Vietnam Diaries: Hanoi and Halong Bay

The capital city of any country always has a unique charm, and Hanoi is certainly the cultural capital of Vietnam. From traditional water puppet shows and elaborate opera productions to the distinct European influence in the French Quarter, Hanoi is filled with endless opportunities and avenues to explore and get to know arts, culture, and history of Vietnam. Check out the top attractions in this happening Southeast Asian capital!

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater 

Water puppetry is one of the widely sought after activities among tourists who visit Hanoi. The origins of water puppet theater come from farming in the rice paddy fields, where farmers used bamboo rods on makeshift puppets to entertain one another during monsoons. This village tradition has developed into a professional art form that is now performed in theaters all over the country. Water puppet shows generally have live music accompaniment, and the content featured is a mix of Vietnamese folk tales and stories about the harvest. The highlights of this show were the intricate formations, fancy lights, and melodious music and sound effects!

Hoan Kiem Lake

The central, bustling area of Hanoi surrounds the Hoan Kiem Lake. This part of town is filled with shops, restaurants, and street vendors, and on weekends, expect to be surprised with a random live music band or Tinikling (Filipino folk dance using bamboo sticks) lining the cobblestone path around the lake. If you’re looking for a classy dinner out in this area, Pizza 4P’s offers gourmet Italian fare with excellent service. The best part about Hoan Kiem Lake is that it is a walking-only area with no cars or motorbikes. A tourist’s paradise for getting to know Hanoi by night!

Halong Bay

To escape from the urban vibe of Hanoi, take a mini getaway trip into Halong Bay, which features one of the greatest natural landscapes in Vietnam. A three-hour drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay is home to about 1900 islands and caves. Legend has it that centuries ago, when Vietnam was at war, the Vietnamese people prayed to Buddha, who sent a dragon down to help the people. The dragon was said to have spit out many pearls scattered all over the bay. These pearls combined with the water to form hundreds of tiny islands, which ultimately confused enemy ships and caused them to lose their way when approaching the eastern port of Vietnam.

There are many options for cruising in Halong Bay, with the overnight cruise being the most popular. Due to limited time, we opted for a day cruise consisting of a five-hour boat ride in the bay, including a one-hour walking tour of one of the caves. The inside of the cave is cooler in temperature and filled with stalactites and stalagmites in its three chambers. Regardless of which cruise option you choose, the views and picturesque scenery in the bay are to die for! It’s no surprise that Halong Bay has been declared one of the new natural wonders of the world.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral 

Known for its French influence, Hanoi features a replica of the famous Notre Dame de Paris. Vietnam was colonized by France in the 19th century, during which time settlers recreated architectural landmarks in what was then French Indochina. St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi is a replica of the Notre Dame de Paris, and its location in Hanoi’s French Quarter neighborhood allows tourists to travel back in time to visualize a Vietnam under French rule.

Hanoi Opera House

Like St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Opera House too was constructed during the French occupation of Vietnam. Centuries ago it featured primarily European artists and productions performing in front of elite audiences; however, today a mix of European and Vietnamese operas and orchestras perform regularly at the Hanoi Opera House.

Temple of Literature 

Being the capital city, Hanoi was one of the first places in the country to offer institutions of higher education. The Temple of Literature is home to the Imperial Academy, which was Vietnam’s first national university. It is both a place of worship and an educational institution. The temple honors Confucius and other inspirational scholars who were committed to the acquisition of knowledge in a sacred space. The complex contains displays of diplomas carved on single blocks of stone and is occasionally home to ceremonies and rituals.

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