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Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi has a long and interesting history, going back more than 2,000 years. For a summary of the history of Vietnam, click here.

Sights in Hanoi
(Source: Lonely Planet)

Van Mieu (The Temple of Literature)
Vietnam's first university, founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, is a pleasant retreat from the streets of Hanoi. It's a rare example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and is an interesting introduction to Confucianism.

Five courtyards represent the essential elements of nature. A central path symbolizes the Confucian Middle Path, dividing the complex. Entry into each courtyard, according to the old signs, requires the completion of a task; you need only dismount your horse to enter the first courtyard, known as the Entrance to the Way, but to get to the second courtyard, the Great Middle Gate, you must accomplish virtue and attain talent. (Or pay a US$1 entrance fee.)

After you've achieved excellence in literary expression, head to the Constellation of Literature Pavillion, an architectural marvel considered a symbol of the city. This is the entrance to the third courtyard, the Garden of the Stelae where the names of all graduates since the 1400s are inscribed on the backs of stone turtles.

After synthesizing the teachings of Confucius, head to the fourth Courtyard of the Sages, where you can make an offering to the great teacher. The fifth courtyard, the School for the Sons of the Nation, housed dormitories and classrooms for the university. It was all but destroyed by French shelling in 1947, and little remains of the original structure.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Within an enormous concrete cubicle, surrounded by guards in snowy, bleached-white uniforms, lies the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh despite his requested to be cremated after death. It's a free tour, and it's interesting to see how the visitors, from elderly VC comrades who have made the pilgrimage from South Vietnam, to student groups from foreign nations, react to the sight of old Uncle Ho.

Though the Vietnamese as a whole are disappointed with communism, most show deep respect and admiration for Ho himself. He is seen as the liberator of the Vietnamese people from colonialism; the country's subsequent economic mismanagement is often viewed as the misdoing of Ho's comrades and successors.

Nearby, Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House is where the commander lived between 1958 and 1969. It's built in the style of Vietnam's ethnic minorities, and set in a well tended garden. Everything has been kept just as Ho left it, including a white chair that was a gift from Fidel Castro and the small room where Ho slept.

A visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, also close to the Mausoleum, is the perfect way to round out your history lesson. Divided into two sections, 'past' and 'future,' the displays are rather difficult to understand without and English-speaking guide. The 1958 Edsel bursting through a wall (a US commercial failure to symbolize their military failure) is a knockout.

The Old Quarter

The 36 streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, bustling for more than 1000 years, make up one of Vietnam's most lively and unusual places to visit. In the 13th century, Hanoi's artisan guilds established themselves here, each taking a different street. Today it's a shopping paradise, with specialized streets named for the products traditionally sold there.

On Hang Ma (literally, 'Counterfeit St'), pick up some ghost money, traditionally burned at Buddhist ceremonies for good luck. Other areas have had modern businesses take over, however Hang Hanh (Onion St) is now better known as Coffee St for the bars and cafes lining the road.

You can pick up anything from silk sleeping bag liners to headstones to traditional medicines, but there are plenty of cultural sights that you won't need to spend a penny on. Bach Ma Temple (White Horse Temple), a lovely pagoda attended by white-bearded guards sipping tea, commemorates the appearance of a divine white horse that appeared to show Ly King where to build the city walls. You can still witness the emperor's success at the well-preserved 11th century Old East Gate.

Fine Arts Museum

From excellent examples of 9th century stone sculpture and contemporary paintings by celebrated artists Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Bui Xuan Phai and Nguyen Sang, this is the place to see Vietnam's incredible artistic heritage.

Highlights include several large Buddhist statues, including an impressive Bodhisattva with 1000 eyes and arms; nationalist propaganda; and a worthy collection of ultramodern painting and sculpture.

Museum of Ethnology

This superb museum showcases the depth of Vietnamese cultural diversity with an astounding collection of 15,000 artifacts gathered from throughout Vietnam. Maps, displays and dioramas are labeled in Vietnamese, French and English.

Displays portray a typical village market, the making of comical hats and a Tay shamanic ceremony; videos show the real thing. You can also check out a traditional Black Thai house reconstructed in the museum. There's also a center for research and conservation where scientists from all over the world study traditional Vietnamese cultures

Vietnamese Women's Museum

A favorite of travelers since it opened on Women's Day, October 20, 1995, this is a surprisingly good look at women in Vietnam. There's the inevitable adoration of women soldiers fighting for the nation's liberation, and there are also excellent displays on social equality, development and peace.

The collection is divided into four themes: Vietnam's mothers; female historical figures; women's unions; and the various ethnic groups in Vietnam. Well worth seeing are recreations of a typical rural kitchen, underground meeting rooms and the 54 different national costumes. A guided tour is included in the ticket price.

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