Westerners usually associate Hanoi with war and communist regime, which is certainly a great part of its story. Nevertheless, the city offers much more than that. It is full of contrasts – from insane congestion and Soviet-style housing blocks to Chinese temples, blossoming markets, peaceful lakes and pristine wilderness just outside the town.
ARRIVAL IN HANOI
Don`t let yourself be discouraged by the road madness – Hanoi is fun! Catch a taxi to your hotel/guesthouse – most of them are in the Old Quarter (pre-booking is recommended to avoid hussle). It might take a bit to get there, so enjoy the ride and the first city tour!
TRANSPORT AND TRAFFIC (IT IS SAID TO BE THE CRAZIEST IN THE WORLD)
Since the city is very old, it was not built to accommodate as many motorcycles and cars as there are present today. Therefore, one of the biggest problems of Hanoi is traffic and congestion. With a population of about 7 million, roads are loaded with all kind of vehicles, leaving not much space for pedestrians.
Streets and lanes have no pavements, and their sides are usually occupied by locals selling fruit and vegetables. On the top of that, there are generally no road rules. Cars, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians move in any direction, crisscrossing the streets from every side. The road situation frequently worsens during heavy rains.
One of the main attractions of Hanoi is the Old Quarter itself, where traffic is tremendously hectic. Most of the visitors would not even dare to cross the street on their first day of the visit.
However, there is no other way unless you want to get stuck in your hotel. Close your eyes and step in (with a hope that the fast approaching vehicles will spot you in time and not run you over). Actually, don`t worry, the locals are exceptional drivers!
Once you get tired of walking (or in case you get lost), the easiest way to get back on track is to flag down a ‘moto-taxi’ or ‘cyclos’ (two-seated carts powered by a man on a foot-pedal bike riding behind you), and offer them a dollar or two for driving you back to your hotel (hence always have the hotel address with you).
NOTE There is no need of using cabs (cars are not very efficient in Hanoi). If you have never driven a scooter do not even think of trying to learn it in Hanoi – there are better places in the world for that.
WHAT TO DO ON A RAINY DAY (THIS OFTEN COMES HANDY)
Pouring down the whole day is not a rare scenario in Hanoi. With neither beach nor much greenery around, you might wonder what to do. No worries – there are more than enough cultural and historical landmarks to inspect.
In fact, Hanoi is over one thousand years old, and was home to one of the world`s earliest and highly advanced civilizations – its ancient temples and pagodas speak for themselves, e.g., Ngoc Son Temple, Tran Quoc Pagoda, Quan Than Temple, The Temple of Confucius (Temple of Literature on the Hanoi University campus).
Vietnam`s Capital is undisputedly rich in historic sites from all kind of ages, and cruising around the city, the impact of Vietnamese and Chinese dynasties, followed by European and American occupation, the era of Communism, Socialism and even Capitalism are all quite obvious.
Apart from temples, a significant landmark is the St. Joseph`s Cathedral – the oldest church in Hanoi was built in 1886, and it was supposed to resemble Notre Dame de Paris. Another “must-see” is Hanoi Opera House and the Water Puppet Theatre (night performances) situated on the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake.
Nevertheless, the best way to survive a rainy day in Hanoi is set out on a big museum-tour.
Hanoi truly offers fantastic museums, and even if you are not a big fan of them you will totally want to pop in the Ethnological Museum and the Women`s Museum, as well as the National Museum of Vietnamese History.
They are all informative and educational (especially if you plan on further travels in Vietnam), and one can learn much about the Vietnamese ethnic minorities their customs and traditions.
If you fancy some art then you should visit the Fine Art` s Museum and the Hanoi Art Gallery. Those who wish to learn something more about the dark part of Vietnam`s history (war and battle) do not forget to see the Hoa Lo Prison Museum and the Military History Museum – both are amazing.
One of the most phenomenal places in Hanoi is the central Ba Dinh Square and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum watched 24/7 by the military guards. The complex was inspired by Lenin`s Mausoleum in Moscow and the embalmed body Ho Chi Minh, who was a president of the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam, is proudly displayed in the main hall.
FOOD AND NIGHTLIFE (THE HIGHLIGHTS OF HANOI)
After a long day of sightseeing who would not be excited to have a little bit of stroll through a culinary paradise of the city. At the heart of Hanoi, there is the most chaotic area, yet the ‘mouth-watering’ one –The Old Quarter.
The area is the highlight for most of the Westerners who come to Hanoi. There are hundreds of crowded lanes fringed with food stalls, restaurants, taverns, bars, pubs and markets, and it seems like the area never sleeps.
You can enjoy a one-dollar beer sitting right in the middle of the street on tiny stools while being bypassed by scooters and bicycles. No one really cares about the traffic anyway. Both, Vietnamese and Westerners, enjoy traditional gourmet meals, including the spicy beef noodle soup, deep fried spring rolls or sizzling grilled pork.
The Northern-Vietnamese cuisine is divine but not if you are vegetarian. The braver ones can taste some of the “weirdest foods” in the world, such as duck embryo, chicken feet, rat or snake meat in vodka, raw-blood soup with intestines. You can even “kill your own dinner” (including dogs, cats, porcupines) and they will cook it for you fresh as can be – yum!
Another delicacy (never eat this before having a date please) is Durian – the stinkiest fruit in the world, found at every corner of Hanoi. Also, do not forget to try the Vietnamese coffee! It is often served cold and with a generous helping of condensed milk.
After getting culturally shocked by seeing all those funny dishes, a good idea is to hunt for some souvenirs at the Old Quarter night markets, where you can make the most of your bargaining skills.
HANOI PEOPLE AND THEIR LIFESTYLE
Hanoi is undergoing a rapid transformation. You can grab a handful of spring rolls at one of those food stalls off the street for a dollar or dine in stylish 4-star Western restaurants, sleep soundly in a cosy hostel-dorm for very little cost or find pleasure in the luxury of the Hilton.
Enjoy bargaining at Hanoi`s authentic markets (e.g. Hang Da, Dong Xuan, Cho Chau Long) as much as spending thousands of dollars in any of the city`s opulent shopping malls (e.g. Royal City Vincom Megamall, Trang Tien Plaza, Lotte Center Hanoi)
In spite of the pollution, smog and heavy traffic, the number of foreigners seeking for work in Hanoi is on the increase. Especially, teaching English seems to be a very popular job and also well-rewarded. Children of Hanoi are very respectful and humble. And they absolutely love learning English!
The locals appear rather indifferent to the concept of tourism, compared to other South-East Asian countries. Some visitors have actually an impression that Vietnamese are insensitive, arrogant and rude people with no manners, just because they do not smile overmuch, they are less pushy and rather focused on their everyday routine and work.
In fact, Hanoi people are incredibly authentic. If they do not work, you will likely find them relaxing in the park, playing badminton or cooking and spending time with their families.
It is said that Hanoi can steal one`s heart, and after a single visit one would have to agree. Regardless of all its drawbacks (without which Hanoi would not be the same place), the capital of Vietnam was rated as one of the best worldwide travel destinations that cannot be left without unforgettable memories.
If you feel overwhelmed after a couple of days spent in Hanoi, escape the chaos and book a tour to the legendary Ha Long Bay or Ninh Binh, visit the mountains of Sa Pa and the impressive Ban Gioc waterfalls.
Suggested time to spend in Hanoi is 3-4 days (excluded Ha Long Bay, Ninh Binh, Sa Pa and Ban Gioc).
WHEN TO TRAVEL
The best time to visit is March-May (cooler and dry weather) and October-November for warm and clear days.
However, Hanoi has high humidity year-around and heavy rains may occur any time unexpectedly. Never mind though, it will not affect your travels at all!
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly to Hanoi.
For all international flights check out www.skyscanner.com or www.momondo.com
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