Hanoi travel guide
Vietnam's small and pleasant capital lies at the heart of the northern Red River Delta, and is a city of lakes, leafy boulevards and open parks with a French colonial feel. Hanoi was founded in 1010, and became the centre of government for the Indochina Union under French rule in 1888. In 1954 it became the official capital of independent Vietnam.
Today ancient crumbling buildings dating from the 11th century lie scattered among grand French colonial residences, while shrines and monuments to Vietnam's first president, Ho Chi Minh, sit in the shadow of modern high-rise buildings. The streets of the Old Quarter preserve age-old customs, where trade takes one back half a century, and temples, pagodas and monuments reflect the historic character of Vietnam.
Although a city of historical importance, and the social and cultural centre of Vietnam, it is a surprisingly modest and charming place, far slower and less developed than Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Hanoi has retained its appealing sense of the old world, despite the onset of a brisk tourism trade in 1993, absorbing the boom of hotels, travellers' hangouts and Internet cafes, and the gradual infiltration of western-style food and fashions into the once inaccessible city.
As the early morning mist rises from the serene Hoan Kiem Lake, tracksuit-clad elders perform the slow movements of tai chi, like park statues coming to life. Streets fill with activity, mopeds and bicycles weave among pedestrians, while cyclo drivers (three-wheeled bicycle taxis) clamour for attention, and postcard vendors cluster around tourists like bees sensing an open honey pot.
Hanoi is fast becoming one of the most enticing and interesting cities in Asia. As a cultural centre there are traditional water puppet shows, and music and dance performances. It is also a good base for excursions to the beautiful Halong Bay, or into the Hoang Lien Mountains inhabited by several hill tribes.
The ancient meandering streets of the Old Quarter are each named
after the crafts and speciality trades traditionally practised by
the original artisan's guilds in the 13th century. Each guild was
grouped around a temple, or dinh, dedicated to the particular
beliefs of the village from where the guild originated, and many of
these temples are open to the public today.
The early merchant's quarter affords an intriguing glimpse into life centuries ago with covered markets, and the ancient narrow buildings that still line the streets, known as tube or tunnel houses that contained shops. Businesses were taxed according to the width of their storefront and resulted in shops only seven foot (2m) wide with a series of storerooms, workshops and living quarters extending behind to a length of up to 197ft (60m). Many streets are still devoted to a predominant trade such as silks, religious objects or textiles, silver jewellery, antiques, and there are numerous art galleries and craft stores, as well as cafes and pavement restaurants lining the streets.
Traffic within the Old Quarter is a chaotic mix of bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians passing noisily down the narrow streets and shady alleyways.
Address: Hoan Kiem District
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Ba Dinh Square was where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh read out the
Declaration of Independence and is the site of annual national
celebrations today. Dominating the west side is the Ho Chi Minh
Mausoleum where the embalmed body of the 'father of the modern
state', 'liberator of the Vietnamese people' and beloved public
figure is displayed.
The body of Ho Chi Minh is enclosed in a glass case, the traditional way to honour famous communist leaders. Security is tight, there is a strict dress code and it is imperative to maintain a respectful demeanour while inside; this also means no photographs. Nearby is the Ho Chi Minh Museum that commemorates his life, housing a collection of military orders, correspondence, manifestos and photographs that illustrates the crucial role he had in the country's history.
Address: Hung Vuong and Le Hong Phong Streets, Ba Dinh Square.
Opening time: Open from Tuesday to Thursday and weekends from 8am to 11pm. Closed on Mondays and Fridays. The mausoleum is closed for two months of the year, usually October and November, when the body of Ho Chi Minh goes to Russia for maintenance.
One Pillar Pagoda
One Pillar Pagoda was constructed to celebrate the tale of the
heirless Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who dreamt about receiving a son
from the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion, seated on a
lotus flower. He married shortly after and bore a son, and the
pagoda was built to honour the event.
It is the most interesting of the city's numerous pagodas, and beneath the ornate curved roof people come to pray for fertility and well-being, with allegedly miraculous effects. The unique wooden structure was designed to resemble a lotus flower, the Buddhist representation of enlightenment, emerging out of the water, with the single stone pillar its symbolic stalk. It was destroyed by the French during the first Indochina War and was subsequently rebuilt.
Address: Chua Mot Cot, Doi Can, Ba Dinh
Transport: The One Pillar Pagoda is a 15 minute walk, or short taxi ride away from Hanoi City Centre.
Opening time: Daily from 8am to 5pm.
Temple of Literature (Van Mieu)
The Temple of Literature is Vietnam's historical seat of
learning and is the most sacred place for the disciples of
Confucius. It is one of the few remaining buildings from the
original city founded by Emperor Ly Thanth Tong in the 11th century
and is a well-preserved example of Vietnamese architecture.
It became the site of the country's first university in 1076. Consisting of a complex of small buildings and five walled courtyards, it was an exclusive establishment teaching the principles of Confucius. In the third courtyard is a pond, the Well of Heavenly Clarity, and beside it are 82 stone stelae, mounted on tortoises and engraved with the names of successful graduates.
Over a period of 900 years thousands of Vietnamese scholars graduated from the university. In honour of their teachers legacy, there is also a temple dedicated to Confucius where an altar stands, a place where the king and his mandarins would make sacrifices.
Address: Pho Van Mieu, corner of Pho Quoc Tu Giam
Opening time: Open daily from 7.30am to 6pm (summer), and 8am to 5pm (winter)
The natural wonder of Halong Bay, renowned for its spectacular
scenery and limestone grottos and caves, has been declared a UNESCO
World Heritage Site. The bay is peppered with over 1,600 inlets and
tiny islands emerging almost mystically out of the pea green waters
of the Gulf of Tonkin, scoured by wind and wave erosion to form
dramatic rock shapes, many of which contain caves filled with
stalagmites and stalactites.
Many of the islands have been named for their astonishing resemblance to their namesakes, such as Dragon, Incense Burner, Pair of Roosters and Man's Head Islands. The weird protuberances have been at the source of several local legends, particularly about a dragon whose thrashing tail created the bay and its islands. The name Vinh Ha Long means 'where the dragon descended into the sea'.
The most impressive cave is the Hang Dau Go (Grotto of the Wooden Stakes), an extensive grotto with rock formations presenting various eerie images in the mysterious light. It was named from the Battle of 1288 when General Tran Hung Dao prepared hundreds of stakes to be planted in the riverbed of the largest chamber to counter a boat attack. Nearby the beautiful Hang Thien Cung cave is famous for its sparkling stalagmites and stalactites.
Transport: Local bus or tour from Hanoi. Boats can be arranged from Hanoi or in Halong City. Overnight tours are the easiest way to see the bay and are arranged from travellers cafes in Hanoi; otherwise it’s a four-hour bus journey from Hanoi.
Sa Pa and Bac Ha
The old hill station of Sa Pa sits high on the edge of a plateau
surrounded by spectacular scenery and the Hoang Lien Mountains,
which boast Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan. Sa Pa functions as
a market town and a gathering spot for local tribes who come into
town to trade every weekend.
The market is excellent for buying handicrafts and for watching the passing parade of a fascinating blend of people. Colourful tunics of the Dao and Giay people mix with the black and blue clothing and silver ornamentation of the Black Hmong tribe, while bright red scarves cover the heads of the Red Hmong who carry large woven baskets on their backs brimming with goods.
Nearly 75 miles (140 km) from Sa Pa in a valley is the small town of Bac Ha, famous for its Sunday market. Much less touristy than Sa Pa, the market is a riot of colour and noise, a place not only for trade but also for socialising. All paths leading into town are filled with people going to market, some riding horses or water buffalo, and the square is a mix of different minorities, buying and selling, or gathered in groups around a central pot of food. The Flower Hmong are the most vivid, with richly coloured clothes of bright red, blue and pink, and skirts embroidered with delicate flowers.
The markets have become a major tourist attraction and it is important that visitors to the region are sensitive to local culture and traditions, particularly when taking photographs of people.
Address: Lao Cai sits between Sa Pa and Bac Ha.
Transport: A three to four day tour is good enough to get the feel of the Sa Pa-Bac Ha region, easily arranged at any travellers’ cafe in Hanoi. Otherwise a train runs from Hanoi to Lao Cai (approx. 10 hrs) from where bus transfers are available.
Cat Ba island
For most, a trip in Halong Bay means at least a night on Cat Ba
Island. Many enlist for a package tour of one night on the island
and one on a boat, but Cat Ba is worth investing extra time in.
This 54 sq mile (140 sq km) island houses equally impressive beach
relaxation and hardcore outdoor activities including kayaking,
trekking and world-class rock climbing.
For those wishing to relax there are three beaches within walking distance of town. Each is spacious and all are protected inlets with views of Halong islands. Beaches one and three are the most secluded and both offer beautiful views from the short walks along surrounding cliff lines. For those looking for something more rugged, the many limestone cliffs dotting the island make dream rock climbing and hotels located on the town's main strip offer guides and gear. Various treks range in length but most are fairly steep. However, the reward is well worth it, as they give a bird's-eye-view of the island's national park which is also home to the rare Cat Ba Langur.
All hotels can arrange excellent boat tours of the surrounding islands. This includes visits to deep caves with stalagmites and stalactites, secluded swimming holes, floating fish farms and kayaking. The tour is the same no-matter whom it's booked through so the cheaper the better. Whether it has been a lazy one under the sun or a thrilling day of adventure, it must end at the bay's floating restaurant, which has some of the best seafood in Vietnam.
Hanoi is a very child friendly city for locals and visitors alike. Children's Park at the top end of Lenin Park is cleverly segmented into different attractions based on age groups. There are rides, boats, swings and plenty of space to run around in. It's also a popular hangout for expat families.
Another must see is the Museum of Ethnology with a huge and colourful selection of arts and crafts, plus lifestyle reproductions of different traditional homes used by ethnic minorities. In the evenings head to Hoan Kiem Lake to see the traditional Vietnamese art form of water puppetry. The vignettes are performed quickly and with great energy and musical fanfare so kids don't have time to get bored.
When things get desperate, or if the rain keeps falling, go to Vincom Tower, the most modern and action-packed of the city's modern shopping malls. You'll find cinemas, including family movies on Sunday mornings, arcade game parlours and kids rides.
The other truly kid friendly destination in Hanoi is the Old Quarter, with its ancient traditions, evocative old buildings and rich sensory experience. This is a slice of Hanoi as it was when founded a millennia ago.
Finally, on hot day in Hanoi - and that's most days - take a taxi out to Ho Tay Lake Water Park with 12 slides and other aquatic attractions. Don't expect the water to be crystal clear, although staff assure visitors it is hygienic.
Vietnamese cuisine is defined by its fresh ingredients, use of herbs and fast cooking times. It is unlike any other Asian cuisine, and sampling its many variations is one of the true pleasures of visiting Hanoi. The ubiquitous pho noodle soup served with slices of beef (bo) or chicken (ga), fresh bean sprouts, and various spices is available everywhere around the city.
Although there are many fine dining eateries, a more democratic and authentic way to dine is to dine at the many street restaurants, sitting on tiny plastic stools. Here you can sample classic dishes like banh cuon, steamed rice pancakes filled with finely chopped pork; nem ran, fried spring rolls, and bun cha, flame cooked pork often served in a noodle s
oup. A well know street food joint is Cha Ca La Vong on Cha Ca Street. Here you can find the iconic North Vietnamese dish cha ca, which is fried fish and dill patties with noodles.
Lots of these restaurants only serve one dish, which means they've generally perfected it. So put aside your expectations of good service, pleasing décor and a varied menu, and try a different spot every day. Afterwards visit a café for some ca fe (coffee) and a pastry, or a bia hoi (draft beer) tavern for some low alcohol lager.
Hanoi offers a less frenetic and commercialised shopping experience than Ho Chi Minh City in the south of the country. Traditional arts and crafts are more popular here than mass produced goods, and night markets are a vibrant social occasion not to be missed.
The old town is where most of the art galleries are situated. A lot of up and coming artists exhibit here and if you can spot quality and bargain skilfully you can pick a truly unique and worthwhile memento of your Hanoi visit.
Also popular souvenirs are paraphernalia from the communist and war eras, including Chairman Mao branded goods, medals, bullets, and Zippo lighters - the latter invariably of modern provenance and not found in a former battle zone as claimed by the salesman.
Other souvenirs include silk garments, wooden carvings, shoes from silk or bamboo, ethnic weaving, rice paper notebooks and paintings, and the distinctive conical hats which have been worn for centuries and are still much in evidence today. Look out for hats made in Hue which each have a unique poem inside the rim.
Avoid buying gemstones unless you have the skills to tell the difference between jewels and polished glass.
Noi Bai International Airport
Location: The airport is situated 28 miles (45km) north of Hanoi.
Time: GMT +7
Contacts: Tel: +84 (0)4 827 1513, (0)4 826 8522, or (0)4 886 5060.
Transfer between terminals: Passengers can use a shuttle bus, which is free of charge for transit passengers, to commute between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. The shuttle operates from 6am to midnight and departs every 10 to to 15 minutes.
Getting to the city: City bus Routes 7 and 17 run to Hanoi from the airport, stopping on the right side of the terminal exit. Buses run every 15 to 20 minutes between 5am and 10pm, and the journey takes approximately one hour. Route 7 goes to the Kim Ma Bus Station, while Route 17 connects to the Long Bien Station. Airport minibuses offer direct transportation to hotels.
Car rental: Car rental agencies at the airport include Avis, Budget, Hertz, Europcar and Sixt. Cars must normally be hired with drivers, since travellers without a Vietnamese drivers licence may not drive rental cars.
Airport Taxis: Taxis are available outside the terminal; rides to the city centre take approximately 30 minutes, and drivers charge fixed rates.
Facilities: The airport has currency exchange and ATMs, a VIP lounge, massage services, shops and restaurants.
Parking: Short and long-term parking is available at the airport.
Public transport is limited to buses, which are extremely cheap, but slow, crowded and a challenge for non-Vietnamese speakers. There are plenty of taxis to be hired and this is the safest and easiest way to get across the city, but make sure the meter is switched on and change is given. Motorbike taxis are also a cheap and easy way to get around, but the driving can be nerve-wracking. Renting a car or a motorbike are also popular options; all cars come with a driver/guide, which is a good idea considering the chaotic nature of the streets. Visitors should be cautious about renting a self-drive motorbike, bearing in mind the primary cause of injury and death among foreigners in Vietnam is motorcycle accidents. Two-seater cyclos (cycle rickshaws) are plentiful and can be flagged down anywhere, but should be avoided at night. Fares should be negotiated beforehand and a map is useful, as many drivers don't speak English.
Hanoi has a humid tropical climate, characterised by monsoons, like most of northern Vietnam. Summers (between May and September) are very hot with plenty of rain and average temperatures between 76°F (24°C) and 91°F (33°C); while winters (from November to March) are cold and relatively dry, averaging between 57°F (14°C) and 72°F (22°C). During the transitional months of April and October anything is possible, and spring often brings light rain. The hottest month of the year is June. January is the coolest month, usually beset with a cold northeasterly wind.
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