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.
Featured Hanoi Hotels
Hanoi Travellers Tales
Highlights of the trip, for me, were: the Water Puppet Theatre - just incredible; the Museum of the Revolution (a couple of minutes from the hotel) and the Museum of Ethnology. I was very touched by the people who I found very warm and helpful. I learnt to speak a few words of Vietnamese - the most important being ''thank you''. As in most countries people really appreciate it when you try to speak some of the language. And for visitors from wealthy countries don''t moan if you (and it''s very occasional - much worse in most western countries) get overcharged by the odd taxi driver. It will probably cost you a dollar. The average weekly wage is not high so tip generously.
Halong bay is a must to go in Hanoi. Those not prepared to climb and sun under the hot sun, please do not go to Perfume Pagoda. No safety measures for the sampan ride to the Perfume Pagoda. Plenty of local tour agencies. No problem to move around.
Recommended restaurants: Pho Thin - excellent pho bo; Pho 24 - good pho bo in a cleaner location; Cha Ca La Vong - fried fish in turmeric spiced oil with fresh mint, dill and spring onion; Fanny - for home made french ice cream; Bobby Chin and Wild Rice - if you are looking for chic restaurants. Food does not beat what you get on the street though. Coffee shops in Hang Hanh - excellent local coffee.
As recommended in Lonely Planet, we went to the Old Quarter to find "Hanspan" at 116 Hang Bac, we didn''t pay enough attention and found out later that AZ Queen Cafe Tour is there at that address. We found out talking to other people on the two tours we booked that we paid about double than they did (I guess we looked richer and dumber). The Perfume Pagoda Tour should be avoided. A 2-hour van ride brings you to a river, there are flat-bottom boats with lady rowers are waiting. Four people per boat squat on 8 inch high, hard wood benches. For a cramped hour, you are rowed along the pretty river. You reach a dock and sellers of water, and everything else descend on you (same as when you got out of the van). It was very hot and we decided to only go to the lower pagoda, which was very nice. Others decided to go all the way and our guide said it was 2, then 4, then 4-5 kilometers up the hill and back. <br><br>The people that went to the "Perfume Pagoda" said it didn''t smell so nice and was not worth the effort. The worst part was our rower who shadowed us and continuosly told us "I have boat". On the row back she said "you give tip money, I''m very tired'' over and over. At the dock she said my tip "not enough". To top it off the guide, who was lousy by the way, told the group that we would all be dropped at the centrally located lake near the "Old Quarter", not our hotels. My back still hurts and is was one of the most unpleasant days we have spent. In contrast, our tour to Hai Long Bay was very good, with a good guide. One bad defect was the cabin on the junk we were to sleep in had an air conditioner that we had to pay $10 US to get turned on. The actual tour was given by APT Tours at 37 Dao Duy Tu Street in the Old Quarter. They seem OK. The "Hanoi Hilton", which is actually Hoa Lo Prison, should be visited, just take a cab. (Our 1/2 day Hanoi tour skipped it.) The Hoan Kiem Lake is very pleasant and there is a pagoda right on the lake. We also had great tasting Vietnamese ice coffee and hot coffee at Hapro cafe on the lake. (I''m spoiled now and the coffee back home tastes like water). If you want cheap eyeglasses or knockoff watches there are clusters of stores for that. Crossing streets without traffic lights is a little scary. Tons of motor bikes and guys trying to get you on their cyclo and you weave through the traffic. We would advise crossing with the natives at first to get the idea. Then pray.
We stayed in the Lucky Star Hotel in the old quarter and it was very easy to get around from here. I highly recommend going to see the water puppet show which is in the theatre by Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple. The shows are on early evening. The Presidential Palace, One Pillar Pagoda are worth a visit and also St. Joseph''s Cathedral which is fantastic. One of the highlights for me was Ho Chi Minh''s Mausoleum. It is only open to visitors in the morning so best to get there early. I would also recommend just walking around the little side streets, there is always something interesting to be found. It''s also nice to sit outside a coffee shop around the old quarter and just watch all the activity going on around you. Hanoi seemed a very safe place with lovely friendly smiley people. I can''t wait to go back and explore some more.
Hanoi can be quite confusing, I found it hard to get my bearings thus would recommend at least a City Tour to familarise yourself once you arrive. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is closed on Mondays and Friday-my cyclo driver was unaware of this-also negotiate the price for the cyclo drivers before you depart-it might end up cheaper just taking a taxi-and you won''t get wet. I found the Old Quarter to be very busy and confusing to negotiate-I ended up booking a day tour with Sinh Tours-13 US for the day-Hanoi doesnt seem to be set up for Western tourists-there were few signs in English-and restaurants were hard to find-ended up eating in the hotel mostly. I travelled by myself-and found it a bit of a culture shock to be honest-if I went again, i would go in winter to avoid the oppressive heat-and consider a tour-i have travelled to Thailand/Laos/Cambodia-this was the least tourist friendly place that I have visited.
I recommend Seasons of Hanoi restaurant in Hanoi--very nice ambience, good food, friendly staff. It was recommended to us by the receptionist at the Galaxy Hotel (when we couldn''t find the restaurant originally recommended to us by our hotel''s receptionist). Our shopping experience in the Old Quarter was also very interesting. We found Vietnamese silk clothing at reasonable prices, and the stores we went to (one, I think, was called Tha Anh) had friendly and helpful staff. Although they speak barely understandable English, they also speak French.
We stayed at the DeSyloia upon arriving in Hanoi, between trips to Halong Bay and Sa Pa, and prior to our departure from the country. Both Halong Bay and Sa Pa are highly recommended, though we caution travelers that the many tour operators based in Hanoi don''t always deliver on their promised services. For example, the tour operator we chose, Sinh Travel, neglected to inform us that our Halong Bay tour would entail switching boats -- at 5 am! Also beware of ''helpers'' at the Hanoi train station who will try to rip you off blind. Otherwise, our stay in Vietnam was most pleasant and the food was generally lovely -- we recommend the Nam Phuong Restaurant (close to the DeSyloia) in particular.
Be prepared that the boat rowers at Tam Coc try to sell you t-shirts and table clothes whilst you are "trapped" in the rowing boat. This can be a bit annoying.
A must-do is the tour to Halong Bay with Handspan Travel - the 3 days/2 nights is recommended. We managed only 1 night as the above was fully booked. They have the best boat on the Bay called the Dragon''s Pearl and the 8-course meals they served on board were amazing.