Hanoi: Fast forward

Fast forward, Hanoi | Photo credit: Greg Hayter

After 1000 years as the capital of Vietnam, with the odd interruption along the way, including World War II and the Vietnam War, Hanoi has more than its fair share of history. It also has more cultural sites than you can point your camera at and more than anywhere else in the country.

But as Vietnam continues on its fast-forward course of growth and development, this elegant city on the banks of the mighty Red River has seen many improvements and developments. Now Hanoi, once isolated from the rest of the world, looks set to surpass many more popular Asian cities as a must-visit destination.

Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea to the east. With a population of some 86 million, Vietnam is the 13th most populous country in the world.

Vietnam was under Chinese control for a thousand years before becoming a nation-state in the 10th century. Successive dynasties flourished along with geographic and political expansion deeper into Southeast Asia, until it was colonized by the French in the mid-19th century. Efforts to resist the French eventually led to their expulsion from the country in the mid-20th century, leaving a nation divided into two countries. Bitter fighting between the two sides continued during the Vietnam War, ending with a communist victory in 1975.

In 1986, Vietnam instituted economic and political reforms and began a path towards international reintegration. By 2000, the government had established diplomatic relations with most nations, and Its economic growth had been among the highest in the world in the past decade. Vietnam offers visitors an opportunity to see a country of traditional charm and rare beauty rapidly opening up to the outside world.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and the second largest city in the country, is a fascinating blend of East and West, with a mix of Chinese and French influences enriching the vibrant Vietnamese culture.

The name in Vietnamese is actually written as Ha Noi, as the Vietnamese language treats each syllable separately. The name Hanoi means “inside the river”.  It refers to Hanoi’s position along the banks of the Song Hong, or Red River, that has changed its course over the centuries, dotting Hanoi with numerous lakes.

A visit to Hanoi is to steep yourself in history, tradition and legend in a capital that has been inhabited continuously for almost a millennium. Visitors often note that the city is quieter, greener, and “cooler” than other big cities of Vietnam.

Today, Hanoi has become one of the most beguiling cities in Southeast Asia, and quite simply, you should be prepared to be a bit overwhelmed and fascinated with it’s beauty.

Did You Know?

  • Vietnam’s number of visitors for tourism and vacation has increased steadily over the past ten years. About 3.56 million international guests visited Vietnam in 2006.
  • For much of Vietnamese history, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism have strongly influenced the religious and cultural life of the people.
  • The city has more than 600 pagodas and temples.
  • Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Vietnam.
  • The real Adrian Cronauer (Played by Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam) is now a lawyer specializing in copyright and trademark law.
  • Good Morning Vietnam was filmed in Bangkok, Thailand.
  • Hanoi will celebrate its 1000th anniversary in 2010.
  • The daily English newspaper in Hanoi is the Vietnam News

How to Get Here  

Noi Bai International Airport (HAN), in Soc Son District, is the principal airport serving the city of Hanoi. It is located about 35 km north of Hanoi.

Metered taxis are available outside arrivals for transport to the city centre. Use an official taxi, it should be indicated on the driver’s name badge and check that the meter is on. A taxi to city center takes about 30 minutes. There is also the Airport Minibus but only leaves after it is completely filled.

Vietnamese Dong

The dong is the currency of Vietnam. ATMs frequently offer 2 million dong withdrawals. This takes some getting used to. You will learn to count zeros backward from right to left to determine if you are holding a 1,000 or 10,000 dong note in your hand. U.S. dollars are accepted in most locations, but you’ll have a better time negotiating a good price if you stick to the dong.

The easiest way to obtain local currency is through ATMs, which are found throughout the country in towns and cities. ATMs only dispense dong, never U.S. dollars. Banks and better hotels also offer exchange services, but the rates won’t be as favorable.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

All major credit cards can be used in more upscale locations but are rarely accepted in smaller shops and restaurants. Credit card transactions may incur a surcharge on the purchase price. As ATMs become more widespread, traveler’s cheques are becoming less negotiable and may be subject to a surcharge where they are accepted.

Do spend down all your dong before leaving Vietnam, because dong cannot be converted back into American or Canadian currency, nor is it possible to exchange dong for the currency of any neighboring countries.

Do not change money on the street.


If you plan to visit the entire country, the best months are October through December, when temperatures are relatively mild and nights are cool (Highs around 31 C, lows around 22 C). Temperatures are lower in the northern part of the country, so pack accordingly.

January through March is foggy and drizzly in the north, but sunny and pleasant in the south.

May to September is the hot, humid monsoon season in the south, when temperatures reach 33 C and fall to about 24 C. Be warned that monsoons can turn roads to mud, so keep your travel plans flexible if visiting at that time of year.

The mountains can be quite cold in winter, with occasional snowfall at higher elevations.

Getting Around

The best way to get around town | Photo credit: Nam-ho Park

One of the best ways for visitors to navigate the city is by foot. Many of the places of interest to visitors are located in the Old Quarter, and walking the narrow streets is an enjoyable experience.

A favorite choice with tourists is to take a ride in a cyclo. These three-wheelers – imagine a bicycle with one wheel at the back and two at the front with a seat (yours) in between – are everywhere and pedaled by men of any age. Many are transient workers with no home who actually sleep in their cyclo. The three-wheelers are a great way to see everything – if a little terrifying when you’re in the front seat and faced with several rows of traffic heading straight at you – as the drivers know every inch of the city. Many of the cyclo drivers speak some English and may provide a run-down of the most famous sights and attractions. There is a tendency to overcharge tourists, or add a few extra dong on to the final fare, so confirm the price before you board, and remain firm at the end of your trip. You can hire cyclos for short journeys or by the hour.

Motorbike taxis are another exhilarating way to see the city. You hop on as a pillion passenger and your driver zooms off into the throng of traffic with you clinging on for dear life. Fares are similar to cyclos, but motor taxis are a lot quicker. You can usually find them hanging around street corners shouting, “Moto? Moto?” as they wait for a fare. Make sure the driver has a spare helmet(s) or you could get fined by the police.

Taxis are a familiar sight on the streets of Hanoi – flag one in the street or get your hotel to order a taxi. Several companies service the city. Some taxis have metres, but be aware they are sometimes rigged to charge you more, so it’s a good idea to confirm a fixed price before you get in. Taxis are probably the best way to travel if the waves of traffic may make you nervous.

There is a public bus service in Hanoi, but it is becoming more and more crowded due to recent hikes in fuel prices. The increases have forced many locals to park their motorcycles and use public transport instead. As a result, vehicles are often crammed with twice as many people as they’re supposed to carry. If you do decide to use the bus, a Bus Map (available from bookstores for a small fee) will be a great help.

International driving licenses are not yet accepted in Vietnam, so hiring a car may not always be possible. Many people hire a car with a driver, which is inexpensive, especially if there are a few of you.

What Not to Miss?

World Heritage Sites

Temple of Literature | Photo credit: Nam-ho Park

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. Currently, there are five World Heritage Sites in Vietnam

One of the most-visited places of interest in Hanoi is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. This revered shrine is where the famous leader of the fight for reunification lies and you can file solemnly past his preserved body with hundreds of adoring Vietnamese visitors. The building is a suitably imposing edifice that stands majestically at the edge of Ba Dinh Square. Ho Chi Minh Museum Right around the corner, this gleaming white museum, completed in 1990, is intended to evoke a white lotus. Some photos and old letters are on display on the second floor, but the main exhibition space is on the third floor. Guards won’t allow photos of the giant bronze Ho Chi Minh statue at the top of the stairs, but tend not to care about photos of the rest of the exhibits.

Near the square you’ll also find the ornate Presidential Palace. This striking yellow building set in spacious gardens ablaze with color dates from the French colonial era. It was built to house the French governor-general of Indochina and was where Ho Chi Minh received guests of state, although he refused to live there. You can’t go inside, but you can wander around the beautiful gardens. Ho Chi Minh chose to live in a modest traditional Vietnamese house instead, which he built nearby. This wooden house on stilts sits in beautiful surroundings by a tiny carp pond and the contrast with the grand Presidential Palace is enormous. Many of the great leader’s personal belongings are on display in his former home.

Also nearby is the One Pillar Pagoda – so-called because it rests on one pillar that rises from the middle of a lotus pond. This architectural oddity is one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples and was first constructed in 1049. French forces destroyed much of it in the 1950s as they withdrew from Vietnam, but it was swiftly rebuilt.

Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts For visitors with an interest in the arts, this museum, housed in a beautiful colonial building, is a must-see. There’s a nice mix of Vietnamese traditional crafts such as lacquer ware and silk painting, as well as some impressive historic artifacts. One highlight is an 11th century statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kouan Yin, with a thousand arms and eyes.

Founded in 1070, the Temple of Literature housed Vietnam’s first university from 1076. Hidden from the hustle and bustle of city life by high stone walls, it is a serene spot enjoyed by both visitors and locals. This ancient seat of learning, which operated for 700 years, is now one of the finest historical sites in Hanoi and not to be missed. You can still see the names of some of its graduates from centuries ago carved in stone slabs.

The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem Lake, is a thriving, chaotic tangle of streets dating to the 13th century. Each street was originally home to merchants specializing in a particular trade, such as jewellery, silver, baskets, and silks, and the street names today reflect these industries, even if the same products are no longer offered there. The Old Quarter is still famous for its artisans and merchants. Look for the guild houses dotting the area, whose tranquil courtyards and temples offer a nice break from the busy streets. The Dong Xuan market, the city’s largest, can be found in the heart of the district and is open for business every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening, with a large variety of clothing, souvenirs and food for sale. The narrow alleyways create an intriguing rabbit warren to explore and you can spend hours browsing around or getting lost.

The French Quarter is a complete contrast to the Old Quarter. Here you’ll find grand boulevards and wide streets lined with impressive architectural gems from the French colonial period. One such building is the Opera House, which was the pride of the colonial powers. It fell into disrepair after Independence, but has since been restored and is now a shining example of architecture from the colonial era. Here you’ll also find the History Museum, which is a classical blend of Vietnamese and French design. Exhibits display the history of Vietnam up until Independence. The country’s more recent past is displayed at the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution. Also housed in a classic colonial building, exhibits here explain the fight for independence and continue up until after the Vietnam War – called the American War by the Vietnamese.

Hoa Lo Prison (“The Hanoi Hilton”): Built by the French at the turn of the 20th century, this is where the French imprisoned and executed many Vietnamese during the war for independence. Later, the prison was used to hold U.S. prisoners of war, including U.S Senator John McCain. The prison is now a museum highlighting the struggle of the Vietnamese people against imperialism.

Army Museum Vietnam’s military history extends back some two millennium, and this museum, in four buildings, features some interested pieces. On display outside are the ubiquitous MiG-21 jet fighter, T-54 tank and many bombs and articles captured during Indochina and Vietnam wars. Air Force Museum There’s a decent outdoor collection of Soviet-built MiG fighters, a huge Mi-6 helicopter, and other aircraft; unfortunately they’ve been exposed to the elements for some time and local kids climb over them.

Ho Guom at Hoan Kiem Lake | Photo credit: Nguyen Thành Lam

Hanoi has many scenic lakes and is sometimes called the “City of Lakes,” the most famous of which are Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake, Halais Lake, and Bay Mau Lake. At Hoan Kiem Lake you can join in on a martial arts session, do some tai chi exercises, or simply stroll. West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi, is the city’s Beverly Hills, with many trendy restaurants and clubs in the area. It’s also home to Vietnam’s oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc, which was built in the 6th century on an island in the middle of the lake. A boddhi tree seeded from the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment grows in the courtyard.

If, like most people, you fall in love with the taste and color of Vietnamese cuisine, sign up for a cooking course and learn from the experts how to make it yourself. Several schools offer classes and it’ll be a great way to impress the folks back home. Some include a thoroughly entertaining trip to a local market to buy supplies.

For the kids 

A water puppet show is a must if you’re in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi, as this is the region where the tradition has its roots. It dates back to the 10th century and it’s not just for kids. Shows – which feature very large wooden puppets – tell stories of daily life in rural Vietnam, and act out legends and festivals. The puppets ‘perform’ on water, accompanied by music and singing from the hidden musicians and puppeteers. The Thang Long water puppet troupe of Hanoi is the most famous in the world and performs abroad. The puppets perform at the Municipal Water Puppet Theater, but buy tickets in advance as they sell out early in the day.


Shopping in Hanoi is cheap, cheerful and an experience in itself.

If there’s something in particular you want to buy in Hanoi, ask at your hotel. Many streets or areas still specialize in selling one thing – whether it be shoes, hats, electrical goods or DVDs. Whatever you want, there will be a certain place where you can get the best choice and prices, and a local will know exactly where it is.

Head to the Old Quarter for a wide variety of goods and get ready to bargain. It’s the norm here and vendors will quote two or three times the price they expect you to pay. It’s all part of the fun and something of an art form – just make sure you smile lots and don’t get too serious. The streets here are lined with stalls and shops selling everything you can think of.

If you’re mad about markets, head to the Dong Xuan Night Market. Around 40 stalls showcase their wares at this street market, and whether you want artifacts, souvenirs or simply a tasty bite to eat, you’ll find it here.

If you’re after something a bit upmarket, head to the boutiques in the Trang Tien Trade Plaza. The Plaza is located in the French Quarter and is just off Trang Tien, which is a bustling shopping street. There are several bookshops and art galleries nearby.

Shopping in Vietnam is a fun and (always) interesting experience. It is true to say that you can find nearly anything in Vietnam. Shops vary from high class shopping malls to boutiques, galleries and street stalls.

It is not recommended that you buy imported, famous branded products such as clothing, perfume or electronics in Vietnam as taxes make these items more costly than in neighboring countries.

Vietnam is most famous for its handicrafts, war souvenirs, authentic clothing, art, antiques and gems.

Vietnam has very strict regulations about exporting real antiques. Most “antique” and art pieces sold to visitors are fake or copies of the original. Be careful and check your sources for certificates.

Clothing varies greatly from beaded handbags to traditional ao dai (the traditional costume) made to fit your size. Items made from silk are a popular buy, with prices varying depending on the material and tailor. Pre-made traditional dresses are sold in many places. However, it is recommended to have a dress made to fit, which takes more time and slightly more money.

Shoes, slippers and handbags made from traditional materials (silk and bamboo) are also popular.

The Vietnamese traditional conical hat can be found everywhere throughout the country, but hats made in Hue are most famous as they have a poem embroidered on the inside.

Vietnam is rich in gemstones. Sophisticated works are produced by both large jewelers and traditional craftsmen. The quality of the gemstones sold is sometimes doubtful, so it is recommended that you buy gems at well known establishments, and be wary of “if it sounds too cheap …”

Most war souvenirs sold today in Vietnam (for example, Zippo lighters engraved with platoon philosophy) are fake reproductions. Be careful while transporting these items as many airlines do not allow weapons, even fakes to be carried on board.

Popular handicrafts in Vietnam include lacquer ware, wood-block prints, and oil and watercolor paintings, blinds made from bamboo, reed mats, carpets, and leather work.

It is popular in Vietnam and thus convenient for visitors for a whole street or district to sell the same products. For example, Hanoi has entire streets selling only shoes, silk, or earrings. So, take your time browsing these places and compare the products and prices.

Many villages in Vietnam are famous for producing a distinct kind of handicraft and it is interesting to visit these villages and buy the items at source, and probably at a better price.

Hoi An is the best place for having clothes/shoes made while Hue cannot be missed if you want an Ao Dai.

Remember to bargain. A growing amount of galleries and shopping centers have prices labeled on the products and do not allow bargaining. This does not mean that these centers offer the best price and many times a lower price can be obtained for the same product elsewhere, through bargaining.

If the price is given to you by word of mouth, it is always necessary to bargain. Shop sellers, especially at tourist attractions, may raise the price from 2-5 times to what the product is actually worth. Early morning is especially not a good time to haggle, as you might be one of the first customers, and shopkeepers might become cranky if you set a bad start to their business day. There is no definite rule on how to bargain and what price a product may ultimately sell at, so smile and try.

Hanoi After Dark 

Skewers galore | Photo credit: Chelsea Hicks

There is nothing more striking in Hanoi than looking down Trang Tien Street and seeing the Hanoi Opera House standing strong. Built by the French in 1911, and renovated in the late 1990s, this is an extraordinary building. The facade is colonial French with pillars and balconies overlooking the city center. The 900-seat opera house plays host to visiting foreign performances as well as Vietnamese symphonies.

The capital provides visitors a vibrant nightlife which sprinkles hip hop, blues, jazz, rock metal and electronic music styles with a great variety of drinks and excellent food, and a dazzling ambiance. Entertainment, which is the primary attraction in any nightclub, is usually crowd pleasing. Starting from modest and simple to chic and lavish, Hanoi can probably satisfy your tastes.

Dining in Hanoi, and indeed in the country, can be described as one of two things; an adventure or simply, what you are accustomed to.

Food sits at the very epicenter of Vietnamese culture: in every significant holiday on the Vietnamese cultural calendar, all the important milestones in a Vietnamese person’s life, and indeed, most of the important day-to-day social events and interactions, food plays a central role. Special dishes are prepared and served with great care for every birth, marriage and death, and the anniversaries of ancestors’ deaths. And, when friends get together, they eat together. Preparing food and eating together remains the focus of family life.

The most famous example of Vietnamese cuisine is pho–pho ga (chicken noodle soup) or pho bo (beef noodle soup). In Hanoi you’ll find various other dishes which include chicken, beef, fish and seafood.

For the adventuresome, if you’re interested in trying a notorious Vietnamese specialty one evening, head to Pho Nghi Tam. It’s around 10 km north of the city and here you’ll find a strip of restaurants on stilts that specialize in canine cuisine. It’s really busy around the second half of the lunar month, but not so during the first half when eating dog meat is considered to be bad luck.

To try that other famous Vietnamese specialty – snake – head to Le Mat snake village. The eateries here put on a good show for visitors, but beware if you’re a bit squeamish as they often kill the snake in front of you.

Sports / Outdoor Adventure

Sport doesn’t play a huge role in the life of city residents – although soccer continues to grow in popularity and fans will often stay up through the night to catch games being played in different time zones. The end of the match often sees a parade of young supporters speeding through the streets on their motorcycles.

If you fancy a workout that’s a bit more demanding than stretching your legs around one of the city’s lakes, take a trip to Ba Vi National Park, 65 km west of Hanoi. Here you can take one of several hikes around Ba Vi Mountain, or tackle the 1229 steps that lead to the summit – and a temple to Ho Chi Minh. You’ll be rewarded with fantastic views over to Hanoi, as long as there’s no mist. Even if there is, it’s a moody, mystical experience.

Local Customs and Etiquette

Landing in Hanoi and wandering about like a lost tourist, you may be forgiven for thinking that everyone and everything wants a piece of you, or more accurately – your cash. From taxi drivers and market vendors to shop owners and street beggars, everyone seems to have their eyes on your dollars or dong. But scratch below the surface of this enterprising nation and you’ll find a polite, reserved and respectful people.

It’s vital to remember that Vietnam – and Asia in general – is all about ‘Face’. Face relates to prestige, and losing Face is a big no-no in Vietnamese culture. This affects visitors by causing locals to become unresponsive and unhelpful if you start to kick up a fuss about something. Smiling goes a long way, especially when language is a barrier, and your success in dealing with Vietnamese will hinge on the amount of respect you show. This is especially true when dealing with officials.

The teachings of Confucius influence the Vietnamese. Confucianism is a system of behaviors and ethics that stress the obligations of people towards one another based upon their relationship.
The basic tenets are based upon five different relationships: Ruler and subject; Husband and wife; Parents and children; Brothers and sisters and Friend and friend. Confucianism stresses duty, loyalty, honor, filial piety, respect for age and seniority and sincerity.

Another useful thing to know about Asian culture is the importance placed on heads and feet. Symbolically a person’s head is their highest point – so never touch or pat it, and always remove your hat when speaking to someone older than you. Similarly, feet are seen as lowly things. Never point the bottom of your feet at anyone as it’s considered rude, and never, ever point your feet towards a sacred Buddhist figure or shrine, whether in someone’s home or in a temple or pagoda.

If invited to a Vietnamese home bring fruit, sweets, flowers, fruit, or incense. Gifts should be wrapped in colorful paper. Do not give handkerchiefs, anything black, yellow flowers or chrysanthemums and always remove your shoes at the door.

Public displays of affection between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon, and women should dress quite conservatively – avoid short shorts and skirts, especially if you are visiting a place of religion. Covered shoulders are also the norm.

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