Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Hanoi (Vietnamese: Hà Nội), the capital of Vietnam, and also its second largest city, is a fascinating blend of East and West, with Chinese influence from centuries of dominance, and French je ne sais quoi from its colonial past. It was largely unspoiled by the modern architecture of the 1970s and 80s, and is now undergoing a rapid transformation that makes it a rising star in Southeast Asia.

Understand

Invading forces from every direction agree: Hanoi makes a fine capital. It has held that title for more than a thousand years, through several invasions, occupations, restorations, and name changes. The Chinese conquered the imperial city of Đại La in 1408 and renamed it Tống Bình. Le Loi repelled the invaders in 1428 and applied the name of Lê Thái Tổ (黎太祖). For his efforts, he received the crown and a slew of legends about his heroic exploits, many centred around the Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. The Nguyen Dynasty gave the city its modern name of Ha Noi in 1831, but they had transferred power to Hue by then. Hue remained the capital until 1887, when the French made Hanoi the capital of all Indochina. It changed hands again in 1954, when it was ceded to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after almost a decade of fighting, and it became the capital of North Vietnam. Upon reunification in 1975, it assumed that title for the entire country.

The first Western-style universities in Vietnam were founded in Hanoi, and today, it is the leading centre of scientific study and research in the country. Hanoi retains much of its older colonial charm, despite the battles that have raged over it. Conflict had the effect of making it largely oblivious of modern architecture, and as a result, few buildings in the city centre area are higher than five stories. The Old Quarter is second only to Hoi An for uninterrupted stretches of colonial and pre-colonial architecture, well-preserved on dense warrens of narrow, wonderfully atmospheric streets. It trades the commercial boom and sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City in the south for a more understated charm, worth enjoying for an extra day or two, and with countless transport options and travel agents, it makes a perfect base for exploration of the North. See also Indochina Wars.

As you walk along the street, you may find that people start talking to you. It is a cultural norm there to make conversation with strangers. They might ask you where you are from and other general questions. But be cautious if a comely young lady approaches you and initiates a conversation as she is likely after something. It may take a while to get used to such overt friendliness, however there are times when this could be useful, such as when you are lost or need help.

The Tourist Information Centre, ☎ +84 4 926 3366, Dinh Tien Hoang, just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, can provide a fairly useful map (bewilderingly, the blow-up of the old town is missing) and other English-language advice, as well as limited free Internet.

There are self-help information booths around the Old Quarter, but their purpose mostly is give the impression that Vietnam "has arrived" technologically.

Ho Tay/West Lake, Hanoi

Climate

The Tet holiday (Lunar New Year) is in the spring. Flowers are most beautiful during this time of the year. The weather warms up, with occasional light rain during the week. Locals believe that these light rains bring prosperity and luck in the new year.

Summer, on the other hand, borders on intolerable. The heat alone would be alright, but it's coupled with oppressive humidity. At this time, visitors should be wary of mosquitoes as they abound. Hanoi has a perfect climate for the proliferation of insects.

There is something unique about Hanoi’s autumn. The weather is perfect, with less humidity in the air. The temperature drops, allowing people a chance to flaunt their sweaters and jackets. There is a species of tree "cay hoa sua" which only flowers in autumn. The flower has a very distinct odour. If you visit Hanoi during the fall, ask locals about this tree and where you might sniff its distinct aroma.

Winter can be uncomfortable because it is not only cold, but also humid. Winter in Hanoi feels even colder than it is because Vietnamese houses lack central heating. Many houses have no heating at all.

January is a drizzly month, and it may rain for one or two days or all week long.

Get in

By plane

Departure tax

As of November 2006, international departure taxes should be included in the price of your ticket, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will be - check with the airline to be absolutely sure. If not, the tax (sometimes called "passenger service charge") is payable in U.S. dollars (USD14) or in dong.

Most people arrive at the Noi Bai International Airport (HAN), 35 km (45–60 minutes) north of the city. The airport's international terminal, which opened in 2015, has given the place much more space - although the Vietnam Airlines section of the domestic terminal still seems cramped. The advantage is that both terminals are easy enough to navigate, and there's no need to arrive hours in advance. Several airlines run flights from Noi Bai, including:

If departing from Noi Bai airport via Vietnam Airlines with no checked luggage, walk to the last airline check-in counter and to the right of it, there's a sign showing check-in for passengers without checked luggage. Using this counter is a great time saver if it applies to your journey.

When heading to the airport in a taxi, the driver will probably assume you want the international terminal (terminal 2) unless you tell him otherwise. The domestic terminal is, unsurprisingly, Terminal 1 - but if you say you're going to Ho Chi Minh City or Da Nang then you'll also be understood. There are separate check in areas for Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet, but you can walk between them if you pick the wrong one.

From the airport

By train

Trains to Nanning, China depart from Gia Lam Station (GPS 21.05213,105.87939), about 5 km northeast of Hanoi Station, although tickets can be purchased from Hanoi Station. A ticket for a soft sleeper compartment (4-berth compartment) costs 568,000 dong per person. Be cautious buying these tickets from hotels or travel agents in the Old Quarter, as they may quote prices substantially higher.

All other trains use the main Hanoi train station (Ga Hang Co, 120 Le Duan, ☎ +84 4 825 3949), for daily services from cities in the south including Hue and Nha Trang. The Reunification Express goes all the way to Ho Chi Minh City, although there is very little 'express' about it.

There are also train services to the northwest (including Lao Cai, from which you reach Sapa. To board trains bound for these destinations, you have to enter the railway station compound through the "backdoor" at Tran Quy Cap station. Just tell your driver which destination your train is heading to. Be mindful of any "helpful" stranger who offers to carry your luggage. He probably has a sum more than the cost of the ticket in mind for the help.

Tickets for all destinations are sold in the main station, though there are two counter halls, north and south, serving the respective destinations.

Technically, there is a queuing system in place to buy tickets at Hanoi Station which involves obtaining a numbered docket and waiting to be called up to one of the ticket counters. In practice, the process is chaotic and many locals disregard the system altogether, often pushing their way to the counters to be served. If travelling to Nanning, China, it is advisable to ask a staff member where to go, as not all counters can sell these tickets.

Buy your tickets as early as possible, especially since sleeper tickets can be sold out several days in advance. If you can't get a ticket anymore, try a travel-agent who still might have stocks. You may also try your luck in the station just before boarding time, agents still holding tickets will be eager to sell as the departure draws near. Nevertheless, travel agencies in Hanoi are known for their bad business practices. Some of them will try to overcharge you up to 300%, so it is better go to the train station by yourself and find out about the prices before you agree on any deal.

By bus

Public buses serving southern destinations (e.g., Ninh Binh, 2 hr, 60,000 dong) leave from Giap Bat bus station. To get from the Giap Bat bus station to the old quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake, leave aside all the hassle of taxi and motorbike drivers and simply take public Bus 8 towards Đông Mỹ (3,000 dong, pay on the bus). To find it head towards the main road inside Giap Bat station, you will see signs with numbers indicating the stops of different bus lines.

Most of the "open-tour" bus itineraries either begin or end in Hanoi, with Hue the next (or previous) stop (12-14 hr, USD8–9), and from there to Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne, Ho Chi Minh City, and other cities in Vietnam, depending on the bus company. Most seem to stop at their office which could be right next to the old district / most backpacker hotels. Check when booking ticket.

Many of the same companies also sell tickets to Vientiane and Savannakhet in Laos (USD16–18). Do some research before you buy a ticket as rattle-trap scam buses abound on this route.

See Ho Chi Minh City to Shanghai overland if you're interested in crossing over to China by bus or train.

Get around

Taxis are the best way to travel long distances, but the cyclos, or pedicabs, are a cheap way to make shorter trips. Taxi fares are not always consistent, and the rates for each taxi company have not been standardised. For lone travellers, rides on the back of motorbikes (actually low-powered scooters) are popular too (known as xe om, literally meaning "motorbike-hug").

By taxi

Hanoi is probably one of the easiest and safest cities in Southeast Asia to travel by taxi in, although there are a few potential issues to keep in mind.

Taxis are readily available across the city. Unless you're trying to travel at a busy time, looking like a lost tourist will attract any number of taxis - but if it doesn't work, wave at every taxi until one stops. Mid-top end hotels and shopping malls will generally have taxis available too, so you could also head for one of these.

Taxi fares are set by taxi companies so they do vary, although they tend to be about 10,000VND minimum fare (usually getting you a few hundred metres), and 9-15,000 per km after that. You're paying more for a bigger taxi, and for being less likely to get ripped off. Whether you think paying 50% extra in order to not get ripped off is worthwhile is up to you.

Some metered taxi owners in Hanoi may attempt to negotiate a flat fee in advance rather than use the meter. If you have a fair idea of how far you're going or how much you're willing to pay, this is probably a good idea. If the driver refuses, turning around and walking away will almost certainly change his mind. Don't worry as it's all part of the negotiation protocol.

Most taxi drivers speak limited English, so it's a good practice to get your hotel to write the name and address of your destination in Vietnamese to show the taxi driver, and get your hotel's business card in case you get lost.

There's no need to tip a taxi driver, although it's often appreciated.

Taxi Scams

The safest option is to only use reputable and reliable taxi companies. Opinions on which these are vary. Most top end hotels choose Taxigroup (white taxis with red and blue) who are a grouping of 5 companies including the oft-recommended CP and Hanoi taxi, others ABC (white and pink) and the army-owned Mai Linh (green). Others recommend Noibai Taxi for airport runs.

Some taxi drivers seem to lose the big wad of change they carry with alarming frequency. Try to at least pay to the nearest 5000. Many others are fastidious about change, even to the nearest 1000.

It is not unheard of for the drivers of some of the less reputable taxi companies to "fix" their meters to run faster, thereby running up a higher bill very fast. The meter can run as fast as or even faster than a digital clock. A 10 min drive can cost almost USD30 just in the city centre. Keep an eye on the meter during the journey, but take heart in the fact that they're ripping off locals as much as tourists, which seems to be making the practice less common.

A very simple way of "fixing" the meter is to black out the thousand separator on it with a marker pen - so a 2-3km trip that should be costing for example 30.5 (so 30,500 VND) will seem to cost 305 - i.e. 305,000 VND. The driver in these cases seems to rely on your ignorance rather than demand the extra money.

Another common taxi scam is when the driver takes you for sightseeing and extends the tour to make more money. This is very hard to discover unless you know the city well, but if you catch your driver doing this (e.g., going around Hoan Kiem Lake twice), demand that he stop the taxi and leave the taxi without paying.

Be very careful with metered taxis in Hanoi. Some have central locking, and are known to lock passengers in, and then demand large amounts of money before letting them go. The driver may threaten to have you beaten up or arrested should you not give in to his demands, but if you kick up enough of a fuss they will let you go.

Be vigilant when taking a taxi. A driver may jump out at destination and dump some of your bags. While you're busy putting a rucksack on, he has taken off with your other bags.

Taxi Apps

Uber now operates in Hanoi, with fares typically a little lower than a taxi for UberX, and around the same as a top end taxi for Uber Black. Payment is via credit card or cash. Uber Black drivers will tend to speak a little English.

Local rival GrabTaxi is also popular - payment is via cash in this case, but it can have greater availability.

By motorbike taxi

Motorbike taxis can be found on virtually every corner, especially in the Old Quarter. Expect to be offered a ride every half-block or so. You should negotiate fares in advance, and again, turn around and walk away if you don't like their offer. There are far more drivers than tourists, and they know it. Your fare could be the only one they get all day. You should also write down the negotiated fare (with all zeros) to avoid confusion. Even if you do speak Vietnamese, a driver might pretend that you said 50,000 dong instead of 15,000 dong, In case of argument over fares after the ride: keep calm and repeat the original agreement (remember, you have the leverage). A typical 10 min fare should cost no more than 15,000-20,000 dong. Many drivers will accept US dollars as well. At the end of a journey, some will offer to hang around to drive you to your next destination. Be clear that you don't want a return trip, or get a price in advance. Otherwise, you might be surprised when the driver tacks on several million dong for having waited.

Keep your wallet out of arms reach of the drivers when you pay. Dishonest motorbike drivers are not averse to grabbing your wallet and speeding off.

By cyclo

Negotiate first or avoid using the cyclos services. They can demand 200,000 dong (USD12) for a short ride of less than 100 m (330 ft). At the end of the journey, a few men will come over to translate, and they will pretend to help and later insist that you pay the demanded amount.

Motorbike rental

Motorcycles can be rented for around USD6–7 a day, and can be arranged by most hotels. This is good for making lots of trips around the city for individuals or duos, but be careful: Hanoi traffic is very difficult place to sharpen motorbike skills. Park on the pavement with other bikes, and be sure to lock the front wheel. Locals will help arrange the bikes near their stores. Many shops that have bike attendants will give you a ticket in exchange for parking your bike. This may or may not come with a fee typically ranging from 2,000-5,000 dong. The ticket will either have your license plate number written on it, or the ticket itself will be numbered, with that number subsequently chalked somewhere on your bike. In such cases, where you've been given a ticket, the attendants may ask that you not lock the steering column or front wheel of your bike so that they can rearrange the bikes as customers come and go.

By Electric Vehicle

'Green' Electric vehicles now operate 3 fixed routes around the Old Quarter taking tourists past the main market, a couple of 'heritage houses', St. Joseph's Cathedral and the opera house. The tours start and finish at the northern end of Hoàn Kiếm Lake and cost 200,000 Dong for 35 minutes or 300,000 for an hour.

By bus

Scam free, cheap but a bit difficult to comprehend at first, the buses in Hanoi are relatively fast and surprisingly comfortable. Pick up a map with printed bus lines at the Trang Tien street (the book street by the Opera house) and spend a few minutes to identify the over 60 bus lines, find your bus stop, wait for the bus, pay 7,000 dong (as of October 2015) and off you go. If you are unfamiliar with the city, make sure to inform the mostly helpful conductor where you want to get off. Or, use your phone's GPS and Google Maps - it works well with Hanoi buses.

List bus routes: English, Vietnamese

Bus maps: English, Vietnamese, PDF of the Bus Network

By car

Hanoi's traffic is extremely chaotic, with seemingly perpetual traffic jams, and a large number of almost suicidal motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. Vietnamese drivers are among the most aggressive in the world, and lanes are effectively non-existent. As such, driving yourself around is not recommended, and you should leave your transportation needs in the hands of professionals.

By metro

The city will be served by Metro sometime around 2015. Construction began in 2010.

See

Museums

Flag Tower

Parks

Temples

Temple of Literature

Wartime sites

Hoa Lo "The Hanoi Hilton"
John McCain shot down, Truc Bach lake, Hanoi

Do

Cinemas

Cooking classes

Gym

Pampering

Rock climbing

Theatre

Buy

Many places accept US dollars, and cash is king. Most shops quote much higher prices for tourists (including Vietnamese people from other regions) than for locals, and the belief that tourists are rich and hence should pay more than locals is firmly entrenched in the local culture. As such, most vendors will insist that as a tourist, you pay the tourist price and will refuse to let you bargain the price down to the local price even if you know what it is. If you have a trusted local friend, you can save a fair bit of money by getting your friend to buy the item you want in your absence.

ATMs

ATMs are common but the vast majority have a transaction limit of 2 million dong; ANZ and Techcombank have higher transaction limits of 5,000,000 dong for MasterCard and VISA and charge a fee of 40,000 dong per transaction. Both have ATMs at Noi Bai International Airport as well as dozens of other locations. HSBC also allow withdrawals of 5 million dong (+100k fee), but their ATMs are relatively rare. The Techcombank South East of the Hoa Lo Prison allows transactions of at least 7,000,000 dong. The Citi bank machine in the shopping plaza on Xuan Dieu will dispense 6,000,000 dong, while Military Bank (MB) dispenses 5,000,000 dong with no fee.

Books

Markets

Money changers

Money changers found in most guest houses and banks give bad rates. Jewellery shops consistently offer a better rate, the best ones are located along Ha Trung Rd (5 min walk from Hoan Kiem Lake) and Hang Bac. Just walk into the shop and ask them if they change money. Ask 5 or more shops to see which one gives the best rate. Don't exchange money from the black market people on the streets.

Miscellaneous

Contact lens solution is rare in Vietnam, and many pharmacies don't stock it. The pharmacy at the corner of Trang Tien and Dinh Tien Hoang (southeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake) may have some in stock.

Eat

Since the mid 1990s, Vietnamese cuisine has grown in quality and variation. Most famous remains "pho ga" (chicken noodle soup) or "pho bo"(beef noodle soup). There are various dishes including chicken, beef, fish and seafood, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of restaurants nowadays in Hanoi catering to everyone's taste.

In Hanoi, there are hundreds of street restaurants in small kiosks on the sidewalk, with plastic tables and chairs on the pavement. Eating at these restaurants is a great way to experience the local food and culture. It is worth mentioning that food quality, freshness, and hygiene can vary greatly. A bowl of noodle soup goes for 30-40,000 dong (Apr 2015) and market food stalls offer fruit portions, sausages, doughnuts and other foods for 10,000 to 20,000 dong (Jan 2011). Check your change as a few vendors seem to forget to give it, and learn a little Vietnamese because vendors often will not speak any or much English.

For groceries, there is a large supermarket east of Hoan Kiem Lake (Finimart, 27A Ly Thai To, at Tran Nguyen Han).

Exotic treats

Next to Beijing, Hanoi is probably the second in the running to the world's exotic food paradise.

A local delicacy in the Hanoi area is dog meat (thịt chó), which is especially popular in the winter. There are a number of dog restaurants in the Tay Ho district. Another exotic regional taste is ca cuong, an extract from the belostomatid or giant water bug. Just a few drops are added to noodles for the unique aroma.

Boiled duck foetus eggs are sold by pedlars almost everywhere, and cost about 5,000 dong. The experience consists of the vendor cracking the egg in front of you, and peeling the shell and dropping the contents in a plastic bowl, then garnished with julienned ginger, basil leaf and sprinkled with chili sauce. You can see the severed head and beak of your chick that fell off if you are lucky enough to have your first bite from a different spot.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Bia Hơi is abundant in the streets of the Old Quarter. At the crossing of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen five separate venues fill up with travellers in the evenings, but you can get more local atmosphere on some of the side streets.

Hanoi is a lively city on the weekends, but the Old Quarter closes relatively early (at midnight) on weekdays, so you might want to start your night early. Other places outside the Old Quarter stay open later and vary in closing times. Local young people gather around the cathedral located in Ly Quoc Su to have lemon ice tea (tra chanh) and sunflower seeds in street bars. After dark it gets quite crowded.

Sit on a plastic chair in front of one of the bia hoi (fresh beer) establishments which are invariably situated on the corners of many of Hanoi's Old Quarter streets. This preservative-free light beer is the perfect drink to sip as you watch the city's frenetic bustle. The beer costs less than twenty cents and gives you an excuse to relax and take photos of the passing local characters: should not be missed. In the Old Quarter, you will find that almost every corner is filled with stalls selling pho (Vietnamese noodle) and cafe (the name is not limited only to coffee, but also tea, sweets and grocery items, and even to pho).

On Tô Tich, a small street connecting Hang Quat and Hang Gai, you can help yourself to a refreshing fruit milkshake (sinh tố) at one of the stalls (~7,000 dong).

Breweries

If you are looking for something less watery than Bia Hoi, excellent freshly brewed Czech or German-style beer is available at several breweries, including: Hoa Vien (Czech), Goldmalt (Czech), Legend beer (German), with several branches around the city; prices are around 45000-60000 dong for 0.5l.

Bars

Coffee

Sleep

Hanoi Hotel Scams

Information about a hotel from a tout may differ greatly from reality. If in doubt, speak with a staff member of the hotel. It may be wise to verify the conditions of "free" products the hotel may offer or even go as far to take pictures of the room or mini bar should proof be needed. If unsure whether something is complimentary or not, check before partaking of the product or service. If during your stay a hotel finds a reason to move you to a different hotel, insist they provide proof that their claims are legitimate and if they are asking you move to a higher priced hotel, make sure they have an agreement with the new hotel to pay the difference in price.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

Walking the streets of Hanoi is not for the faint of heart. As is the case everywhere in Vietnam, traffic in Hanoi is dominated by an incredible number of motorbikes, all of which seem to be making a mad, desperate dash for something just out of reach, all of the time. The simple act of walking can be intimidating for visitors, especially in the narrow streets around the Old Quarter.

There is no such thing as one-directional traffic in Vietnam. When you leave the curb, look not only left and right, but to the front and back. Even up and down would not be amiss. Take each step deliberately but resolutely. Patiently allow the motorbikes to pass. Don't rush. Do not make any erratic movements. This way the drivers are aware of you, and can anticipate your vector (along with all of the other motorbikes). It may look chaotic, but be patient and pay attention when you're crossing any street, large or small, and you will be fine.

Be vigilant when taking a taxi. Drivers have been know to jump out at the destination and remove most of the bags from the trunk. While the passenger is busy putting on a rucksack the driver takes off with the remaining bags. Ask your hotel which taxi companies are reliable.

Be careful of hustler hawkers. In Vietnam, there is a two-tier pricing system, for locals and for foreigners. No other place in Vietnam is this practised more emphatically than in Hanoi (and in Ho Chi Minh City's Ben Tanh Market) where vendors charge differently according to how they gauge your net worth.

Pickpockets

You've read warnings about pick pockets a hundred times, but in all of Asia, it's rarely as true as for Hanoi's busy and narrow Old Quarter or the Dong Xuan Night Market. The crowd, the loads of tourists, the distraction of heavy traffic and the narrow confines guarantee opportunities for thieves. And the general belief that tourists have too much money creates a moral climate in which thieves abound. Even if you're attentive, you'll get some pockets of your backpack opened, maybe even twice a day. Expect female pickpockets. Don't let them surround you. Approaching you with "Hello, I'm a student" seems to be a quite popular pick-up line for them, so be forewarned.

Connect

Telephone

  • Old dialling style: 1234567 (from within the city) or 04 1234567 (inter-provincial) or +84 4 123456 (from overseas)
  • New dialling style: 3 1234567 (from within the city) or 04 3 1234567 (inter-provincial) or +84 4 3 123456 (from overseas)

Internet

There are plenty of Internet cafés all over the city. Most are used by Vietnamese teens playing online dance or battle games. Rates vary, but can be as low as 3,000 dong/hr. Some of the better cafés, particularly in the Old Quarter, have computers that are Skype-capable for international phone calls. The cafes that charge you for using the Internet usually provide desktop computers. There are also cafes where they have free wireless. All you have to do is order something from their menus and use their Wi-Fi for as long as you want. The Wi-Fi cafes are concentrated around Hoan Kiem Lake.

Monks crossing the street

Cope

Embassies

Immigration office

Go next

If you are the adventurous type or simply bored temporarily of the city atmosphere, then consider a circuit through the northern countryside. A round trip will take you to a lot of charming villages and through hills and valleys with charming views. Main roads are generally in good condition and you can easily do a couple of hundred kilometres a day. The villages and provinces are generally safe at night, and you get to see a lot of Vietnamese culture such as various tribespeople. While bus services are available (albeit not always reliable), a recommended alternative is to rent a bike or car and make the trip on your own. Motorbikes in decent quality can be rented for as little as USD5 a day, and many places have suggestions for routes.

Perfume Pagoda Cave
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