Top Hanoi Hotels
Hanoi is a city dotted by lakes. In the centre is the mellow Hoan Kiem Lake, which divides the different city quarters and makes for a good reference point. It's a pleasant walk around the lake and worth crossing the red wooden bridge at the northern end to Ngoc Son Temple dating back more than 600 years.
Opposite the temple is the highly recommended Water Puppet Theater. Water puppetry is unique to northern Vietnam and the show enacts local legends and everyday scenes with duck rearing, fishing and dramatic dragon dances. Every evening at 8.00pm skillful puppeteers standing in the water behind a bamboo screen use long poles to animate beautifully carved puppets. This slice of culture is highly entertaining for all ages and should not be missed.
The Ba Dinh District has several conveniently close attractions. The sombre Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum facing an impressive square is probably Hanoi's top sight. Visitors can respectfully shuffle past the embalmed body of Uncle Ho himself. The free mausoleum is often closed over winter so he can be patched up. Next door the large modern Ho Chi Minh Museum glowingly portrays his life in interesting depth.
Nearby the Presidential Palace is a stunning chateau built by the French in 1906. Unfortunately it can only be seen from the outside but is worth a snap in its parkland setting. Ho refused to live there preferring the small, humble wooden lakeside house on stilts behind. Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House shows the simplicity in which the national hero lived and worked until his death in 1969.
Close by is One Pillar Pagoda, the latest of a string of temples succeeding the original built on a tree trunk in 1049. Today's is a sturdy concrete pillar - the last version was blown up by ejected French. The pillar is topped with a tiny wooden altar mimicking a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity.
An excellent assortment of war pieces outlining Vietnam's impressive victories over the Chinese, French and Americans are exhibited at the Army Museum. Tanks, fighters and missiles complete a thoroughly absorbing display of destruction. Next door is the Flag Tower, a military watchtower with panoramic views of Hanoi.
The Fine Arts museum is a handsome building with some excellent examples of paintings, pottery and sculptures from over the centuries. Work by ethnic minorities is also featured.
Worth seeing is the crumbling Temple of Literature, which has stood for 1000 years. It marks Vietnam's first university and is dedicated to Confucianist teachings. The courtyards, relaxing gardens and pillars with lists of leading scholars makes for an enjoyable respite from the noisy roads. The traditional Old Quarter northwest of Hoan Kiem Lake is a vibrant maze of narrow streets. The district buzzes with throngs of people sitting, selling and browsing. Specialist streets still exist to some extent - on Hang Bac Street, squatting craftsmen chisel away at tombstones. Hassling does take the edge off the experience, but it's an authentic piece of the past and a must see.
South of Hoan Kiem Lake lies the stylish French Quarter. The district is one of the world's best examples of surviving colonial architecture, with broad Parisian boulevards bordered by elegant French style mansions. The streets are noisy - it's well worth detouring into some of the quieter side streets to capture some of the city's romantic appeal.
One of the best remnants of the colonial days is the bold St Joseph's Cathedral, an inspiring and individual neo-gothic structure with imposing towers and stained glass windows.
The Ambassadors Pagoda is the centre of Buddhism in Vietnam. The 17th century pagoda features ornate statues and carvings amongst the incense, chanting nuns and monks.
The Air Force Museum is a little way out but its collection of captured fighters and helicopters is impressive. The highlight is a captured Mig fighter that visitors can climb into. There are several other museums around Hanoi on history, revolution and geology. Most museums close on Monday, admission charges are moderate and information in English or French is limited - a guide is useful.
Steam trains are still operating in Vietnam. Avid train spotters will love the old locomotives that chuff into the rail yards of Giap Bat station.
To the north of the city lies the large and peaceful West Lake. Its serenity attracts courting couples in the evening.
Tours can be booked through tourist agencies at the hotels or kiosks, particularly around the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake. There are some unbeatable deals around. One of the country's marvels is the enchanting Halong Bay. This superb bay could be seen in one horribly long day. Overnight trips are far better, allowing one to take in the spectacular limestone cliffs, grottoes, emerald waters and caves. Various boats and junks drift among the 3000 islands. A host of very affordable tours are available in the capital for many this is the highlight of a visit to Hanoi.
3 hours away is the Perfumed Pagoda, one of the most beautiful places in the region. A scenic rowing boat trip takes you to the foot of the hill and a sweaty 1 hour climb passes several smaller pagodas, shrines and limestone caves on the way to the Perfumed Pagoda at the top. A beautiful place popular with pilgrims and tourists.
The Thay Pagoda and Tay Phuong Pagoda are also scenic and quite close to each other. Thay Pagoda is recommended in March when it comes alive with festive water puppets, firecrackers and traditional entertainment.
There are tours to Vietnam's biologically diverse national parks. Cuc Phuong is offered as a day trip, while longer tours head out for Ba Be Lakes.
There's not much left of Co Loa, the ancient citadel a little north of the city. The trip is only worth taking for budding historians with a good imagination.
There are scores of craft villages around Hanoi that have specialised in handicrafts and wares for centuries. Pottery, silk and furniture are openly manufactured in traditional surroundings and visitors may get a peep at the work in progress.
Another popular tour is a weekend trip to Sapa. Up by the Chinese border the region is mountainous, scenic and supports Vietnam's most colourful ethnic minorities. There's some challenging trekking, mountain climbing and fine scenery. However, the weather can be miserable wrap up.
Hanoi is rapidly developing and modern shopping centres now provide international labels and comforts. There are still however, many characteristic shopping areas to enjoy. Note: Like any other developing country rip offs abound and outside the bigger shops bargaining is essential!
The Old Quarter provides by far the most traditional and colourful shopping in Hanoi. The marketplaces, shops and vendors offer porcelain, jade carvings, wickerwork and Russian Vodka - all tucked among the trashy souvenirs and fake brand names. Hang Gai Street is rightly the most popular shoppers have a great choice. Old Quarter tailors can whip up a suit in 3 days for a good price. T-shirts, embroidery and handmade tablecloths are widely available and quite cheap.
Towards the north of the Old Quarter, Dong Xuan Market is a chunky and depressing concrete block replacing the last one, which burnt down. It offers little outside brightly coloured cloths and fabrics but makes a very interesting browse.
Vietnam is gaining worldwide reputation for its art. There are numerous private art galleries around the city, mainly on Hang Gai Street and Trang Tien Street. The quality varies as much as the prices, but there's some very good art around. However, watch out for fakes. The famous local artists deal only with reputable agents and galleries.
Specialised goods and traditional handicrafts are available direct from the craft villages that orbit the capital.
Internet facilities are readily available with a few cyber cafes springing up around Hoan Kiem Lake. Connection speeds can be slow, but many hotels are cyber savvy and connect faster. Costs vary from a few dollars an hour up to extortionate levels.
Nightlife and Eating Out
Hanoi's entertainment scene is expanding with its economy. New clubs, bars and cafes are opening all the time. Published weekly is a free entertainment guide - Time Out - listing all the popular spots.
Trying the varied and exotic local food is essential. Top end Vietnamese restaurants are extremely good and affordable. Excellent choices include The Emperor, Le Tonkin, Indochine and Nam Phuong. Another top pick for contemporary local cuisine is Wild Rice. All are set in French colonial villas with courtyards or gardens for al fresco dining and are highly recommended.
There's a broad range of other great cuisine, particularly Indian, Chinese and Italian.
For a quick snack, try the cheap and popular noodle bars. Foreign fast food joints have yet to take off, but Mama Rosa's near Hoan Kiem Lake does some great pizzas. For a more Western menu, try the Asian-American fusion fare at Bobby Chin or the ribs, steaks and pizza at Al Fresco.
The French flavour remains in more ways than one. Restaurants and bakeries are dotted around and there are plenty of laid-back cafes in the capital. Au Lac serves excellent coffee and cake
Transportation in the capital isn't a problem, but long distance options can be uncomfortable and unreliable.
Exploring Hanoi on foot is easy and a good way to soak up the atmosphere, particularly in the traditional quarters.
Loads of well-maintained taxis cruise around, all cheap and metered. Check the meter as you get in, especially if it has been waiting outside one of the flashy hotels. Taxis are by far the best choice and far preferable to other forms of local transport.
The persistent cyclos are everywhere and are handy for short trips. Fares involve hard bargaining and often rise during the journey! Taxis are generally cheaper and simpler, but cyclos provide an enjoyable way of getting about and are part of the Vietnamese experience. To leave the city, hiring a car and driver is the best bet. Hotel choices are safer and reasonably priced. With Vietnam's creaking infrastructure this is definitely the way to go for no nonsense travellers.
Motorcycles and mopeds are very popular and easy to hire. They can be a useful option, although the roads can be chaotic take care!
The capital has a network of confusing buses meandering around for a mere few cents. Unless familiar with their routes, they're a bit of a pain.
Vietnamese long distance buses are very extensive but are something of a feat of endurance. Overcrowded, old and unsafe, these bangers take forever to reach their destinations but cost virtually nothing. Buses for differing regions leave from the Gia Lam, Kim Ma and Giap Bat stations.
Trains are outdated, neglected and even slower than buses. There are several types plodding up and down the spine of the country, with only the express trains to Saigon even approaching convenient. Hanoi's main railway station is on Le Duan St.
Note: It's surprisingly easy to flag down a passing motorbike. Enterprising locals will often be delighted to negotiate a reasonable transport fee.
Pedaling around on a bicycle in Hanoi is a great way to get about. Cyclists leaving for the countryside will find a scenic and generally flat land. Hotels know where they can be hired.
Domestic flights hop over the sluggish Vietnamese land transport. Noi Bai International Airport lies 45 minutes north of the capital. Minibuses and taxis connect the two, but watch out there are plenty of scam artists.
Vietnam has plenty of festivals, many revolving around the Chinese lunar calendar. Major Buddhist, Taoist and Christian festivals also feature. The big one is Tet, the major festival of the year when everything grinds to a halt. The festival marks the lunar New Year and falls in January or February, the same time as the Chinese equivalent. Fireworks, decorations and banqueting make for a grand centuries-old cultural celebration.
Note: hotels, tickets and flights sell out and shops and attractions close during Tet. Book everything well in advance. Vietnam's National Day is celebrated in front of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square on 2 September. Fireworks pop off and boat races are held on Hoan Kiem Lake.
The second largest is Wandering Souls Day. Food offerings are made to the dead and paper gifts to the restless ghosts go up in smoke.
One of the best nights of the year is the Mid-Autumn Festival when children carry a variety of colourful glowing lanterns and the whole country overdoses on festive moon cakes. Dates vary, but it usually occurs around October.
Liberation Day on 30 April celebrates the liberation of Saigon in 1975 and is followed by International Labour Day on 1 May for a 2-day holiday. More patriotism follows with Ho Chi Minh's Birthday celebrated on 19 May.