With a history stretching back over a thousand years, Hanoi is a city ripe for exploration, and its curious combination of ancient and modern attractions make it one of the most enigmatic cities in Asia. The city’s name means ‘on a bend in the river’, and its strategic location on the banks of the Red River, with access to the plentiful produce of the Red River Delta, is a key reason why it has supported a large population (currently around 7 million) and functioned as Vietnam’s capital for most of its existence.
Hanoi’s sights are scattered around a wide area, so at some stage it’s necessary to hop in a cab or on to a motorbike taxi, but many sights are clustered around the center, making it easy to get around on foot. The city’s stellar attraction is the Old Quarter, or the ’36 streets’ as it is also known, a square kilometre or so of seething commerce where the narrow lanes are lined with shops selling everything from jewelry to underwear, from herbal remedies to tombstones. This is also where many hotels and restaurants are located, so it makes an ideal base for visitors.
Just south of the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake attracts people in swarms, either to take photos of the iconic The Huc Bridge, a scarlet arch that leads to Den Ngoc Son, a temple shrouded by trees on a small island in the lake, or to exercise on the path that runs round the lake, especially in the early morning and evening. At the northeast corner of the lake stands the Water Puppet Theater, where this uniquely Vietnamese form of drama is performed daily to hoots of appreciation.
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Immediately south of Hoan Kiem Lake, the French Quarter with its shaded boulevards is an instant reminder of the French occupation, and the elaborate Opera House and History Museum are some of the finest examples of colonial architecture in town. Also in this area is the infamous prison of Hoa Lo, better known to its former American inmates as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
West of the French Quarter, the strange-sounding Temple of Literature dates back to 1070 and is a masterpiece of design, with five courtyards containing a ceremonial hall dedicated to Confucius as well as several ponds and attractive pagodas.
Moving north from the Temple of Literature, visitors can check out the Military History Museum (aka the Army Museum), which presents an unashamedly patriotic view of the country’s battles for liberation from French and American invasions, and the grounds are littered with rusting planes, tanks and assorted weaponry.
Right next to this museum is the entrance to the Hanoi Citadel. Although the citadel has been there since the city’s founding, it was always the exclusive domain of the country’s rulers until 2010, when it was opened to the public to coincide with city’s 1000th birthday. Most of it was destroyed during the French occupation, but enough remains to make it worth a walk round the extensive grounds.
This area of town is known as Ba Dinh District, which contains most government buildings and memorials to the country’s national hero—Ho Chi Minh. The Ho Chi Minh Museum presents Ho memorabilia alongside some distinctly surreal exhibits, while the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum provides the opportunity to line up with locals and pay respect to the man with the wispy beard who made Vietnam’s unification possible.
North of these government buildings is a huge lake, known as Ho Tay (West Lake), which was once a favorite haunt of Vietnam’s emperors, and is now experiencing a new lease of life as one of Hanoi’s most fashionable areas, both to live and to eat and drink. The 17km perimeter road is a great place for a stroll, a jog or a bike ride, or even an electric car ride, which makes stops at several temples along the way.
For anyone planning to visit the highlands of the north, a visit to the Museum of Ethnology is a must. Not only does help it visitors to identify the different ethnic groups by their dress and style of houses, but it also contains a wealth of information about minority cultures in a non-patronising way.
Besides these major attractions, Hanoi has a host of minor attractions hidden in its backstreets, and it’s also easy to organize day trips out-of-town to visit craft villages and ancient pagodas.
Weather patterns in Vietnam vary wildly, and while Hanoi is enjoying crisp, cool days, Ho Chi Minh City might be sweltering in a heatwave and Nha Trang might be pounded by a typhoon. This unpredictability makes it tricky to plan a journey round the country, and even choosing when is best to hit Hanoi depends on various factors. Let’s take a look at what to expect at different times of year.
Though much of Vietnam has a tropical climate, at 21 degrees north Hanoi experiences four seasons. The main feature of early-year weather in Hanoi is that it can be cold, and so when it rains it’s not much fun either. However, as long as you have warm clothing and raingear, this shouldn’t be a problem; in fact, humidity is lower and exploring the city on foot is more fun than in midsummer, when you’re likely to return to your hotel room dripping with sweat.
The Tet (new year) Festival takes place sometime during January or February, and during this time, many places are closed while folks celebrate with their families. It’s worth checking just when it will take place, as Hanoi is not much fun for tourists during this time.
Spring and Fall are generally the best times to be in Hanoi, when temperatures are in the lower 20s, making it pleasant to walk around. One thing that can’t be predicted, however, is the amount of sunshine, and you’re just as likely to experience dull, drizzly days as bright, clear ones.
Hanoi can become very unpleasant during these months due to the heat and humidity, and to add to this, it’s also the rain season. Just make sure you have an umbrella with you when you go out and go swimming often. This is also a time when it’s essential to have air-con in your hotel room.
As with March and April, October and November provide cooler temperatures and lower humidity, making it a pleasure to be outside. You might get caught in the odd downpour but rainfall is increasingly rare at this time of year.
High and low season
The high season for tourism in Vietnam is November to February, with another peak in July-August for families with schoolkids. This means that if you only plan to visit Hanoi, and not other parts of the country, April or October is a good bet, as there’s a good chance of catching good weather and you’ll also find room rates are cheaper then.
There’s no need to stuff your bags full of clothes to keep you warm and dry, as Hanoi is only cold for a few months each year, and you can buy all types of clothes in the Old Quarter at much cheaper rates than you’d pay back home. So take advantage and travel light in the knowledge that you can pick up anything you need while you’re there.
What do you get for your money?
In a word, lots, which is one reason that Vietnam in general and Hanoi in particular are so popular these days. Where else can you find a luxurious hotel room for $30? A gourmet meal for $5? A glass of beer for 25 cents? Or a day trip out of town for $10? You’d be hard pushed to find such good value anywhere in Southeast Asia, and in Europe or North America, forget it.
Dollars or dong?
You’ll find that in general more expensive items such as hotel rooms and silk dresses are priced in dollars, while budget hotels and cheap souvenirs are usually tagged with a price in dong (usually written as ‘d’ or ‘VND’). The simple advice is to pay in whatever currency is quoted, or the vendor is likely to use an exchange rate that’s favourable to him or herself. This means that you need to carry both currencies at all times, which isn’t too difficult as long as you have two sections to your purse/wallet. Just keep around $20 value in dong and the rest in dollars. There are a few coins of value 200d-5000d, though these are rarely seen.
Some people get confused by the exchange rate, which is approximately $1 to 22,000 dong. However, there are plenty of big denomination bills, and when you exchange just $50, you’re suddenly a dong millionaire!
Abstract pricing at a glance
$ = less than 50,000d
$$ = 50,000-100,000d
$$$ = over 100,000d
$ = under $20
$$ = $20-$50
$$$ = over $50
$ = under $5
$$ = $5-$10
$$$ = over $10
If you plan to travel to other cities in Vietnam, you’ll be glad to hear that domestic flights to almost anywhere are regular and inexpensive. Few flights cost over $50. Trains and buses are also cheap, but hardly worth the savings involved.
For getting around the city, you can save money by renting a bicycle or motorbike, but you need to be brave to deal with the anarchic traffic, and most taxi rides across town cost just $2-$3. Local bus routes are not really for tourists unless your hotel receptionist has written your destination in Vietnamese and you can actually find the bus stop for the number you need; fares are around 7-9,000 dong per ride.
ATMs and credit cards
ATMs are everywhere now and are extremely useful for withdrawing dong as you need it, though banks vary in terms of the amount you can withdraw at any one time, with most having a maximum of 3,000,000 dong (around $150).
As in most of Southeast Asia, tipping is an alien concept, but the Vietnamese are beginning to tune in to the fact that tipping is common practice for Westerners, so they are unlikely to refuse if offered one. As for amounts, there’s no need to fuss about 10% or 15% or whatever—just leave the change from a meal or purchase if you’re happy with the service.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
Abstract pricing at a glance
$ = less than 50,000d
$$ = 50,000-100,000d
$$$ = over 100,000d
$ = under $20
$$ = $20-$50
$$$ = over $50
$ = under $5
$$ = $5-$10
$$$ = over $10
Most tourists arrive in Hanoi by air at Noi Bai airport about 45km north of the city center. From here most people also take a taxi to the city center, a journey which takes around an hour, for around $15-$20, but you need to be on the alert for scams of various kinds. The most common is that the driver tells you that your hotel of choice is full or closed, and takes you somewhere else where they get a commission. There are also many hotels with the same name, so make sure the driver takes you to the correct address as well. Other drivers just rig the meter to clock up the dong faster than you can see the numbers change. The best way to avoid all these hassles is to arrange a pick-up by staff from your pre-booked hotel; most hotels charge the same as taxis, while a few offer the service for free.
A couple of buses, the #7 and #17, run between the airport and downtown, but the terminals they stop at are inconvenient for most hotels, and have no facilities for storing large bags or heavy luggage.
It’s easy these days to enter Vietnam overland from China, Laos or Cambodia, a popular option for travellers doing the ‘Southeast Asian loop’, and to arrive in Hanoi by bus. There are four main bus terminals (Giap Bat, Gia Lam, My Dinh and Luong Yen), though all are quite a way from most hotels, so you’d need to hop in a taxi for the last leg.
Travelers who think the journey is more important than the destination often arrive in Hanoi by train from Ho Chi Minh City after spending nearly two days chugging up the coast. The station is located just west of the city center, from where it’s a short taxi ride to most hotels.
It’s not finished yet, but work is going ahead apace on the construction of the Hanoi Metro, and the first lines should be open by late 2016. When complete (in around 2020), the result should be beneficial for the city’s horrendous traffic and will certainly be useful for tourists, though in the meantime, road works are causing long delays.
A typical taxi ride costs no more than a few dollars, but consult with staff at your hotel, or you might end up sitting for hours in a mind-mashing jam. Mai Linh (tel: 04 3822 2666) is one of the more reliable companies.
By motorbike taxi
If you’re alone, and need to get somewhere fast, this is the quickest and cheapest way. Called ‘xe om’, they are popular among locals, but you need to agree on a fare first, wear a helmet and hope you’ve picked a rider who doesn’t drive dangerously.
Once the most common form of transport in the city, the cyclo (three-wheeled bicycle with a covered seat for passengers in front) is now used almost exclusively for tours of the Old Quarter. If you want to try one out, arrange it through your hotel as few riders speak English, and disputes over misunderstood rates are frequent.
By rented car, motorbike or bicycle
Given Hanoi’s chaotic traffic, this is not a good option, though many expats who live here learn how to get around on a motorbike. Self-drive cars are not available, but daily rates for a car with driver are not extortionate; ask for info at your hotel desk. One place that’s good for a bike ride is the perimeter road around West Lake; you can hire a bike for 100,000d/day at The Hanoi Bicycle Collective (www.thbc.com).
Fortunately many of Hanoi’s sights are within walking distance of each other, particularly in the Old Quarter. Get hold of a good map (Nancy Chandler’s map of Hanoi is excellent) and go explore. There are two things you need to watch out for when walking in Hanoi; one is bag-snatchers on motorbikes, and the other is crossing the road, which can be a difficult task as vehicles don’t stop for pedestrians. Look for a gap in the traffic, then step out and walk at a steady pace, and you’ll find that cars and motorbikes flow round you.
Walking through the streets of Hanoi is like walking through the pages of a history book; everywhere you’ll come across monuments, statues and plaques that commemorate some event in the city’s tumultuous past. For detailed information, visit the National Museum of Vietnamese History, but the shorthand version goes like this: founded by King Ly Thai To in 1010 as Thang Long, it remained the country’s capital until 1802 (apart from a brief Chinese occupation from 1407-1428). The capital was then moved to Hue by Emperor Gia Long, where it stayed during the French occupation, until 1954 when Hanoi (re-named in 1831) became the capital of independent Vietnam.
In recent years, Vietnamese cuisine has enjoyed an explosion in popularity worldwide, but if you haven’t tried it yet, you’re in for a treat. A vast variety of vegetables, herbs and condiments are used to produce soups, stir-fries, salads and barbecue dishes. A good place to start is by tasting a bowl of pho, the national dish (eaten for breakfast) that consists of noodles and beef in a delicious broth. Hanoi’s signature dish is cha ca, fried fish with dill and rice noodles.
The great majority of Hanoians profess to be Buddhists, though there’s a large contingent of Christians here too, as evidenced by the ‘big church’ (nha tho in Vietnamese) of St Joseph’s near Hoan Kiem Lake. There are many temples scattered around the town, some very old, and all displaying an amalgam of characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The most important of them all is the Temple of Literature.
If you’ve been travelling in other Southeast Asian countries, you might be pleased to see what looks like a decipherable script on arriving in Vietnam. Called quoc ngu, this Romanized script was invented by Alexandre de Rhodes in the 17th century, but there are lots of tone marks and other puzzling squiggles added that make most words sounds nothing like they look to the eye of a native English speaker.
There’s a vibrant and active artists’ community in Hanoi, which results in all sorts of treats for art lovers. Private art galleries host exhibitions by some of the country’s top artists, the Hanoi Cinematheque shows rarely seen movies and documentaries, and the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum presents a memorable introduction to Vietnamese art throughout history. To find out about upcoming events in the art world, check out www.hanoigrapevine.com.
Most traditional forms of Vietnamese music, such as Hat Cheo and Hat Tuong, do not fall well on the Western ear, so you might be forgiven for paying it scant attention. However, the esoteric sound of Ca Tru can be mesmerizing, and it’s possible to watch performances in the Old Quarter most evenings of the week. Most visitors, though, are more interested in contemporary music and there are several bars in the Old Quarter where live bands perform to a mixed crowd of young Viets and tourists.