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While the city is developing a bit of a sprawl, Hanoi's centre can be split into three main areas, all of which are within walking distance of one another.
The Old Quarter remains the most popular, interesting and inexpensive part of Hanoi to stay in. Wedged to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake, the area is characterised by a twisting mess of narrow roads and alleys, lots of attractive old buildings, interesting street scenes and plenty of noise.
The Old Quarter (or Pho Co, literally, old streets) is home to streets named after the goods that were traditionally sold on them. The names usually start with 'hang', which means 'something you sell, and then the thing itself. Some of these names may date back as far as 800 years, when trade guilds formed to market the goods they produced in outlying craft villages. Back then, the street were just lines of makeshift stalls. They were taxed by width of frontage, which explains all those skinny buildings. When they eventually built on the land, they went deep and high, keeping the shop up front. Each guild also poured some profits into the building of temples at which to pray for prosperity, and sometimes you can still find several along one street. The most famous and best to visit is Bach Ma Temple along Hang Buom.
Many of the streets have changed with the times, especially the southern part of the Old Quarter, which has been given over to tourism and its allied businesses. But a surprising number of streets still sell what they were named for centuries ago, and yet more have found new specialties that make them worth seeking out.
While the names of Hanoi's classic streets are colourful, unfortunately, they sometimes change every few blocks -- Bat Dan, Hang Bo, Hang Bac, and Hang Mam are all the same exact street. This makes it tricky to get around, since you can be headed straight to your hotel and not even know it.
To the south of the lake is the French Quarter, home to Central Hanoi's poshest hotels: the Sofitel Metropole and the Hilton Hanoi Opera, as well as the Opera House itself. Here you'll also find Hanoi's ritziest restaurants -- the Club Opera and the Press Club, as the well as the Museum of History and the Museum of the Revolution. It's a good place for a visit even if you're not staying here -- it's much better laid-out, with broad, tree-lined boulevards and, compared to the rest of Hanoi, moderate street traffic. Come evening, the streets are relatively deserted.
The western part of the city is home to the West Lake, the Citadel, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex and a bunch of museums. Those visiting the attractions will often find themselves in this part of town, though there are not many hotels. When visiting West Lake, be sure to look out for the lotus-flower farms rimming the lake -- an excellent photo op.
A word about the traffic. It's not uncommon to see foreigners standing on the curb, frozen in fear, waiting for a break in the onslaught of bikes, cyclos, trucks, vendor carts, and motorbikes (with two tons of bagged cement balancing, unfastened, on the back) ... but the break never comes. The terrifying solution is that you must simply step right into the street. Be sure to look carefully for vehicles moving in the wrong direction first, and give approaching vehicles room to manoeuvre around you without smashing into something -- or someone. What you'll find is that the traffic simply flows around you as you proceed slowly and steadily forward. Stop, while crossing, if you must, but stand firm and do not back up! That's the surest way to flummox the flow. Stand there like a pylon until the way forward is clear. And, again, keep an eye out for traffic going the wrong way.
Where should I stay in Hanoi?
By far the bulk of tourists and travellers opt for lodgings in the Old Quarter, which has the best selection of accommodation from budget guesthouses through to comfortable mid-range hotels. The French Quarter and the area just to the south of Hoan Kiem Lake has the bulk of plush hotels.
Picking a hotel in Hanoi can be daunting. Good hotels go bad, and bad hotels become good at a rate that even the most diligent travel researcher is hard-pressed to keep up with. Many travellers prefer to book ahead in Hanoi, and we can't blame them -- cheap digs fill up quickly during peak times and the last thing you want to do, especially after getting off an international flight, is hump from place to place. But committing to one hotel, sight unseen, is risky. Book one or two days, so if you don't like what you get, you can easily switch venues. And if you're happy where you are, rarely do hotels refuse when guests wish to extend their stay. Be sure to read our story on picking a good guesthouse in Hanoi.
Sights and attractions
Hanoi has some fine spots to visit, but really, the attraction of Hanoi is the very town itself. Travellers who arrive in Vietnam via Hanoi are usually too busy taking it all in to worry about touring the sights. And those who wind up their trip here are usually toured out and just want to relax. Both groups end up wandering around the Old Quarter, eating and drinking, and revelling in the beauty and madness of the city. A third group pre-books a sightseeing tour, takes in all the culture, but maybe misses out on the city itself. If you really want to do both, you should dedicate at least a week to Hanoi alone. But if you have to choose, we see no downside to blowing off the tourist attractions and just immersing yourself in one of the great cities of Southeast Asia.
Numerous maps of Hanoi are available at magazine kiosks and bookstores throughout the city, as well as from roving booksellers. Most maps are 10,000 VND, with some better ones going for 20,000 VND.
The "Vietnam Tourist Map" by the Nhat Xuat Ban Ban Do company features a map of the whole country on one side with a bare sketch of the road network. On the reverse, the map of Hanoi is good for one-way streets, but the Old Quarter is small and hard to read, and there's no street index. There's also a map of Saigon.
The same company also publishes "Du Lich Hanoi Tourist Map" with Northern Vietnam on one side (and better coverage of roads) and a blow up of their Hanoi map on the other side, with one-way streets indicated, and a pretty good street index.
They also publish a "Hanoi Tourist Map," worth seeking out for its detailed information on bus routes and bus stations. Each street in Greater Hanoi is marked with the numbers of the buses that ply them, and on the reverse is a table breaking down all the routes -- the map is indispensable if you plan to seriously use the city bus network.
In general, for the Old Quarter, you may do just as well picking up a free map from your hotel -- many of them are good enough. But the king of Old Quarter maps is the "Hanoi Old Town Tourist Map." It's big and colourful, with a drawing of every building in Hanoi, but it still leaves out a lot of the smaller streets and laneways.
The freebie "Central Hanoi Map" provided by the Tourist Information Centre and available at most hotels and travel agencies will do at a pinch, but it's packed with ads, lacks detail, the street index is small and one-way streets are not indicated.
Some of the more popular maps of Hanoi which can be purchased online include (affiliate links):
Insight Flexi Map Hanoi
Hanoi Map by ITMB
Hanoi is an ideal place to stock up on reading material and maps for the rest of your trip. The wandering book sellers are sure to approach you with their stacks, all of which can be bought a bit more cheaply at a proper book store, but you can usually bargain the price down to a reasonable mark-up. If you want to check out a merchant with walls, try:
Book Exchange 35 Hang Giay, Hanoi. T: (04) 928 3186. Hours: 09:00 to 22:30
Bookworm 15a Ngo Van So, Hanoi. T: (04) 943 7226. Hours: 10:00 to 19:00, closed Mondays
Chill Out Penguin 33 Hang Hanh, Hanoi. T: (04) 928 9192. Hours: 09:00 to 22:30
Trang Tien Bookstore 44 Trang Tien, Hanoi. T: (04) 826 2934, F: (04) 934 1591. Hours: 08:00 to 21:00
Loved or loathed, just about every traveller and backpacker you meet will have one of these. Here are some of the best-known publications (affiliate links):
Lonely Planet Reviewed by Travelfish here.
Let's Go Vietnam
Fodor's See It Vietnam
A good online resource for information about Hanoi can be found on the expatriate-run website www.newhanoians.com. They have especially good coverage of upcoming events you might not hear about otherwise.
The international code for Vietnam is 84, and the city code for Hanoi is 04. Many cell phone numbers start with 09 and in some cases, 01 and can be as long as four digits. When calling from oversees, drop the zero before the city code and cell phone numbers. Dial-out codes differ from country to country -- consult http://www.countrycallingcodes.com/ for more info. If you plan to make calls from your room, look for hotels that offer IDD (International Direct Dialling). But this is very expensive -- better to drag yourself to a cyber-cafe that offers internet phone services
Internet is so cheap and widely available that many hotels give it away for free to guests. Cyber cafes are rarely more than 5,000 VND per hour. WiFi access has become a standard extra at many hotels. Even if your hotel doesn't offer it, chances are you can log on to the network of the place next door. If you've got a WiFi-capable PDA you can just stroll down the street finding connections. In addition, many reasonably priced hotels now have Local Area Networks in at least some rooms, and more than a few places supply desktop computers in their deluxe rooms.
If you're looking to keep up-to-date on the latest grain prices and other economic gems, Vietnam News is for you. Otherwise keep an eye out for imported dailies, like the International Herald Tribune.
Hanoi has adequate hospitals, though for serious injuries, evacuation to Bangkok is a good idea -- make sure you have travel insurance. Hospitals in Hanoi include:
Bach Mai Hospital Giai Phong, Hanoi. T: (04) 869 3731
International SOS 31 Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi. T: (04) 934 0666, F: (04) 934 0556. 24-hour Emergency: (04) 934 0555
Hanoi Family Medical Practice Suite 109, A1 Van Phuc Compound, 298 Kim Ma, Hanoi. Emergency T: (04) 843 0748, F: (04) 846 1750, 24-hour Emergency: (04) 843 0748, (090) 340 1919. http://www.vietnammedicalpractice.com/
Vietnam French Friendship Hospital 1B Phuong Mai, Hanoi. Tel: (04) 577 1100, F: (04) 576 4443.. http://www.hfh.com.vn/
Medications and contraband
If you need to carry a large supply of medications into Vietnam through Hanoi, make sure they are well marked and, if possible, unopened. The authorities are very wary of drug trafficking and may, in some circumstances, suspect the worst. That said, once you're in Vietnam, many of the prescription drugs you buy back home are available over the counter at greatly reduced prices. Also, be warned that literature or visual media that might be deemed offensive (morally or politically) might be confiscated, at a minimum.
When it comes to violent crime, Hanoi, in general, is remarkably safe, particularly for foreigners. This is partly because crimes against foreigners are treated more severely by the government, which wants to encourage tourism. Petty crime is also infrequent, but foreigners are sometimes the target. We've heard of cat burglaries, bag-snatching, and pockets being picked. Women out clubbing should leave their purse with the bar staff rather than at their table, and if you're heading out for a big evening, leave the credit cards, camera and iPod behind. Other than that, the overwheliming way foreigners are robbed is by being overcharged. If that starts getting under your skin, read some of the crime reports from Thailand or Cambodia.
One great thing about the cops in Vietnam is that they don't hassle tourists -- ever. There's a new policy by the government stating that if a police officer tries to extort a foreigner for money (the way they do in Laos all the time), once you report it, they will be fired immediately. This has created a relaxed climate for expats and travellers that is second-to-none in Southeast Asia. Two notable exceptions, though: helmets are mandatory for drivers AND passengers everywhere in Hanoi, and radar speed traps are increasingly common on the main arteries, with fines of up to half a million dong.
The police can however be a little slow off the block when it comes to petty crime. This can be frustrating, but it won't help to scream and stomp your feet and threaten to call your embassy. Be patient and polite at all times. All they are really going to do is fill out a report which you'll need to claim the loss on your insurance. This situation changes dramatically however if the crime is serious, especially if you have concrete information about the perpetrator. Then, they snap into action.
The emergency telephone number for the police is 113.
Common needs in Hanoi
ATMs are everywhere, especially in the Old Quarter. Almost all of them take foreign cards, but look for Incom, Sacom, BIDV, ANZ and Vietcom in particular. They all, of course, have numerous bank branches with a wide range of services and many are open on Saturday. We've always had good luck at Vietcom Bank.
Not every bank is good for foreign exchange -- you may end up paying GBP2 to change a GBP20 note. Gold shops can be dodgy, but as long as you know your exchange rate, you can make out well. First, check out the current rate on xe.com., then look for a shop that has a rate board along Hang Bac or Hang Gai.
Hanoi GPO 75 Dinh Tien Hoang, Hanoi. T: (04) 825 5948, Hours: 06:30 to 21:30 daily. Long distance phone services available.
On the southeast edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of Ngoc Son Pagoda and across the street -- you can't miss it. Basic postal services are also available everywhere you see the words "Buu Dien" and many hotels will handle postal services for you.
We wish we could give you an authoritative guide to the shifting sands of Hanoi travel agencies, but such is beyond the capabilities of any mere mortal. So many factors come into play. How much are you willing to pay? What will you put up with to pay less? How many others are signed up for a given day? New agencies pop up all the time, old agencies close down. Good agencies sometimes cut corners, crappy agencies sometimes give you the time of your life. We'll give you the best advice we can, and let us know your experience, but please -- don't kill the messenger.
If you're headed to Ha Long, check out our Ha Long Bay section for a series of stories on picking the right tour. Otherwise, the key destinations are sties near Ninh Binh and Sapa, though city tours, trips to the Perfume Pagoda, and tours of nearby craft villages are also available.
Our general advice is, shop around for the best price, but be warned: the best price is not always the best trip for you. Nail down specifics: mode of transport, class of accommodation, number of people on the tour, available activities. As a rule of thumb, any ticket seller who wavers on answering or is obviously making things up as they go, is a red flag. But here's the kicker: the tour they are lying about may actually be fine, they just don't know one way or the other! You see our dilemma.
Culi Cafe would, without hesitation, be our top pick for straight-shooting travel advice. It's run by a group of Aussies and Vietnamese and while their tours aren't always the cheapest, if you're looking for something else, they'll happily direct you to it. They've also started up a some very promising cycling treks that we are eager to try out. And the Cafe has good pizza to munch on while you're contemplating your decision. Make this your first stop.
Culi Cafe 10 Luong Ngoc Quyen, Hanoi. T: (04) 926 2241, (0905) 056 556, (0903) 486 488. www.wideeyedtours.com.
The following places seem to have good reputations. Let us know if they give you a bum steer.
Apple Hotel 53B Luong Ngoc Quyen, Hanoi. T: (04) 928 1403, 242 0511.
Discovery Travel 16-18 Hang Buom, Hanoi. T: (04) 926 3316, 3318, F: (04) 926 3136, 3566.
Discover Halong Bay 61 Hang Bo, Hanoi. T: (04) 747 8006, 213 181, 6688, F: (04) 747 4575. www.southpacifictravel.com.vn
Ethnic Travel Viet Nam 35 Hang Giay, Hanoi. T: (04) 926 1951, F: (04) 925 1950. www.ethnictravel.com.vn
Exotissimo Travel Vietnam 26 Tran Nhat Duat, Hanoi. T: (04) 828 2150, ext. 273, F: (04) 828 2146. www.exotimssimo.com
Explorer Tours 85 Hang Bo, Hanoi. T: (04) 923 0713, 923 1430, F: (04) 923 0815. http://www.explorer.com.vn
Handspan Adventure Travel 78 Ma May, Hanoi. T: (04) 926 2828, F: (04) 926 2792. /www.handspan.com
Sinh Cafe 100 Ma May, Hanoi. T: (04) 926 0687, (04) 914 6100.
Here are some tours to Vietnam offered by international adventure tour companies that include Hanoi in a part of a larger tour.
Finally, you may find a Tourist Information Centre smack on the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake (on 7 Dinh Tien Hoang south of Cau Go). They tout tours by AsianaTravelMate, and unless they are giving you ingots of gold as a parting gift, much better deals are available elsewhere, even for a luxury tour. They also go by the name of Truly Halong Centre on 21 Luong NgocQuyen. Proceed with caution.
You'll find that booking an internal or even regional flight while you're in Vietnam will be much cheaper than doing it back home, through a travel agent or online through a provider like Kayak.com. Availability is good except during Christmas and the Tet holidays.
We found a good booking office in the Old Quarter with English-speaking staff and generous operating hours.
Domestic and International Booking Office 104 Cau Go, Hanoi. T: (04) 934 3144, 825 9811, F: (04) 926 1200.
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