Ba Dinh District, to the west of the Old Quarter, to the south of West Lake and to the north of the railway station, is the administrative heart of West Hanoi. This is where you’ll find government ministries and foreign embassies, many of which are housed in splendid colonial buildings that have been artfully restored. As the roads here are bordered by spacious sidewalks and shady trees, it makes a rewarding area to take a stroll, particularly to appreciate the architecture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll see more men in uniform around here than anywhere else in the city.
To balance the militaristic tone of the morning’s itinerary, the afternoon has a more rural focus, with a walk round the Botanical Gardens and a walk or ride round the huge West Lake. In bygone days this area of town was favoured by members of the imperial court, and today it is regaining an air of exclusivity due to the five-star hotels and expensive restaurants that have opened in recent years around the lake.
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Begin by joining the queue to enter Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Respectful dress is essential (no sleeveless shirts or shorts) and you’ll need to deposit any bags outside (photography inside is strictly forbidden). For most Western visitors, the raw emotion shown by Vietnamese paying respects to the national hero is of more significance than the glimpse of the man with the wispy beard. From the mausoleum, take a quick look at the grandiose Presidential Palace (not open to visitors) before visiting Ho Chi Minh’s House, a simple wooden affair on stilts.
There are Ho Chi Minh Museums in just about every town of the country, but none are as strange as the one in Hanoi, with its stern Soviet exterior and surrealist exhibits inside. Whether you’ll actually learn much about the great man, though, is a different matter. Right next to the museum, the One Pillar Pagoda is one of the city’s most visited attractions, but there’s not much to see apart from a cute pagoda balanced on a concrete pillar.
You might not be surprised to hear that the Military History Museum, often referred to simply as the Army Museum, is intensely patriotic in tone, extolling the virtues of this humble nation in defeating enemies with vastly superior military equipment such as France and the USA. Round the corner from here is the entrance to the Hanoi Citadel, which covers a large area, though the remnants of the various dynasties that ruled the country are fragmentary at best.
A good choice for lunch is Quan An Ngon on Phan Dinh Phung, where you can choose from a huge variety of regional dishes. From there walk west to the Botanical Gardens, where you can relax on benches overlooking lakes or stroll along a network of paths. A few steps north of the gardens, you’ll see the vast expanse of West Lake, and how you explore it is up to you. If you’re feeling energetic, take a brisk walk or hire a bike to ride around the perimeter path, or if you’re feeling lazy, hop on an electric cart tour that begins at Tran Quoc Pagoda, or rent a swan-shaped pedal boat to go on the lake itself.
If it happens to be a rainy day, instead of exploring the lakeside, take a cab out to the western suburbs to visit the Museum of Ethnology, where you’ll be enthralled by the culture, dress and architecture of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. In fact, if you’re planning a trip to the northern or central highlands, this museum provides a fascinating introduction to the people you’ll be meeting there.