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.
Hanoi Airport Transfers and Accommodation
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.
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.
Eating and Drinking in 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.
Sightseeing & Getting Around
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.
Various Hanoi transport options are available though most of this can be done on foot though the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex is a fair walk from the Old Quarter so a cyclo is a good way to get there. Just confirm a price in advance (about 30,000 Dong = $2US) and the poor man will cycle two of you across town. Metered taxis are also widely available and you’ll never go more than a couple of minutes without someone offering to take you around on the back of their motorbike.
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.
Tours From Hanoi
A welcome escape from Hanoi was the overnight excursion we took 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.
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.