Shakedown, Hanoi

This week, we’re taking a look at Vietnam’s bustling capital, Hanoi. Nestled in the north of the country, the City of the Soaring Dragon is where French-colonialism meets modern Vietnam.

It may be smaller than its southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City, but what Hanoi lacks in size, it makes up for in charm and culture. Thirsty for more? Take a deep breath, jump on board, and get ready to dodge the motorbikes – we’re goin’ to Hanoi!

Who wants to be a Millionaire?

£1 will buy you around 32,000 Vietnamese dong, so you really will be a millionaire in Hanoi. As well as dong, take some US dollars too — despite the Vietnamese government’s attempts to phase them out, they’re still widely accepted.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the dong is non-convertible, which means that you won’t be able to change any surplus cash that you have left over at the end of your stay. If you do find yourself with some left over, it’s best to sell it to fellow travellers. Unofficial money changers can be found in the city’s plentiful gold shops, but word has it that this practice has been phased out as recently as March last year, as the government begin the crack down.

What’s the Weather in Hanoi?

Thanks to its relatively northern location, Hanoi experiences all four seasons, occurring at roughly the same time as our British seasons.

September to November is considered the most pleasant time to visit, when it will be nice and warm. Summers can be unbearably hot, while the winter chill can shock even the sturdiest of Brits. Don’t make the mistake of backpackers gone before you, who arrive in January armed with only a pair of flip flops.

Hanoi City Map

Central Hanoi is divided into four main districts: Hoan Kiem, Ba Dinh, Hai Ba Trung, and Dong Da. Hoan Kiem is where you’ll find most accommodation and sights, including the Old Quarter and lake.

The busy streets may seem daunting at first, but grab a map and you’ll soon find that navigating your way around the city by foot isn’t too hard.

Poke around Hanoi's 

Getting to Hanoi

If you’re flying in to Noi Bai airport, the most backpacker-friendly way into the city is on the shuttle bus that will take you right into the city centre for $2. You pay on board, and the bus will drop you at the Vietnam Airlines office on 1 Quang Trung. From there, you can walk to Hoan Kiem where you’ll find oodles of budget accommodation.

If you’re arriving at the rail station — or you you’d rather not wait around for the shuttle bus — you’ll need to get a taxi, so be prepared to haggle! Taxi drivers are never keen to put the meter on, something that could result in you getting royally ripped off paying slightly more than one should.

A taxi from the airport will set you back from anything between $10 – $30 (depending on your haggling skills). Make sure you agree a price with the driver before you get in. Don’t be surprised if your driver tries to take you to a different hotel than you’ve asked him to — many of them get a nice bit of commission from hotels if they bring them some customers. Take a tip from @Charley_Pie, who tweets, “@STATravel_UK Insist taxi drivers take you from airport to a hostel of your choice – if they say it’s closed down do not believe them!”

Getting Around Hanoi

Hanoi is much more walkable than many big Southeast Asian cities, and wandering round the Old Quarter and its many vibrant back streets is all part of the Hanoi experience.

Watch out when you’re crossing the road though, and take @Forwardfitness’s advice on Twitter: “Just keep walking when you cross the roads in Hanoi. The bikes won’t stop for you but they will miss you!”

The traffic and driving may seem completely chaotic (you’ll soon get used to the constant beeping of horns), but there’s a sense that, to some extent, it’s an organised chaos.

No visit to Vietnam is complete without a ride on a cyclo rickshaw. Although it’s not the quickest way to get around in a city that seems to have more motorbikes than people. Cries of, “Where you want to go? Easy rider, easy rider!” can be heard on every corner, as motorbike taxi drivers try to entice you on board. Though a huge adrenaline rush, a motorbike ride through Hanoi is definitely not for the faint-hearted!

Our Hanoi Welcome Package is a great way to see the city. It’ll take you through all the main sites, and even sort you out with accommodation for 3 nights, too.

What to see in Hanoi

While away the hours strolling through the city’s Old Quarter. It still retains the original street layout and architecture of ‘old’ Hanoi, and its French roots give it a distinctly European feel.

Wander round the spectacular St Joseph’s Cathedral and you may well forget you’re in Asia. Take some advice from @Alex_Underwood_, who makes the simple recommendation to “Wander the streets and you’ll stumble across so many treasures”.

There’s no better place to do this than in the Old Quarter; it boasts some of the city’s nicest shops, with little boutiques and unique buys hidden away down the side streets. It’s also home to Hanoi’s largest market, Dong Xuan, a huge indoor affair that sells everything from fruit and veg to clothes to household goods and souvenirs.

Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

A trader takes a rest, after a hard day peddling baskets | Photo by yeowatzup

Near the Old Quarter and in the centre of Hanoi, you’ll find Ho Hoan Kiem. This beautiful lake is a hub of activity, whatever time of year, as locals and tourists alike stroll around the waters edge, or meet for a coffee at one of the nearby cafes.

Rise early and you’ll be able to witness some hardcore Tai Chi practice, courtesy of the locals, on the shores of the lake. Fact fans, listen up: Ho Hoan Kiem means “Lake of the returned sword”, and, according to legend, is so named because the Emperor handed a sword to the Golden Turtle God in the lake (completely believable, then).

If you’re lucky, you might even see a giant turtle in the lake, though I can’t promise it’ll be of the golden variety.

To the northeast of Hoan Kiem Lake, you’ll find the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre. This ancient Vietnamese art, accompanied by traditional music, is well worth a watch. From $3 a ticket, it’s a bargain for a night out. Remember to pick up a programme on your way in for a synopsis of the action, or you’ll literally be lost in translation.

You can’t leave Hanoi without paying homage to Uncle Ho. Vietnam’s beloved former leader is laid to rest at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in the Ba Dinh district. Entry is free, but check before you go that he won’t be away on his annual holiday — his embalmed corpse is taken to Russia for two months every year for maintenance.

As @MattHilton says on Twitter, “Make sure you do a 3 day trip to Ha Long Bay!” Well said, Matt: a trip out to Ha Long Bay is high on the list for most visitors to Hanoi, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who spent Christmas Eve at the UNESCO World Heritage site. This natural wonder doesn’t disappoint.

It’s hard to describe how spectacular this collection of 3000 limestone islands emerging from the green-blue sea truly is. Needless to say, it’s one for the bucket list. We offer a 3 day tour that will take you from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island, a national park in Ha Long Bay that provides ample opportunity for swimming, trekking and cycling, and then out by junk boat further into the bay, along with opportunities for kayaking and rock climbing.

Events in Hanoi

Vietnamese New Year, or Tet as it’s known, is on 23 January this year. Not only is this characterised by a big celebration, complete with fireworks over Hoan Kiem Lake, it also means everything shuts down for around seven days!

If you’re aiming to leave Hanoi during Tet, plan your transport well in advance, or risk paying big bucks or not getting anywhere at all. Better still, just stay put and join in the festivities.

Accommodation in Hanoi

For cheap, decent centrally located accommodation in Hanoi, head to the Old Quarter. As prices start from £7 a night for a private room, slumming it in a dorm is just not an option. Our favourites are the Hanoi Grand View Hotel, which comes complete with whirlpool baths, and the Hanoi Astoria – simple, but effective.

What to Eat & Drink in Hanoi

A journey through Hanoi will excite your taste buds. From sizzling chunks of fish (cha ca) to dumplings bulging with pork (bánh bao), it’s hard to know what to indulge in first.

A good place to start is with phở, Hanoi’s signature dish. You’ll find this tasty beef noodle broth everywhere. For the ultimate Hanoi experience, grab a plastic stool and chow down with the locals at the street stalls, where you’ll get a steaming bowl of phở for less than $1.

Dog lovers, cover your eyes. The rumours are true, they really do eat dog in Hanoi. If you want to try some, head out of the centre to Nhat Tan Street in the Tay Ho District, where you’ll find lots of restaurants serving our cute, doe-eyed, furry friends.

Hanoians love their coffee, and you’ll find coffee shops at every turn. There’s even a whole street dedicated to them — Hang Hanh, or ‘Coffee Street’, is in the Old Quarter. Vietnamese coffee is strong and bitter; ask for milk and it’ll be the sweet, condensed variety.

Many travellers go in search of the infamous ‘weasel coffee’. The coffee beans are consumed by local civet cats, and collected once they’ve, err, you know, passed them through their digestive system. Sounds gross, but it’s regarded as one of the most expensive coffee varieties in the world. Fancy a cup? Head to Cafe Mai at 52 Nguyên Hồng, or Trung Nguyen Café, the Vietnamese equivalent of Starbucks.

Getting away from Hanoi

Hanoi is a must for any Southeast Asia itinerary, and it’s a great place to start if you’re heading down from China. Make the most of being in Vietnam – we’ve got loads of great tours that start in Hanoi, including Best of Vietnam, a two week tour which will take you from Hanoi all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City in the South.

Or you could make Hanoi part of your big adventure with our best-selling tour, Indochina Discovery, an epic month-long adventure through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

Hanoi really is like nowhere else. Its traffic may be chaotic and its streets may seem unnavigable at first, but don’t let first impressions stop from discovering this truly unique city.

Give it a couple of days and I guarantee you’ll feel at home; give it a couple of weeks and you still won’t have uncovered every nook and cranny. If you’re thinking about visiting Hanoi, pop into one of our 47 branches and have a chat with one of our travel experts. They know all about Vietnam and will be able to give you lots more inside tips.

Have you been to Hanoi? Maybe you’ve even lived there? Share the inside track in the comment thread below.

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