Hanoi, one of the most beautiful of the colonial Indochinese cities, is often the start or end point of a trip to Vietnam, and what a great welcome or farewell it is. Oozing with charm, Hanoi has gone through wholesale changes since Vietnam swung open its doors to tourism, but it remains true to its essential personality and is an amazing city to experience.
Though considerably quieter than big sister Saigon, Hanoi still retains a vibrant atmosphere. From the early hours until late at night, the fig-tree shaded streets swarm with careening motorbikes, often with four, five or even six people aboard. A cyclo is available on most street corners, but unless you are making a particularly long trip, the best way to explore Hanoi is by foot.
It seems that in Hanoi, no two streets meet at 90 degrees and there so many one-way thoroughfares it sometimes feels like you can’t get there from here, nor here from there. Count on getting lost. But a day of dodging traffic and elbowing your way through overcrowded footpaths is exactly how most people spend their time in Hanoi, and it’s more fun than any purpose-built tourist attraction. Keep a map close at hand though, so when you find something that tickles your fancy, you can mark it down — otherwise you risk never finding it again.
Hanoi has a number of lovely parks and museums where you can while away the hours of a warm summer’s afternoon — Lenin Park, south of Hoan Kiem district and just north of Bay Kau Lake are among the most popular, especially on holidays, when it’s packed with picnickers.
In winter months, you can find yourself a cozy cafe to snuggle up in, or find a streetside restaurant boiling up a pot of something belly-warming and delicious. While Hanoians are certainly happy to be free of the French occupation, they continue to embrace French culinary culture.
Big, fat, fresh baguettes are sold everywhere, good for a pate sandwich or smeared with the ubiquitous Laughing Cow cheese. The coffee is world class — served strong and rich in demitasses — with the best blends being smooth and chocolatey. Wineis widely available, though inadequate storage and rotation lead to some bad bottles.
Specialty places like The Warehouse on Hang Trong are good for a wide, reliable selection of domestic and foreign vintages. And, of course, the pasteries beckon too. Hanoi has a plentiful and delicious collection of patisseries spread all over the city boasting decadent but very affordable treats.
Finally, the people of Hanoi are some of the warmest and most approachable in the country. Though English is not as commonly spoken as in the South, many of the older generation have a working vocabulary of French. Regardless of language, people will attempt to have a conversation with you irrespective of whether you can understand them. Many of the city’s cyclo drivers speak some English and often have intriguing pasts that they are now willing to discuss with foreigners.
In Hanoi, you may find yourself sitting in a cafe sipping excellent coffee, nibbling a pastry, chatting in French to an old gentleman sporting a beret, while looking out on a vista of French-style buildings in the shadows of fig trees. You may begin to doubt that you got off the plane in the right city. But then, sitting at a streetside restaurant, slurping up a bowl of bun cha with a side of fresh springrolls, watching the ‘yoke ladies’ trundle by in their conical hats, hawking their wares — nope, it’s not Paris warmed over … It’s full-on Hanoi, a city to be savoured.
Where should I stay in Hanoi?
By far the bulk of tourists and travellers opt for lodgings in the Old Quarter, which has the best selection of accommodation, from budget guesthouses through to comfortable midrange hotels, and even luxury hotels are popping up along the old streets. The French Quarter and West Lake have the bulk of plush hotels.
Picking a hotel in Hanoi can be daunting. Good hotels go bad, and bad hotels become good at a rate that even the most diligent travel researcher is hard-pressed to keep up with. Many travellers prefer to book ahead in Hanoi, and we can’t blame them — cheap digs fill up quickly during peak times and the last thing you want to do, especially after getting off an international flight, is hump from place to place. But committing to one hotel, sight unseen, is risky. Book one or two days, so if you don’t like what you get, you can easily switch venues. And if you’re happy where you are, rarely do hotels refuse when guests wish to extend their stay.
Sights and attractions
Hanoi has some fine spots to visit, but really, the attraction of Hanoi is the very town itself. Travellers who arrive in Vietnam via Hanoi are usually too busy taking it all in to worry about touring the sights. And those who wind up their trip here are usually toured out and just want to relax. Both groups end up wandering around the Old Quarter, eating and drinking, and revelling in the beauty and madness of the city. A third group pre-books a sightseeing tour, takes in all the culture, but maybe misses out on the city itself. If you really want to do both, you should dedicate at least a week to Hanoi alone. But if you have to choose, we see no downside to blowing off the tourist attractions and just immersing yourself in one of the great cities of Southeast Asia.
Numerous maps of Hanoi are available at magazine kiosks and bookstores throughout the city, as well as from roving booksellers, and start at about 20,000 VND.
The “Vietnam Tourist Map” by the Nhat Xuat Ban Ban Do company features a map of the whole country on one side with a bare sketch of the road network. On the reverse, the map of Hanoi is good for one-way streets, but the Old Quarter is small and hard to read, and there’s no street index. There’s also a map of Saigon.
The same company also publishes “Du Lich Hanoi Tourist Map” with Northern Vietnam on one side (and better coverage of roads) and a blow up of their Hanoi map on the other side, with one-way streets indicated, and a pretty good street index.
In general, for the Old Quarter, you may do just as well picking up a free map from your hotel — many of them are good enough.
The freebie “Map of Hanoi City” provided by the Tourist Information Centre and available at most hotels and travel agencies will do at a pinch, but it’s packed with ads, lacks detail, the street index is small and one-way streets are not indicated.
The international code for Vietnam is 84, and the city code for Hanoi is 04. Many cell phone numbers start with 09 and in some cases 01. When calling from oversees, drop the zero before the city code and cell phone numbers. Dial-out codes differ from country to country — consulthttp://www.countrycallingcodes.com/ for more info. If you plan to make calls from your room, look for hotels that offer IDD (International Direct Dialling). But this is very expensive – far better to drag yourself to a cyber-cafe that offers internet phone services.
If you’re looking to keep up-to-date on the latest grain prices and other economic gems, Vietnam News is for you. Otherwise keep an eye out for imported dailies, like the International Herald Tribune.
With four providers offering domestic flights, as well as numerous international flight operators, booking in advance online is usually the cheapest and easiest option. But if you prefer to leave your plans more flexible you’re unlikely to have any problems booking when you’re in Vietnam, either through a travel agent or direct with the airline, as availability is good except during Christmas and the Tet holidays.
Domestic and international air tickets can be purchased around Hoan Kiem and online. Don’t bother going to the airport to buy tickets, as the prices will be higher there.
Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport is located 45 kilometres from central Hanoi. Getting there is easy, with options to suit all budgets.
By public bus
Public bus is the cheapest but slowest option: allow two hours’ bus time before check in. No. 7 picks up at Kim Ma bus station and 17 picks up along Tran Quang Khai at the eastern edge of the Old Quarter. Fare is 4,000 / 5,000 VND.
By airport shuttle
Next cheapest and by far the best option is one of the airport shuttles.
The Vietnam Airlines shuttle generally starts at 04:30 and knocks off at around 19:00. But be careful, as if they don’t have enough people at the scheduled time they sometimes wait another hour. Make sure you have money for a cab as an emergency back up to make your flight on time. Buses depart from 1 Quang Trung just south of Trang Thi, to the southwest of the lake and you can buy your ticket there, about $2.
Jetstar picks up 206 Tran Quang Khai Street, to the east of Old Quarter. It’s a big, more comfortable bus than the Vietnam Airlines option, and costs just 35,000 VND. They advise you arrive at the office two hours, 30 minutes before flight time and you can check in at the office.
Taxis should cost around $12 per trip for up to four people if you can fit all your stuff in the cab with you. A seven-passenger car should be about $15-$20 and works out well if you have a lot of stuff or are in a big group.
Getting from the airport to town is notoriously tricky due to the various taxi scams. Tourists are routinely overcharged, steered to the wrong hotel, or taken to a soundalike hotel that’s a complete rip-off. It’s too bad that this is so many travellers’ first taste of Vietnam.