Vietnam’s desirability as a tourism destination seems to escalate every year, to the point where the country has almost become mainstream in appeal. What a phenomenal transformation for a country that was once a poor backwater, ravaged by civil and foreign wars, colonial incursions and endless regional strife. Underneath it all however, Vietnam has always been a jewel. Mass emigration abroad over the course of the last half century, to Australia, Canada, the United States, France and other nations, has had one major beneficial side effect that has come to the fore in recent years. Demographic assimilation diffuses cultural appreciation and curiosity and as a result, a Vietnam at peace and relative prosperity welcomes more tourists than ever.
From coastal resort towns to small village charm, the 13th most populous nation on the planet has a lot to offer. The gem of Vietnam however, may be the capital city of Hanoi. Busy, with a metro population of more than 6 million people, frenetic Hanoi has a host of highlights to take in. Here are 10 must-see attractions in the city that will mark 1,000 years of foundation in October 2010.
A tribute to Confucius and the site of the first university in Vietnam, the beautiful Temple of Literature has been around since the year 1070. The landmark contains numerous courtyards and pavilions, many of which have undergone careful restoration in recent decades.
A dramatic memory of French influence in Vietnam, the Grand Opera House in Hanoi is a typical and exquisite piece of colonial architecture. Built between 1901 and 1911, the opera house is a replica of the Palais Garnier in Paris.
One of the most conspicuous mausoleums in the world, the massive tribute to the most famous leader in Vietnam provides Hanoi with a landmark on par with Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. Open since 1975, the mausoleum site also contains a museum on Ho Chi Minh.
The Buddhist One Pillar Pagoda is almost peerless in Vietnam, with a history that dates back a full millenium. The iconic landmark was badly defaced by French troops in 1954 but was rebuilt decades later.
Hanoi is a city of lakes and Hoan Kiem is one of the most popular with visitors. Superbly scenic and serene, the lake provides a habitat for soft-shell turtles and contains many picturesque pagodas and small bridges.
Although Ho Chi Minh obstinately refused to stay there, the Presidential Palace in Hanoi is a remarkable landmark. Built by the French at the turn of the last century in Italian Renaissance style, the palace serves as a government house today. Visitors can walk the grounds for a small price.
For a singular glimpse into Vietnamese culture, the country’s National Museum of Fine Arts is the best place to visit. The facility contains a vast collection of art, sculpture, crafts and artifacts from every period in Vietnam’s history.
3. Hanoi Hilton
Synonymous with prisoners of war, the Hanoi Hilton is a colloquial term for a notorious facility first used by the French, then by the North Vietnamese, to hold and torture captives. American POWs at the height of the Vietnam War gave rise to the name, with John McCain as one notable long-time prisoner. Today a part of the Hanoi Hilton serves as a museum.
2. West Lake
West Lake is first in size in Hanoi and is extremely popular with locals and visitors alike. Pagodas, restaurants and hotels line the body of water and serve as lively focal points.
1. Tran Quoc
The most historic pagoda in all of Hanoi, Tran Quoc is the foremost symbol of Buddhism in the country. The landmark’s origins date back some 1,500 years, although over time it has undergone changes in appearance and location.
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