HANOI TRAVEL GUIDE
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and also its second largest city, is a fascinating blend of East and West, combining traditional Sino-Vietnamese motifs with French flair. It is largely unscathed from the decades of war, and is now going through a building boom, making it a rapidly developing city in Southeast Asia.
Consistently ranked among the world's top 10 destinations by TripAdvisor, the city and its surrounding region get more tourists every day.
The old Hanoi is contained within four districts: Hoan Kiem, Ba Dinh, Hai Ba Trung and Dong Da. These districts are vastly contrasted by the skyscrapers and shopping malls in the newer Western districts Cau Giay, Thanh Xuan, Ha Dong and Nam Tu Liem.
· Hoan Kiem District - center of the city, with its core in the Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake). You most likely will stay and visit this district first. The fascinating Old Quarter covers its northern half while its southern half has mostly French architecture with shady streets and villas. A large number of foreign embassies are located in the southern half of Hoan Kiem. The district also houses a majority of Hanoi's tourist attractions, including Hoan Kiem lake, Ngoc Son temple, The Huc Bridge, the neo-Gothic Hanoi Grand Cathedral (St. Joseph's Cathedral), Hoa Lo prison, Eiffel-designed Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi Opera House and several museums.
· Ba Dinh District: political center of Vietnam, housing the national assembly building, president's palace, Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and most embassies. It also contains the One-Pillar Pagoda and the recently discovered Thang Long Citadel. The French Quarter with large shady boulevards is in its eastern part. Its northeastern part surrounds the Truc Bach lake where John McCain's plane was shot down. Its western part is mostly residential with a large number of new skyscrapers around the Japanese Embassy on Lieu Giai street.
· Hai Ba Trung District: located south of Hoan Kiem with the largest population of all districts. Its northern part also has French-style streets with big trees. A large number of universities, including the Hanoi University of Technology are located here. Times City, in the southeast of the district, is a huge shopping mall with an aquarium located within the complex.
· Dong Da District: one of the original four central districts, is mostly residential. The Temple of Literature - Imperial Academy (Van Mieu - Quoc Tu Giam), Vietnam's first university, is located in the north end of the district, bordering Ba Dinh.
· Tay Ho District: named after West Lake (Ho Tay), one of the largest natural lakes of Vietnam. Thanks to its serenity and close proximity to downtown, it is a high-end residential area housing a large population of expatriates.
· Cau Giay District: houses a large number of universities, including the National University's main campus and Hanoi University of Education. The Museum of Ethnology, one of foreign travelers' favorite, is located in this district. Its southwestern part bordering Nam Tu Liem district has numerous high-rises, including Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower, Vietnam's tallest building. This is where you see a completely different side of a modern Hanoi, in contrast to the old inner districts.
· Long Bien District: the only urban district located east of the Red River, it is named after the iconic Long Bien Bridge. The Bat Trang ceramic village and Le Mat snake village are located here.
· Thanh Xuan District: houses Royal City, Asia's largest underground mall. Inside this mall, there are an ice-skating rink and a water park. The plaza above ground have large, cheesy looking Greek god statues.
Other urban districts:
· Bac Tu Liem District
· Ha Dong District
· Hoang Mai District
· Nam Tu Liem District: a newly formed district, almost entirely consisting of high-rises
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 Thang-Long in 1408 and renamed it Tong Binh. Le Loi repelled the invaders in 1428 and ascended the throne, becoming known as Lê Thai To (黎太祖); for his efforts, 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; it remained there until 1887, when the French made Saigon and then Hanoi the capital of all French 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; Saigon was the rival in South Vietnam. Upon reunification in 1976, it assumed that title for the entire country.
The first institution of learning in Vietnam, Quoc Tu Giam, was founded here in the 11th century. Nine hundred years later, the first western-style universities in Vietnam were also founded in Hanoi. The city is one of the leading centres of scientific study and research in the country. Hanoi retains much of its older charm of bygone eras, despite the battles that have raged over it; conflict had the side effect of making it largely oblivious to 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.
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. It takes a while to get used to that. However, there are times when you find this friendliness extremely helpful, 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 although bewilderingly, the blow-up of the Old Quarter is missing, making it useless in that part of town. The Centre also offers free internet and English-language advice.
There are self-help interactive screen information booths around the Old Quarter but their purpose is to superficially conjure an image of coming-of-age "Vietnam has arrived" impression to the unsuspecting passer-by. An example was an inquiry typing out the American Embassy as prompted by an empty field, then it flashed on to the next interactive page asking for which district (one may not be aware that the US embassy has branches in every district) - smart and amazing!
The climate is tropical, with wet and hot weather much of the year. But due to the city's latitude, temperatures drop drastically in the wintertime and the wind chill and dampness means winter weather can feel cold. If possible, avoid the summer months of mid May to mid September, as the city turns into a sweltering sauna with little to no wind.
Vietnamese cuisine is very diverse and most delicious. 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. Hanoi street food become a cuisine culture of Hanoi.The climate is tropical, with wet and hot weather much of the year. But due to the city's latitude, temperatures drop drastically in the wintertime and the wind chill and dampness means winter weather can feel cold. If possible, avoid the summer months of mid May to mid September, as the city turns into a sweltering sauna with little to no wind.The climate is tropical, with wet and hot weather much of the year. But due to the city's latitude, temperatures drop drastically in the wintertime and the wind chill and dampness means winter weather can feel cold. If possible, avoid the summer months of mid May to mid September, as the city turns into a sweltering sauna with little to no wind.
In Hanoi, there are thousands of street stalls in small kiosks on the sidewalk, with plastic tables and chairs on the pavement. Grabbing a bite at these eateries 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 as little as 30,000 dong. Market food stalls also offer an assortment of other snacks: fruit portions, sausages, donuts, and other eats for 10,000 to 20,000 dong (Jan 2011, 0.5-1 USD). Be sure to get your change as a few vendors seem to 'forget' to return it to you, and learn a little Vietnamese because vendors often speak little to no English.
The rule of thumb is if the price is expensive, hygiene quality may or may not be OK, but if the price is cheap, definitely hygiene quality is compromised. There seemed to be no regular food Health Department inspector working regularly in the city.
Another rule of thumb is that Vietnamese have no qualms charging double or more for tourists, as prices are seldom listed on stalls or within shops. Either learn to speak Vietnamese or prepare to pay up to 70,000 dong for that bowl of pho which locals next to you are paying 35,000 dong (as of June 2016).
To know which restaurants and dishes are highly rated by locals, try downloading popular food apps among locals such as MenuX, Foody, or Lozi on app stores. They are available in English and work with both Android & iOS.
For groceries, there is a large supermarket east of Hoan Kiem Lake (Fivimart, 27A Ly Thai To, at Tran Nguyen Han).
The suburb of Le Mat (aka the Snake Village) has numerous restaurants specializing in cobra foodstuffs. Live cobras are stored on the premises much the same way one would find live lobsters at a Western seafood restaurant. If one orders cobra blood wine from the menu, the waiter will take a live cobra, kill it on the spot, drain the blood into a shot glass of rice wine, and top it off with the cobra's still beating heart for you to gulp down! Le Mat is about ten minutes across the river from downtown, take bus 10, 15 or 17 and get off at the large "mega-mall" just beyond Gia Lam station, and walk 500 metres down the road at the right of the mall. Cobras are not cheap at around 400,000-1,000,000 dong (USD$50-) but it gets turned into a dozen unique dishes, enough to share between three or four people.
A local delicacy in the Hanoi area is dog meat (thit cho), which is especially popular in the winter. There are a number of 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.
Be sure to check out the boiled duck fetus eggs (same as the filipino balut) sold by peddlers almost everywhere priced at 5,000 dong. This delightful experience consists of the vendor cracking the egg in front of you, and peeling the shell and dropping the contents in a plastic micro bowl, then garnished with juliened 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 - Bon Appetit!
Bia Hoi 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. Tra Chanh: 8,000 to 10,000 dong.
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 life bustle by. The beer costs typically 5,000 dong and gives you an excuse to relax and take photos of the passing local characters. Should not be missed. Moreover, once you reach 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 yes, even to Pho!).
On To Tich, a small street connecting Hang Quat and Hang Gai, you can help yourself to a refreshing fruit milkshake (sinh to) at one of the stalls (~7000 dong).
· Hanoi code: 4. Note the recently added '3' in front of all local numbers. Example:
· 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)
3G internet is very cheap and readily available everywhere in Hanoi. Buying a SIM card costs between 45 000 and 55 000 dong. Unlimited internet for a month costs 40 000 Dong on Viettel (as of June 2013, rates for unlimited 3G on Viettel and the other major telco have just been raised to 50 000).
Do not buy a SIM card at the Vinaphone counter at the Hanoi airport. The lady at the counter will tell you that unlimited internet for a month costs 500 000 dong, SIM card included. She will give you a SIM card, won't set it up correctly, give you no credit and pocket the 500 000 dong. Also, be aware that she writes fake invoices.
To get your remaining data balance on a 3G plan, you can text "kttk" to "191". The text will be in Vietnamese, however the number in the text given will be given in Kilobytes (KB) and counts down. For example, if you have 1.5 GB left in your data, you will see a number around "1500000" in the text.
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. Close to Hanoi Youth Hostel there is a cybercafe that charge tourist ten times the actual cost. It is next door, and has no name. If you are not in a hurry use another one.
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 wifi for as long as you want. The wifi cafes are usually concentrated around Hoan Kiem lake area.
There are restaurants and cafes with W-Fi hotspots everywhere in the city. Most restaurants and cafes that offer Wi-Fi readily advertise their Wi-Fi password.
Please note before you arrive in Hanoi (or Vietnam in general) that ATM's are notorious for having low limits. Most ATM withdrawal amounts max out at 2,000,000-5,000,000 dong per withdrawal, which may be a concern if your bank charges an international withdrawal fee. While this is not necessarily a concern except for those travelers who are on a budget, please consider this and plan accordingly before arriving in Hanoi. Some strategies include bringing cash (like Thai Baht or USD) to use at money exchangers thus avoiding ATM fees, or to open an account with a bank that either has with no international transaction fees or has a branch in Hanoi (such as HSBC or ANZ).
Extending your stay in Vietnam can be done with relative ease in Hanoi. The cost will vary depending on your country of origin as well as your visa type (1 month single entry vs multiple entry vs 3 month entry etc). The most common way to extend your visa is to have an intermediary broker the transaction rather than going directly to the Immigration office to do the paperwork yourself. Every hostel, hotel, and trip agency is able to do this for you, at widely varying prices, so you should definitely ask for the cost at two or three different places to ensure you're not getting ripped off (getting a quote takes about a minute, as asking for visa extensions is a rather common request at most places). As a point of reference, a one month single-entry visa for a US citizen was quoted in June 2014 at prices ranging from $32 to $50 for an additional month extension (you can extend up to 3 months at a time, but the cost for it in the said situation ranged from $140 to $150 so it may be best to request extensions month by month), with a 4 day processing time (excluding weekends). You relinquish your passport to the broker. Please remember to get a receipt. The extension adds 30 days on top of the expiration of your original visa. For what it is worth, Hanoi City Hostel on 95 Hang Ga street did the job flawlessly for US passports for $32 (July 2014).