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A surprising sight in the crowded Old City is the huge gothic-style cathedral just to the west of Hoan Kiem Lake. It has an open generally empty plaza that is sided by shops and restaurants. The cathedral is used for mass at sunrise and sunset every day, and you can tour the cathedral during the opening hours.
In contrast with the gray and dark outside, the inside is beautifully colorful in light blues, green, and gold. The objects in the altar area are shiny. The surprisingly high arched roof towers above. The building presents a very different feel.
The mass there is even more surprising. In most of the 1 or 1 1/2 hour or so mass, the Vietnamese are singing a kind of complex set of chants and songs, and obviously repeating teachings to each other in a pretty sing song. A woman's section leads a lot of the singing, with the children in their area and the men singing a response. These are obviously songs many have sung all their lives.
The streets and the square are about the most attractive in the Old City area. There is a statue of Mary in front, and the stores and shops are brightly and colorfully lit. Tourists frequent this square, and the area is clean and tidy.
Nha Tho Street is one of Hanoi's most attractive streets. It is lined with boutiques, restaurants and bars. Some evenings, hundreds of young people are there. The plaza is bounded by Nha Tho Street and Nha Chung Street. The building itself is enclosed by a high wall
The French army conquered Hanoi in 1882. A pagoda was destroyed to make way for it. The building was finished in 1886.
It and surrounding buildings are used by the Catholic bishop. The insides are being refurbished and repainted (August 2012).
From the southern shore of Hoag Kiem Lake, you can follow Trang Thi Street to Nha Chung Street. Turn right along it and go north to Nha Tho. Enjoy the different atmosphere and space there.
From the northern shore of the lake, go along Le Thai To south to Bao Khanh. Get on it going southwest until you get to Hang Trong. Go left (south) to Nha Tho, and follow Nha Tho (Church Street) to the cathedral.
The front doors are usually closed and access is via a side door. If you go there at the start of masses, you can enter through the side door to the left of the front doors. Otherwise, if you come during the open hours, you'll probably have to enter through a side entrance that can be found one block away at 40 Nha Chung.