The Travelcene Guide to Hanoi

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The gateway to the riches of Vietnam

Consistently overshadowed by its more boisterous sister to the South, Hanoi isn't likely to top most travellers' bucket lists. Yet, as visitor numbers to the city are hitting all-time highs, rest assured that city is deftly keeping pace with this development. In all realms, Hanoi's food, drinking and shopping culture is punching above its weight and an excellent reason for tourists to visit Vietnam. Taking its newfound growth in its stride, Hanoi is also a great example of how a city has maintained its own unique inclinations whilst staying open to visitors. This is the Travelcene City Guide to Hanoi.

Any traveller in love with Melbourne or Seattle for its coffee would find no objections with making a pilgrimage to Hanoi. The city’s vibrant coffee scene effortlessly offers up limitless flavours that can appeal to any preference that sits along the coffee taste spectrum. For this reason, cafe hopping is our number one recommendation for travellers visiting the city. 


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Need to know

1. Skip the hotel breakfast

Hanoi’s streets are lined with street food vendors and small eateries that dish out amazing bites. In contrast, hotel provided breakfasts (if offered) often feature stale croissants and bland bowls of pho. Skip these and go for the authentic offerings that are just down the street. 

2. Keeping track of your dong

As the currency is denominated in thousands and are available up to a 500,000 note, mixing up your plastic notes can occur especially if it is the first few times you're using them. Be aware of the difference between a 10k and 100k. Make sure you don’t overpay any unscrupulous hawkers.

3. Avoiding traffic is an artform

Pavements in Hanoi are often occupied not by pedestrians but by unending rows of motorcycles. This will mean that a walking tour of the city will involve some form of weaving in and out of haphazardly parked motorcycles. Pay attention to the city's traffic if you do find yourself walking on a road next to a motorcycle-blocked pavement. Other than the traffic, Hanoi is pretty safe.

When to visit

While Hanoi's weather has relatively subdued variations, be mindful of the region's monsoon season that lasts from May till August. The coldest period for the city will be in January and February, usually recording temperatures of around 17 degrees celsius whilst the summer months of June and July can reach a sweltering 30 degrees. With that, the best time to visit Hanoi is during the colder months of the year. That being said, Hanoi's weather is quite friendly and is one of the benefits of visiting Vietnam.

Avoid visiting around the Tet holiday season around late-Jan or early-Feb as prices will be high due to large domestic travel volumes and crowds visiting the city's attractions will also likely swell.

Currency

The country uses the Vietnam Dong as its official currency and the VND is denominated in thousands. The US dollar is also acceptable in some scenarios (the airport) though its use is discouraged by the government and its popularity is waning.

Language

The official language of the country is Vietnamese which shares some measure of commonality with the languages of its Indochinese neighbours. 

Owing to the emigration that took place during and after the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese diaspora has spread worldwide and the language is widely spoken in many cities across the globe.

Getting there

Flying to and from Hanoi involves a visit to Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport, which has recently inaugurated its new international terminal in 2015. Before this, all flights were centralised at Terminal 1 which faced critical issues like aging infrastructure and overcrowding. 

The airport is a primary hub of the country’s flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines, which operates flights to 49 other destinations both domestic and overseas. 

A taxi ride to the city (there are no rail links available) takes approximately 45 minutes and will cost around 200k VND.

Getting around

Whatever you may think about the ethics of Uber, it is currently the most optimal option for getting around the city. Uber drivers are guided to your destination using GPS and hence no butchering of the language is required. Furthermore, Uber fares are fixed and therefore scams are unlikely. In contrast, taxi scams are a well-documented occurrence amongst the city’s cabs. Alternatively, travellers can use Grab which operates under the same parameters as Uber but is a venture started by a South-East Asian company. 

For those more adventurous, both Uber and Grab offer motorbike options which summons a motorcycle/scooter to get you to your destination. This is option should only be used by locals or those intimately comfortable with riding pillion in the motorcycle capital of the world.

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Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the seat of power for the country’s ruling Communist Party. The city sits at the crossroads between its past suzerain to the north and the many modern nation-states in South East Asia. Additionally, the city has rich French traditions as it once served as the capital of French Indochina. 

Sites and experiences

Home to 7.5 million people, the Hanoi metropolitan area encompasses a few key districts, but visitors would mostly likely find themselves exploring the area in and around Hoan Kiem and Ba Dinh. The district of Tay Ho is currently experiencing a renaissance of creative and fashion-forward influences, but is a little out of the way from downtown Hanoi. Most tourists usually choose Hoan Kiem as it's the best area to stay in Hanoi due its availability of good food.

Hanoi’s eateries also consistently offer up life changing fare which can be routinely found at any of the city’s hole-in-the wall restaurants of any street food vendor. Click here for a rundown of the city's most important landmarks. And click here for a map of Hanoi.

Hoan Kiem: 'Train Street', Hoan Kiem Lake, Trang Tien Plaza, Long Bien Bridge and St Joseph's Cathedral

Ba Dinh: Ho Chih Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda and the Presidential Palace

Hanoi French Quarter: Hanoi Opera House, Sofitel Metropole Hotel and Hoa Lo Prison

Hanoi Old Quarter: Dong Xuan Market and Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

 
 
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Where to stay in Hanoi

Luxury: Sofitel Metropole Hotel

Value: Chi Boutique Hotel

Budget-conscious: Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel

Where to eat in Hanoi

Upscale: Hanoi Garden, Madame Hien and La Terrasse

Mid-range: Mau Dich 37

Local: Bun Rieu at 11 Hang Bac and Bun Cha at 34 Hang Than


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Things you can't miss

Coffee
There are a plethora of options for coffee in Hanoi but its traditional establishments are the city’s mainstay. Take a trip to Cafe Giang for their famous egg coffee or Trung Ngyuen for authentic black coffee experiences.

Coffee production is big business in Vietnam and is mainly grown in the country's central highlands. The coffee beans are then sent northwards to Hanoi or southwards to Ho Chih Minh City. Vietnam is also the world's second largest coffee exporter and has a rich heritage of coffee drinking.

Traffic
The number one warning given to travellers planning to visit Hanoi is to pay close attention to the city’s manic traffic. Unlike other cities where traffic is closely regulated by stoplights, Hanoi’s motorcycles and scooters have deemed it sufficient to just swerve out of the way of oncoming pedestrians.

These motorbikes dominate the roads in Hanoi and are the quickest way to get around the city, as riders weave in and out of traffic. As the city's hidden gems are usually located in narrow lanes and back streets, expect to have to walk a little to get to your final destination if you're travelling by car.

Crossing the road in Hanoi involves a great deal of nerves but with adequate practice and an aversion to hesitation, one won’t get hurt. The locals have been doing it for decades anyway.

Day trips
Though there are lots of things to do in Hanoi, most travellers don't stick around (many allocate about 2 days in Hanoi) for too long but instead opt to take up some day trip opportunities available from the city. 

Hanoi’s draw lies not with the vibes of its French inspired bistros, but for the picturesque landscapes and terrain nearby. Excellent day trip options include the Perfume Pagoda at Huong Tich, the Mua caves at Ninh Binh or the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay.

Excursions can be booked in advance or through any of the local travel agents located strategically in the Hoan Kiem district. Alternatively, most hostels will also happily arrange a day tour from Hanoi for you.

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Further Reading

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Closing words

We set out to make this guide remain as relevant and future-proof as possible but while visiting, it was clear to us that change is gathering pace in Hanoi. Just like any of the other cities in the region, Hanoi is lively and houses a population that is unabashedly proud of its heritage, culture and history. Signing up for a walking tour of Hanoi (conducted by local students) is an excellent way to explore the city. Furthermore, its excellent and cheap eats make it an attractive city to visit in Vietnam and will definitely appeal to a wide variety of travellers even if Hanoi's nightlife leaves more to be desired. 

It is for these reasons that we are more than enthusiastic to recommend a visit to Hanoi and we're excited for what the future holds for it. 

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City GuideAlexander Gee