Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam with a population of around 3.5 million people. Located 35km north of the city, the Noi Bai international airport attracts less long haul flight arrivals than Ho Chi Minh City though there are many arrivals from hubs all over Asia.
The airport is a modern structure which is pleasantly hassle free as its outer city location doesn’t attract city dwellers looking to sell their goods and services to foreign arrivals as is the case in some Asian airports.
The journey into the city is along a modern highway though you may see a herd of buffalo grazing by the side of the road. Drivers tend to be lunatics set on staying in the overtaking lane the whole way without removing their hand from the horn. As you approach the city centre you’ll be struck by the volume of motorbikes on the road and as you enter the Old Quarter the decaying architecture provides a sudden reminder of the influence of French colonialism on the city.
When to Visit
Hanoi weather is very changeable. Although the city experiences four distinct seasons it would be fair to summarize the year in terms of summer (from May to September) when it is very hot and wet and winter (November to March) when it is cold and dry.
What about October and April I hear you ask? Well in this humid, tropical climate in which monsoons are common pretty much any conditions can occur in these most unpredictable of months. We visited in November/December when the skies were clear most of the time and the air quite fresh. Very pleasant for tourism purposes.
Hanoi Airport Lies 35km North of the City
If Hanoi’s Noi Ban International Airport is your first arrival point in Vietnam don’t worry about what awaits you as you step into the public arrivals area. It is a modern, well organised airport from where you will have no problem transferring to the centre of Hanoi Vietnam’s most modern highway.
You should have arranged your Vietnam Visa before arriving at Hanoi airport. In addition, you’ll have to fill out an arrivals-departure card. On some incoming flights this card is distributed onboard otherwise you’ll need to get hold of one in the arrivals lounge before joining the queue to pass through immigration. Immigration is fairly strict so make sure you’ve filled in your details correctly the first time on the arrival-departure card otherwise you might find yourself returning to the back of the queue.
You can exchange money at an official desk in the airport if you don’t have any Dong but if you’re travelling into Hanoi by private car or taxi there’s no problem paying in Dollars as everyone knows the official exchange rate of $1US = 15,900 Dong (Jan. 2006) which doesn’t seem to vary anywhere.
Most Hanoi hotels will send a driver provided you stay a minimum of three nights. We had this agreement on our last visit but didn’t like the hotel so we paid the receptionist $10US and went elsewhere. There is an official taxi rank where you pay for a ticket into the city (again it’s about $10) and you are taken to the first taxi at the rank.
If you want something cheaper there’s a Vietnamese Airline minibus running between airport arrivals and the Vietnam Airlines office in the city centre on Pho Trang Thi (he’ll usually drop you in the Old Quarter for a tip). Just look for the signs once you’re in the public arrivals lounge.
Whichever form of transfer you choose from Hanoi airport into the centre it’s all very straightforward as there’s nobody hassling you in the airport so just get your bearings and head for the pre-paid taxi rank or the Vietnam Airlines bus.
Hanoi Airport Transfers
Most city hotels will send a driver to collect you from Hanoi Airport if you’re staying a few days otherwise they’ll charge you about $10US to send someone for you. Alternatively, just go to the official airport taxi rank and pay the fare in advance (again it’s about $10US) for a taxi ride to any city centre hotel. If you want something cheaper there’s a Vietnamese Airline minibus running between airport arrivals and the Vietnam Airlines office in the city centre on Pho Trang Thi. Just look for the signs once you’re in the public arrivals lounge. This is all very straightforward as there’s nobody hassling you in the airport so just get your bearings and head for the pre-paid taxi rank or the Vietnam Airlines bus.
Where to Stay
There are Hanoi hotels situated over a wide area of the city but the majority of travellers will choose to stay in the French influenced Old Quarter. This part of town is a large maze of streets packed with shops selling anything you can imagine, bars, restaurants, travel agencies, hotels and most memorably … motorbikes. HCMC is bad for mopeds and scooters but somehow the Old Quarter of Hanoi seems worse, probably because the riders never get the chance to ride fast enough to learn how to manouever the thing! You’ll find yourself walking along the road with the traffic as all pavement space is taken up by parked motorbikes.
In the pecking order of Hanoi transport the car is King followed by the motorbike, the cyclist and then the pedestrian who is the lowest life form and must walk along many roads as the pavements are full of parked motorbikes. Getting around is never a problem as there are cyclo riders all over the Old Quarter offering their services as well as countless men standing around with motorbikes offering to take you somewhere.
The constant hassle from these people becomes quite wearing after a while and the day we left Hanoi was not a sad one as we were heading for Vientiane in Laos which has got to be the world’s most peaceful capital city with no hassle at all which was such a relief after Hanoi.
Most of the time in Hanoi you’ll be walking around the Old Quarter and the streets adjacent to the Hoan Kiem Lake so you won’t need any transport. However, you might want a ride over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex so take one of the following:
As mentioned above the cyclo drivers will never be far away and a nice idea to get your bearings on arrival might be to take a cyclo for about an hour which takes you on a tour of the Old Quarter. This shouldn’t cost you more than about 30,000 Dong ($2 US), in fact you’ll be approached by some riders offering ‘One Hour for One Dollar’.
We took a cyclo over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Before leaving we’d agreed a price of 35,000 Dong (just over $2US) for this journey but after seeing the poor old bloke move our two heavy bodies across the city we paid him 50,000 Dong (just over $3US) and told him to keep the change. A $1US tip to us is nothing (even though it represents 50%) and for the hard work the rider has to do to earn a pittance he certainly earned it.
Some travellers would disagree with these comments, arguing that such behaviour fuels inflation for future visitors. A fair point but I’d argue that some prices in Vietnam are just too low and these poor cyclo riders deserve more for their efforts. We’re all entitled to our opinion.
This is certainly the quaintest form of Hanoi transport and well worth the journey just for the experience.
There are plenty metered taxis around which are exteremely cheap, just be sure that the meter has been reset when you start. For safety on the streets of Hanoi this is the best choice for getting around (though the cyclos seem fine as they go so slow).
Once you’ve seen the madness on the roads you’ll understand why taking the offer of a ride from a local standing on a street corner isn’t the safest option. They’re just as cheap as a cyclo but not recommended. If you’re comfortable with this form of transport then feel free to wave down passing motorbikes who will usually be glad to take you where you’re going for a small fee.
Not a worthwhile option. There are buses around but working out routes is complicated as well as knowing where to get on and off so it’s better to stick with the other options.
Hanoi Tourist Attractions
Allow less time for sightseeing in Hanoi than in HCMC. You can see the main Hanoi attractions comfortably in one day though you’ll probably want two so that you can stroll around at leisure and have at least half a day to wander aimlessly around the Old Quarter. The main tourist attractions are centred around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex where people from all over the country come to pay homage to their saviour whose embalmed corpse rests here for 9 months of the year.
Other attractions within the complex include Hi Chi Minh’s stilt house where he lived during much of the war, the Presidential Palace for Indochina, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda. The Temple of Literature provides a nice break from the busy streets and is well worth a visit as is a stroll around the Hoan Kiem Lake which lies right in the heart of central Hanoi.
The Old Quarter offers lots of great Vietnamese places to eat at very low prices. Don’t fall into the trap of heading solely to the places your guidebook recommends. We found some fairly indifferent service in Hanoi most notably in bars and restaurants that had ‘made it’ by appearing in the ‘traveller’s bible’. Don’t be afraid to wander into any little places you like the look of. They always seem to have an English menu and know enough English to get by, alternatively, take your Vietnamese food list and have some fun trying to order. Of the Hanoi restaurants that we visited it was the Vietnamese food that we enjoyed the most. However, there is a great choice available including some good French, Indian and Thai options.
For the best view of the mayhem of the Old Quarter you must go to the crossroads of Pho Ta Hien and Pho Luong Ngoc Quyen. Go to one of the bars and pull up a tiny stool on the pavement, order a glass of freshly brewed Bia Hoi beer at 1500 Dong a glass (10 cents) and watch the world go by. Here you’ll see the cyclo drivers in action, the woman carrying kilos of fresh fruit on their shoulder, bicycles laden with everything you would expect to find in a hardware shop and much more. Sit on the pavement with your camera and you’ll get fabulous shots of Hanoi street life without being noticed.
Shopping in Hanoi
For Hanoi shopping possibilities just wander the Old Quarter where you’ll come across plenty souvenir shops, art, silk and handicraft stores and tailors who will make you a dress or a suit in a couple of days. Quality rip off branded items aren’t common so buy them in HCMC if they’re on your shopping list.
Hanoi shopping opportunities abound in the many small streets that make up the Old Quarter. Wander around and you’ll find clusters of shops all selling the same thing. There’s a street selling just toys which becomes a street with Chinese lanterns then you’ll come across several silk shops, art galleries and handicrafts. It’s amazing how they all lie next to one another selling exactly the same things with nothing to differentiate them. In the evening Pho Hang Dao becomes closed to traffic so it’s a pleasant place to stroll again with the clusters of wallet and belt shops followed by what seemed to be the England football shirt department!
Well worth a visit during the daytime is the three storey Dong Xuan Market which is the focal point of life in the Old Quarter. It is mainly a market for the locals who pack the place out buying fruit and vegetables on the bottom floor and their clothes on the other levels. You’ll also come across fake brand name sunglasses and some good luggage stalls but don’t expect to find quality branded clothing here. Bootleg western CDs and DVDs were not on sale either.
Bargaining is commonplace but it isn’t as ridiculous in its extremes as in other Asian countries, most notably Indonesia where the final price might be a 10th of the initial asking price. Here there is a margin for bartering but don’t insult the seller with a ridiculous drop in their asking price.
We found souvenir shopping quite difficult in the capital. There are plenty T-shirts for sale but there is no variety in designs not only in Hanoi but all over Vietnam and the quality is extremely poor. Art shops offer some of the best options for things to take home (try Pho Hang Gai and Pho Trang Tien) and you’ll come across nice handmade tablecloths and embroidery in some shops.
Hanoi tailors will make you a dress or a suit in a couple of days but if you’re travelling around you’d be better off ordering this in Hoi An which is a dress shopper’s paradise.
Tours From Hanoi
Hanoi city tours are not necessary because most of the time you’ll be exploring the Old Quarter on foot and heading out to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex only takes a few minutes by cyclo or taxi.
A welcome escape from Hanoi is an overnight excursion to Halong Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of over 3,000 tiny islands made of limestone and is an absolute must for anyone visiting this region.
The other most popular Hanoi tours are the full day trip to the Perfume Pagoda where Buddhist shrines are built into limestone cliffs and the overnight trip to Sapa near the Chinese border which is set in a valley surrounded by spectacular scenery. From Sapa you can go trekking and stay in local villages.
Halong Bay Tours
This UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of over 3,000 tiny islands made of limestone and is an absolute must for anyone visiting this region. You leave Hanoi in the morning for a 3hr 30min drive by minibus to Halong Bay where you join your chosen vessel for a fascinating cruise around this incredibly picturesque area.
One day tours are available but really you should spend at least one night aboard one of the ships otherwise there’s hardly any time to enjoy the trip. Two days and one night is the most popular trip but you can extend your stay so you can spend some time kayaking into limestone grottos and go swimming off secluded beaches. Various companies offer these Halong Bay tours but we’d recommend you splash out on one of the more expensive ones as you do get what you pay for on these tours.
If you have time then a trip to Sapa is the next most recommended of the most popular Hanoi tours. Again this requires an overnight stay. On this trip you depart from Hanoi on a night train, arriving in Lao Cai in the early morning. You then take a one hour bus ride with stunning scenery up to the hill station of Sapa.
From there you head out on a trek to a minority village where you can stay the night in traditional accommodation with the natives or you can return to your hotel in Sapa according to the tour you have chosen. On the second day you trek back cross country to Lao Cai for the night train back to Hanoi. None of this is set in stone and extended visits to the area are possible.
Perfume Pagoda Excursion
One other destination worth visiting for a full day tour returning to Hanoi the same day is to the Perfume Pagoda which lies 75km south west of the capital. This is Vietnam’s most important Buddhist site which is made up of Buddhist shrines carved into the shrines of the Huong Tich Mountains. Getting there is quite a journey. You’ll leave from Hanoi early in the morning for a two hour coach trip then you go by boat to Thien Tru harbour for another hour and finally you trek for another hour to the main cave at the top of the mountain. This is physically quite demanding and not recommended for the unfit.
Other Useful Information
Personally we preferred HCMC to Hanoi though this was not an opinion shared by other travellers we met who considered it the highlight of their time in Vietnam. For me Hanoi was too busy in that Old Quarter with constant hassle from everyone trying to sell you something. “You want motorbike? Where you going? What you want? Buy pineapple. Sleeping bag. You want hotel? Postcard? T-shirt?” Go away and leave me alone! People weren’t as friendly or as helpful as in the centre or the south of Vietnam and the feeling was one of them always trying to get as much money as possible from you.