of Ho Chi Minh located on the fourth floor.
Continuing around the complex, visitors pass the palace, not open to the public, but are allowed to enter and photograph Ho Bungalow which is a wooden structure on a stilt base. One highlight of this area is viewing the presidential vehicle collection.
A very popular site within the complex is One Pillar Pagoda. This Gothic-style edifice was erected in 1049, only to be almost totally destroyed when set on fire by the French in 1884. Restored around 1955, the pagoda was originally created by Emperor Ly Thai To to honour the mercy goddess, Quan An. The base of One Pillar Pagoda is situated in a lotus pond.
One must-see during a weekend in Hanoi is St. Joseph’s Cathedral erected in 1887. The church was closed for 10 years (1975-1985) during the North/South Vietnamese reunification period. This massive structure, flanked by two towers, dominates the entire city. Whether entering the cathedral or electing to walk around it, visitors are treated to breathtaking stained-glass windows and beautiful paintings of Christ on the outer walls. At Christmas, the courtyard becomes a festival site complete with vendors selling refreshments including a confection resembling cotton candy.
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Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) is definitely a not-to-be-missed site. According to legend, Emperor Le Loi encountered a giant tortoise while boating on the lake. The tortoise gave him a gigantic sword and a set of directions he was to follow regarding this sword. After defeating his enemies and returning the sword to the tortoise, the emperor erected a pagoda out in the lake to honour the tortoise. While no visits are allowed at this particular pagoda, a similar site, Ngoc San Pagoda, is open to the public. This pagoda whose name means ‘Bridge of the Rising Sun’ is entered by crossing a red wooden swinging bridge. Ngoc San Pagoda honours various Vietnamese forefathers.
One place of special significance to Americans is Hoa Lo Prison, more familiarly-known as the Hanoi Hilton, dating back to 1896. Among many military personnel incarcerated at this facility was current Arizona Senator John McCain. Exhibits in the prison include McCain’s flight suit and photos depicting his capture. One eerie, up-close-and-personal experience is afforded by seeing the guillotine where many prisoners met their death.
History and military buffs must also see Viet Nam Women’s Museum housing exhibits including feminine accounts of life in a tunnel located under the DMZ. Also on display are implements and outfits worn by women soldiers fighting alongside North Vietnamese male soldiers.