No doubt you have seen it in the background of countless films, but nothing can prepare you for the shear beauty of Vietnam. Vietnam is beautiful and filled with delicious food and post French Colonial architecture. The country has suffered a long dark history of colonialism, communism, war, and poverty.
Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, has shrugged off its hostile war torn image to embrace the world as the next must see city on your list of Asian cities. There are countless museums, all offering visitors a chance to better understand Vietnam’s history of revolution and war, whilst the tangled web of streets in the historic Old Quarter are a great place to wander around. It is a perfect central point for trips to Halong Bay. I completely fell for Hanoi and its delicious mix of French colonial architecture.
ℹ️ Travel: Flying to Hanoi from the UK will take around 11-12 hours and there are direct services from London Heathrow. When it comes to travel visa’s this had me quite confused. For British citizens click here for updates. In short, if you are a British citizen travelling within Vietnam for UNDER 15 days, and, not leaving the country to return again within 30 days of 1st leaving, then NO VISA is required. Otherwise, you must apply for an E-Visa before arrival.
Transferring from the airport to the Old Quarter in Hanoi cost me US$18 (GB£13.40) by taxi, taking around 45 minutes.
ℹ️ Currency: The Vietnamese Dong. From discussion forums researched before I visited Vietnam highlighted that Vietnamese people prefer to exchange in US Dollars. This is not the case!! Everything is priced in Dong and locals prefer this.
If you wish to have your currency changed into Dong there are numerous money exchange shops, however, you can take your foreign currency into gold shops that will offer you a slightly better rate of exchange.
ℹ️ Credit Cards and Banks: ATMs are common place in almost every shopping street around the city centre, with almost every retailer accepting Mastercard and Visa. There is no fear of an establishment declining card payments. Of course, common sense prevails when purchasing goods/food at market stalls.
ℹ️ Weather: Hanoi is inland and located in the North of Vietnam. The temperatures raise to late 20c/early 30c in Summertime, with high humidity, were, thunderstorms are common place.
ℹ️ Accommodation: I stayed at the 3* Hanoi Guest House Royal. The room allocated was stunning. A penthouse room with 360 degree window views! All this came in at £40 p/n with breakfast. The location of the hotel was fantastic.
FRENCH OLD QUARTER
The Old Quarter’s 2000 year old streets are a web of shopping opportunities and cheap eateries. Gold and silver jewellery, clothes and cosmetics can all be bought here alongside a myriad of other goods. There is also a lot of fascinating old worn French architecture around and you can still see the strong French influence in the area.
Why not sample a French baguette served Vietnamese style called ‘Banh Mi’? This is a baguette style sandwich filled with all sorts of savoury delights. One of the most popular street stalls is called ‘Bahn Mi 25’. Get there early as the queues can become quite extensive.
Another Treat are rice donuts filled with custard. These can can be served as savoury or with a sugary glaze. They are so tasty and cheap at VMD 2,300 (GB 7p) each!
HOAN KIEM LAKE
Early in the morning watch throngs of people practising Tai Chi, running, cycling and walking before their working day begins. In the centre of the lake is the Tortoise Pagoda, a shrine to the famous giant turtles that live in the lake. The lake is very beautiful and there is a temple worth visiting on the north end of the lake.
Hoan Kiem Lake is a great place to wonder for yourself. Why not take a walk around the entire lake that is fringed on all sides by restaurants, shops and cafe’s. On a Friday night from 1800 until Sunday the orbital road around the lake is closed off to traffic and the locals spend some quality time hanging out eating, shopping or playing games in the street.
Towards the North end of the lake is a little more ‘touristy’ with more Western style restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Cafe Rouge.
The area is best Fridays to Sundays when nearby traffic is banned 7pm until midnight and a public square, funfair vibe takes over.
Hidden amidst the hectic, narrow streets of the Hanoi Old Quarter lies a funky little area, where motorbikes are no longer the biggest danger to locals stepping outside of their front door. They have been replaced by trains, hurling through the residential street, mere feet away from peoples everyday lives – their dishes and laundry drying by the tracks.
Simply type into Google Maps ‘Train Street’ and it will drop a pin onto the map. It is easily walkable from the Old Quarter. It’s a great place to see something awesome. Twice a day at 1530 and 1900 a train ploughs its way through the street. I would advise getting there early as the train actually came through at 1520. I got there for around 1445 to take some photographs and to peruse the local market stalls.
TRAN QUOC PAGODA
Easily walkable from the Old Quarter head towards the city’s largest lake, known as both Ho Tay and West Lake, North of Lake Hoan Kiem. Here lies Tran Quoc Pagoda. Built in 1049, One Pillar Pagoda sits on stilts over a lake. A prayer at this little wooden pagoda is said to bring fertility and good health. Not too far away is an air conditioned floating coffee shop that brings a welcomed relief from the humidity.
HANOI OPERA HOUSE
The French colonial venue was built in 1911. Book in advance for a show or even just to observe the grand interiors. I visited over a weekend were there are groups of Hanoi wedding couples getting photographed on the elegant front steps.
LONG BIEN BRIDGE
This bridge is a symbol of the tenacity and resilience of the Hanoian people. The Long Bien Bridge (built between 1899 and 1902) was bombed on several occasions during the American War, and each time quickly repaired by the Vietnamese. The bridge carries not only trains but cars, mopeds and pedestrians across the River Red.
CUA BAC CHURCH
Hanoi’s Roman Catholic church was inaugurated in the mid 1880s, and boasts a soaring facade that faces a little plaza. It features twin bell towers, elaborate altar and fine stained glass windows. Entrance via the main gate is only permitted during Mass: times are listed on a sign on the gates to the left of the cathedral. Like the Opera House there were Hanoi married couples having photographs taken outside the gates.
HO CHI MINH’s MAUSOLEUM
To be fair I think the weekend I arrived in Hanoi there must have been a bank holiday as I could not get anywhere near the Mausoleum other than to obtain a few zoomed in photographs. The place is heavily guarded by security that are very quick to move any stray ‘passer’s-by’ along! There is no doubt, however, how grand this building is.
Set deep inside the building in a glass sarcophagus and the resting place of Ho Chi Minh. He was the leader of The Vietnamese Communist Party who read the declaration of independence in 1945.
HANOI’s MARKETS and NIGHTLIFE
Hanoi certainly offers some great places to shop and eat. Most of the action is found in the Old French Quarter. Here you can find a plethora of bars, restaurants and cafes.
In the old quarter head for three great places called The Wolfhound Bar, Rockstar Hanoi and Checkout Pub Top. These are all located on Lurong Ngoc Quyen and Ma May Streets. They offer cheap drinks with great bar food.
If you are after something a little livelier then head towards ‘Ta Hien’ Street in the Old Quarter. This is a 200 metre street lined on both sides by bars and restaurants offering Western food alongside typical Asian and Vietnamese cuisine. I found a small local cafe that served the most delicious noodles and rice dishes at ridiculously cheap prices.
Of course, if you want to stay with typical tourist establishments and are happy to pay tourist prices then eat at any of the restaurants fringing Hoam Kiem Lake.
As for markets, every weekend the roads around Lake Hoam Kiem open up to street markets and are a hive of activity. During the remaining week head towards Cho Dong Xuan. This is a four-floor indoor market offering all sorts of gifts and trinkets.
If your stay in Hanoi is a flying visit and you want to see as much as you can why not check out my two day itinerary that will take in all the best sights of the city.
If you have never thought of Vietnam as a travel destination then maybe its time to rethink this. I only spent a short time in Hanoi and already fell for the place, and then there is Ho Chi Minh City in the South and numerous coastal resorts to consider.
Vietnamese people are friendly and welcome tourists with open arms. Visit this country. You will be happy you did.