Hanoi, Viêt Nam Guide de voyage
Sommaire de Hanoi
- The frenetic heart of northern Vietnam
- Home to many of Vietnam's most important memorials and historic sites
- Compact Old Quarter is readymade for tourists wanting to wander
- Buzzing weekend night markets and pedestrian zones around Hoan Kiem Lake
- Incredible street-food scene that goes from dawn to dusk (and beyond)
- Home to fascinating museums, like the Museum of Ethnology
- Mix of colonial style and traditionally Vietnamese architecture
- Cool hole-in-the-wall cafes and shops tucked in improbable places
- Popular jumping-off point for Ha Long Bay and other natural wonders
- Everything from food to hotels and cab fare cost shockingly little
- Most Old Quarter businesses operate in multiple languages
- Aside from aggressive traffic, streets are mostly safe day and night
- For the unindoctrinated, the traffic here will seem insane
- Not much in the way of nightlife compared to Saigon and Bangkok
- Old Quarter can feel incredibly touristy in parts
- Public transit is essentially non-existent
What It's Like:
Hanoi is literally the stuff of legend. From its origin stories of emperors and sacred lakes to it deep roots in Buddhism and more recent roles in Vietnam's independence struggle, this city commands an outsized role in the imagination of travelers from the West. There's plenty of good reason for that reputation, as there really isn't a city quite like Hanoi anywhere else in the world.
If you're in town as a tourist, you'll likely spend most of your time around Hoan Kiem Lake. This tranquil body of water is ringed by tree-lined walking paths that are picture-perfect and made for long strolls. You'll see an even mix of locals and tourists all around the periphery of the lake at almost all hours of the day and early evening. To the north and west of the lake is the epicenter of the Hanoi's tourist heart: the Old Quarter. It's easy enough to spend a couple days wandering this part of town thanks to its mix of cafes, restaurants, boutiques, markets, atmosphere, street food, graffiti, historic architecture, and vibrant people watching.
Starting at dawn, you'll spot families and workers posting up on plastic stools to sip steaming hot bowls of pho or tuck into omelets and other savory dishes as the neighborhood clamors to life. Old trees tower over many of the streets, as narrow alleyways make cuts through densely packed blocks. It's a fascinating mix of the hyper-touristy and hyper-local, as agencies selling tours and shops of identical trinkets are lined up next to a day's washing hung out on the line to dry. Hole-in-the-wall discoveries are part of the fun in the Old Quarter, like Cafe Pho Co, which is famous for its sweets and egg coffee, and is accessed through a silk shop, past a family's garage, and up a flight of stairs into a residential building. It's also worth stopping for pictures along the scenic streets around St. Joseph's Cathedral and at the improbable Train Street, where huge freight trains pass within centimeters of the houses and shops lining the tracks.
In the evening, particularly on the weekends, the streets near the lake in the Old Quarter are filled with throngs of people taking part in group dancing, sipping cheap beer at seemingly impromptu open-air cafes, and perusing the markets all around. However, you'd be remiss to limit your days in Hanoi to just walking around the Old Quarter. Head east from the south end of the lake and you'll cross paths with high-end Hanoi, where luxury retailers line the way to the five-star hotels near the stunning Hanoi Opera House. North of there and in the vicinity of the State Bank of Vietnam building, you just might find the less touristy open-air weekend markets that are packed with trendy young Vietnamese locals scouring racks for streetwear and queuing up at the foodie stalls.
To the south and west of the Old Quarter are the lion's share of the city's major historic sights. Start your day early if you plan to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the leader of Vietnam's independence struggle and resistance to the American invasion lies under the watchful eye of soldiers day in and day out. There are strict rules regarding dress code, baggage, cell phone use, and noise, and keep in mind that that the site closes by late morning. Nearby, you'll find the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. South of there is the fascinating Temple of Literature, where -- if you're lucky -- you'll visit when local schools are hosting graduation photoshoots, bringing the site's historic center as a place of learning into the present day. On your way back to the Old Quarter, be sure to allow plenty of time for the exhibits at Hoa Lo Prison (also known as the Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain was imprisoned). This museum and memorial is a dark reminder of the sacrifices made by Vietnamese independence fighters under French oppression, and also played a role in the Vietnam Way. It's a sobering experience, to say the least.
If you need Western-style comforts, Westlake is fast becoming the "it" expat enclave, with its fair share of high-end shops and dining options. It's also worth checking out the city's farther-flung museums, which offer amazing insights into the nation's history. We love the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which has in-depth exhibits on Vietnam's indigenous communities, and the Vietnamese Women's Museum. Whatever you're planning, always remember that getting around takes a bit of care and patience in Hanoi. Traffic here is mind-blowing, to say the least, and if you're navigating on foot, be prepared to dodge massive packs of mopeds coming from all directions.
Where to Stay:
For the most part, there's little reason to stay far from Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. You're able to find literally the entire swath of accommodation options within this area, from ultra-luxurious oases to no-frills hostels. In the Old Quarter, small, family-run hotels are the name of the game, and these generally fall within the budget and mid-range category. The Hanoi Tirant Hotel stands out for its rooftop pool, cheap rates, and generally better amenities than the majority of the other hotels in the area. The Oriental Suites Hotel is another sharp Old Quarter option. While the streets here are wild and noisy for most of the morning and daytime hours, it all tends to drastically calm down during sleeping hours.
If you're seeking a slice of the high life while you're in Hanoi, the area around the Hanoi Opera House -- the French Quarter -- is your best bet. Here, you'll find historic properties like the Sofitel Legend Metropole, built in 1901, as well as the Hotel de l'Opera Hanoi. If you're in town on business and want to post up with the other expats, Westlake is arguably your best bet, and the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake makes for a modern, amenity-packed choice. Keep in mind that if you're staying in Westlake, you'll be relying on taxis to get to and from the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. Don't fret though -- while traffic is awful, your fare will be cheap.