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Visitors guide to Hanoi, Vietnam neighborhoods.
Hanoi is a city of stunning visual and audio contrast. The rickety sounds of cyclos (pedicabs) fight for airwaves amidst the blasting horns of motorbikes, and the Nike swoosh wallpapers the French-styled building facades in the Old Quarter.
The Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi's commercial nucleus, ripples out from the lake of the same name. The lake's name means Lake of the Restored Sword, according to a legend dating back to the mid-15th century. A magical sword, having been found in the lake by the then emperor, and used to fend off the invading Chinese, was snatched by a giant golden tortoise and returned to its home in the depths. The tranquil, 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple occupies an island in the northern part of the lake.
Today the lake and its immediate surrounds offer more than water, greens and folklore. In the pre-dawn light, Hanoians transform the area into an outdoor gymnasium, complete with badminton courts, exercise pavilions and tracks for speed walkers and slow chugging joggers. During the day, the area acts as a magnet for tourists and those who feed off them-postcard sellers, black-market moneychangers and shoeshine boys. At twilight, families stroll, friends sip fruit juices in outdoor cafes and lovers seek privacy in the shadows of the trees.
The area surrounding the lake beckons travelers with eats, treats and sleeps. The main post office, the ANZ Bank (with ATM machine), supermarkets and film-developing stores, which line the lake's circumference, satisfy mundane needs. Museums, including the Vietnam History Museum, the Geology Museum, the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution, the Maison Centrale and the Vietnam Women's Museum, congregate in an area slightly south and west of the lake.
The district also offers a variety of entertainment. For live performances, check the Hanoi Opera House, the Central Cultural House and the Municipal Water Puppet Theater. For a view of the big screen, Fansland Cinema, New Age Cinema and the Alliance Francais Cinema show foreign films. For more literary pursuits, the Thang Long Bookshop stocks an extensive selection of foreign and local authors, as does the nearby Hanoi Bookshop. For the weary, hungry or thirsty, numerous hotels, restaurants, cafés and pubs provide a place to recharge.
The tangled streets of the Old Quarter, which spread from Hoan Kiem's fringes, is like Hanoi's intestines. Originally a snake- and alligator-infested swamp, the Old Quarter, or 36 Pho Phuong (36 Streets), now functions as an outdoor shopping mall and stomping ground for backpackers.
In the early 13th century, skilled craftsmen migrated to the area, and each of the 36 guilds claimed a street as its own, naming it after its specific merchandise. At least one temple resides on each street, although many of the old temples have been transformed into shops and homes. Dating back to the ninth century, the Bach Ma Pagoda is the area's oldest and most revered place of worship.
Some of the more esoteric strips include a street lined with temple items, such as fake money and paper motorbikes, to be burned to provide the dead with transportation and funds. The more upscale Hang Gai features silk shops, embroidered items and galleries. Smack in the center of the maze-like shopping Mecca, a flower market at the end of Hang Be explodes with colors and scents.
Aside from shopping, the Old Quarter sleeps and feeds most of Hanoi's budget travelers. The restaurants and shops along Nha Tho cater to a more bloated budget.
Moving further north, the area surrounding West Lake possesses the same clean poshness as the ritzy Beverly Hills. Traditionally the lake was an area for royal recreation and spiritual pursuits. Monarchs constructed palaces and sponsored religious foundations, among them Hanoi's most ancient pagoda, Tran Quoc. Today many expatriates have claimed the relatively quiet area as their home turf. Enclaves of starchy white three-story homes, lakeside clubs and posh joint-venture hotels have sprung up in pockets surrounding the lake including the Meritus Westlake Hotel and the Thang Loi Hotel.
Aside from luxurious accommodations, West Lake boasts several pagodas, seafood eateries and water diversions. The Museum of Ethnology, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts from minorities across the nation, resides not far from the lake.
Just south of West Lake, the Ba Dinh district is the old French administrative center and current home to Hanoi's Mecca: the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and sprawling surrounding compound. Majestic chateaux, many of which house embassies and government offices, remain set back along the luxuriously wide tree-lined boulevards. Several new flashy hotels, including the Daewoo Hotel, the Hanoi Horrison Hotel and the Hanoi Hotel have seized the classy area as their own, eagerly anticipating the growth of a much talked-about business center. Aside from the complex devoted to Ho Chi Minh, the One Pillar Pagoda, the Botanical Gardens and the Temple of Literature lure tourists.
Hai Ba Trung
With few tourist attractions, the Hai Ba Trung district hardly brims with travelers. The district pulses with the energy of daily life. Markets, merchants, strips of food stalls and green expanses cater to the needs of locals. Lenin Park and the space surrounding Thien Quang Lake provide shaded, grassy spots for morning exercisers to stretch or couples to frolic in the twilight. Food stalls specializing in fast rice and noodle dishes line almost the entire stretch of Mai Hoc De. Succulent crabs and prawns can be found in the multi-level establishments along Pho To Hien Thanh. Numerous salons and com bias (rice stalls) are clustered along Pho Bui Thi Xuan, and the nearby Hom Market carries everything from flip-flops to live chickens.
The city is fairly spread out and cyclos or motorbike taxis will get you from one area to another. Once you have picked a spot, wandering on your feet affords the best view of Hanoi's chaotic street life.
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