Like many an ‘Asian tiger’, Vietnam’s capital is a potent combination of seductive Old World traditions and modern go-getter bombast. Just look out for all those motorbikes, advises David Lloyd Buglar
Where? Northern Vietnam
Why? For the food, the buzz, the lakes and the aging colonial architecture
When? Mar/Apr for spring flowers, Oct/Nov for beautiful weather
Despite dizzying development, Hanoi is clinging on to its old Asia charm, especially in and around the Old Quarter, a den of non-stop trading complete with temples, roving fruit-sellers and scurrying chickens. Close your eyes and think of East Asia and you’ll likely picture something like this, albeit minus the motorbikes. And there are lots of them. Stepping off a plane and onto Hanoi’s streets with jetlag will give your senses a battering. A sea of vehicles leaves visitors lingering kerbside, bewildered at how to simply cross the road. Tip: go slowly and steadily and never make a sudden move.
Hanoi is a foodie’s dream and there’s way more to it than the famous pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). Every street offers another knockout dish, from banh cuon (rice noodle rolls) to my van than (pork noodle broth). This is also a city of caffeine addicts, with what must be more cafés per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
Etiquette abounds in Vietnamese society, but in your first 24 hours basic manners will see you right. While guidebooks will tell you to dress conservatively, in the sweltering summer months this code isn’t followed by the locals. However, respectful attire should be adopted in temples.
To get your cultural bearings, watch Bi Dung So (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid) a film set in Hanoi, which offers a revealing glimpse into modern Vietnam. For music, listen to Hanoi’s own Khanh Ly singing the songs of Vietnam’s musical icon, the songwriter and painter, Trinh Cong Son.
Too many taxis favour rigged meters and circuitous routes. Sidestep these by sticking to the reputable Mai Linh (green and white) or ABC (pink and white) taxi firms.
Flights take about 11-12 hours from the UK. With a pre-arranged visa, entry is simple. Those who chose to obtain a visa on arrival should take their invitation letter to the visa counter, fill in the short form and hand over a passport photo with US$25 cash. All this takes around 30 minutes and is relatively painless, but don’t expect much English to be spoken – gesticulation rules here.
SIM cards can be purchased at the kiosk by the main exit. There are plenty of ATMs. Tourist information is available, but you are likely to get much better service from your hotel (provided it doesn’t double as a tour office) or the small info booth on Ly Thai To Square.
There are a couple of airline bus and minivan options, but it is far better to take a taxi. Airport scams are still reported, so ask your hotel to arrange your taxi or order online at www.noibaitaxi.com (prices from VND360,000/£13).
If you don’t book ahead, take a lanyard from the Noi Bai taxi desk in the baggage area. Outside, a Noi Bai rep will guide you toward a cab (yellow and white). Fares range from VND315,000 (£10) to VND350,000 (£12). Have your hotel name and address written down as street-name pronunciation can be a challenge.
Hanoi is connected to the south and north-west by train, while bus stations provide routes to the provinces. Heed the taxi advice (see ‘Worst Scam’) on arrival at all stations.
Where to go, what to eat and how to get involved in a mass laughing session
Population: 6.5 million
International dialling code: +84
Visas: Required by UK nationals. Apply to the Vietnamese embassy (£46; www.vietnamembassy.org.uk) or arrange an invitation letter through a Vietnam agent (around £20) to get a visa on arrival (US$25).
Currency: Dong (VND), currently around VND30,000 to the UK£
Highest viewpoint: Perhaps not the highest, but the best views are from the Summit Lounge atop the Hotel Sofitel Plaza.
Health issues: No malaria risk. Tap water is not safe to drink. Ice is generally okay, but it’s advisable to avoid the chipped variant and stick to cubes. Food-wise, eat where it’s rammed and you should be fine. Recommended guidebook: Hanoi and Northern Vietnam (Footprint Focus, 2011)
Web resources: www.hanoigrapevine.com, for cultural happenings; www.newhanoian.xemzi.com, for user reviews of cafés, bars, restaurants and more.iPhone app: Hanoi and Halong CityPass – hotels, cafés and restaurants; Vietnamese Translator – likely to provide a few laughs if you attempt to speak this tongue-twisting tonal language.
Climate: A city of four seasons, Hanoi sees dramatic changes in weather over the year. The cool, grey drizzle of December to February gives way to a beautiful, temperate spring (March/April), before a wet, hot summer arrives (avoid the punishing heat and humidity of August) and lasts until the welcome relief of autumn (October and November).
Those up early with jetlag should take a morning constitutional around the undisputed heart of the city, Hoan Kiem Lake. People will be out walking and playing badminton or – more quirkily – patting trees, hula-hooping minus the hoop or taking part in a mass laughing-yoga session.
Next, jump in a cyclo for an Old Quarter tour (VND50,000 /£1.30 per hour; tip VND20,000), finishing at St Joseph’s Cathedral. Outside, pull up one of Vietnam’s ubiquitous tiny plastic stools and sip ice lemon tea with the students. For tired limbs, more conventional seating can be found at Marilyn Cafe opposite, which has superb views of the cathedral.
After lunching on bun cha (grilled pork noodle soup), hop in a cab to the Temple of Literature, then join the locals and hire a pedalo on Hanoi’s largest lake, Ho Tay. From here it’s a short stroll past lakeside temples to the lofty Summit Lounge roof terrace for a sundowner to remember.
Hanoi ranked as Tripadvisor’s most affordable city this year and the best bargain is undoubtedly the food. Most streetfood classics come in at around a mere VND30,000 (£1).
Thanks to an over-supply of rooms at all levels here, you will be amazed at the standard of hotel available for relatively small sums here. It pays to sleep central, near Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
Top end: At the high end there is no contest – the grand old Metropole (full name Sofitel Legend Metropole; www.sofitel.com) is rich in history, colonial charm and offers impeccable service. Doubles from £130.
Mid-range: Astounding value by international standards, the central Mövenpick (www.moevenpick-hotels.com) provides five-star doubles from only £72 . In the heart of the Old Quarter La Dolce Vita (ladolcevita-hotel.com) has chic rooms from $80.
Budget: Try St Joseph’s Hotel, (josephshotel.com), next to St Joseph’s cathedral. Rooms are smart and clean, some with balconies and cathedral views. Doubles from $35.
Hanoi warrants a second day. Those who enjoyed early morning at Hoan Kiem Lake should visit Cong Vien Thong Nhat park, where ballroom dancing, martial arts and group aerobics take place 6-8am. For something different, go for a stroll on Red River Island, reached via Long Bien Bridge. Foodies should consider a streetfood tour, while culture-lovers shouldn’t miss the Museum of Ethnology, a fascinating collection offering insight into Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.
Leaving Hanoi, strike north for the rice-terrace-clad highlands. For creature comforts choose the hill town of Sapa; for a more rugged trip, opt for the jaw-dropping Ha Giang. A trip to Halong Bay is a must, before moving south to the riverside Unesco town of Hoi An.