Hanoi is a city of stunning visual and audio contrast. The rickety sounds of cyclos (pedicabs) fight for airwaves amidst the blasting horns of motorbikes, and the Nike swoosh wallpapers the French-styled building facades in the Old Quarter.
The Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi's commercial nucleus, ripples out from the lake of the same name. The lake's name means Lake of the Restored Sword, according to a legend dating back to the mid-15th century. A magical sword, having been found in the lake by the then emperor, and used to fend off the invading Chinese, was snatched by a giant golden tortoise and returned to its home in the depths. The tranquil, 18th-century
Today the lake and its immediate surrounds offer more than water, greens and folklore. In the pre-dawn light, Hanoians transform the area into an outdoor gymnasium, complete with badminton courts, exercise pavilions and tracks for speed walkers and slow chugging joggers. During the day, the area acts as a magnet for tourists and those who feed off them-postcard sellers, black-market moneychangers and shoeshine boys. At twilight, families stroll, friends sip fruit juices in outdoor cafes and lovers seek privacy in the shadows of the trees.
The area surrounding the lake beckons travelers with eats, treats and sleeps. The main post office, the ANZ Bank (with ATM machine), supermarkets and film-developing stores, which line the lake's circumference, satisfy mundane needs. Museums, including the
The district also offers a variety of entertainment. For live performances, check the
The tangled streets of the Old Quarter, which spread from Hoan Kiem's fringes, is like Hanoi's intestines. Originally a snake- and alligator-infested swamp, the Old Quarter, or 36 Pho Phuong (36 Streets), now functions as an outdoor shopping mall and stomping ground for backpackers.
In the early 13th century, skilled craftsmen migrated to the area, and each of the 36 guilds claimed a street as its own, naming it after its specific merchandise. At least one temple resides on each street, although many of the old temples have been transformed into shops and homes. Dating back to the ninth century, the
Some of the more esoteric strips include a street lined with temple items, such as fake money and paper motorbikes, to be burned to provide the dead with transportation and funds. The more upscale Hang Gai features silk shops, embroidered items and galleries. Smack in the center of the maze-like shopping Mecca, a flower market at the end of Hang Be explodes with colors and scents.
Aside from shopping, the Old Quarter sleeps and feeds most of Hanoi's budget travelers. The restaurants and shops along Nha Tho cater to a more bloated budget.
Moving further north, the area surrounding West Lake possesses the same clean poshness as the ritzy Beverly Hills. Traditionally the lake was an area for royal recreation and spiritual pursuits. Monarchs constructed palaces and sponsored religious foundations, among them Hanoi's most ancient pagoda,
Aside from luxurious accommodations, West Lake boasts several pagodas, seafood eateries and water diversions. The
Just south of West Lake, the Ba Dinh district is the old French administrative center and current home to Hanoi's Mecca: the
Hai Ba Trung
With few tourist attractions, the Hai Ba Trung district hardly brims with travelers. The district pulses with the energy of daily life. Markets, merchants, strips of food stalls and green expanses cater to the needs of locals.
The city is fairly spread out and cyclos or motorbike taxis will get you from one area to another. Once you have picked a spot, wandering on your feet affords the best view of Hanoi's chaotic street life.
Hanoi's personality combines the charming candor of a schoolgirl, the hardworking grit of a mechanic and the wisdom of a great aunt. It is a city in transition. Squashed between karaoke bars and travelers' cafes, elements of its French colonial past inject the city with the character of a provincial town. Over the course of the country's soap opera-like history, Hanoi has for the most part functioned as the nation's capital. Though smaller and less modern than Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi bursts with a determined energy that speaks of its historical and political significance.
Inhabited since the Neolithic period, Hanoi, enjoyed power and prestige at an early stage in Vietnam's entangled past. In A.D. 1010 King Ly Thai To, known as Hanoi's founding father, established the site as the capital of the first Vietnamese dynasty independent from the Chinese. According to folklore, when the king stepped onto the riverbank a golden dragon flew toward the heavens, hence the original name Thang Long, City of the Soaring Dragon. Hanoi became home to the pulse of administrative activities and to the nation's first university, the Temple of Literature, a graceful complex of courtyards and small buildings. It remains a well-preserved example of the serenity and architecture of a bygone life.
Other remnants of dynastic life are sprinkled throughout the city. Guided by the principles of geometry, Ly Thai To and his successors chose auspicious locations to construct temples and palaces. Emperor Ly Thai Tong built the One Pillar Pagoda in 1049 (subsequently destroyed by the French in 1954, just before they were forced out of the city, and then rebuilt by the new government) as a gesture of gratitude to Quan The Am Bo Tat, the Goddess of Mercy, for granting him a son. The 13th century spawned Hanoi's Old Quarter, a conundrum of winding alley-sized streets, each known for specific merchandise.
Freedom from China did not equate with tranquility. Centuries of civil strife, dynastic turnovers and border struggles with China ensued. Hanoi lost its status as capital in 1802 when Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen Dynasty, captured the city and united the northern territory with the centrally located Hue, which became the new national capital. During the 1830s, the city, under its present name Ha Noi, which means city within the river's bend, was relegated to a provincial capital.
In the mid-19th century, the French eyed Indochina as a land ripe for commercial, patriotic, strategic and religious expansion and beginning in 1848 launched a series of haphazard attacks on Vietnam. In 1872 Jean Dupuis, a French merchant, captured the Hanoi Citadel, which now functions as a military base. After a decade of instability, the French troops seized Hanoi. One year later France forced the North to accept the status of a French protectorate.
In 1887 Hanoi functioned as the center of government for the French Indochinese Union, which effectively snatched Vietnamese independence. Today, yellow facades, tree-lined boulevards and grand administrative offices provide visible reminders of the French influence. The colonial villas of the old French Quarter are now home to embassies, upscale hotels and restaurants. The Hanoi Opera House offers a vision from this past.
Vietnamese resistance to the French rule spurred uprisings, poisoning attempts and patriotic publications. The Communists, with their empathy for the peasants' frustrations with unequal land distribution, emerged as the most successful of anti-colonialists. After the Japanese defeat in 1945, Ho Chi Minh's Communist forces proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square, which still serves as an arena for national events and hosts visitors to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the President Palace Memorial Site. Ho's declaration sparked violent confrontations with the French. Eight years of guerilla warfare culminated in the eventual victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The next day, the Geneva Agreement provided for the temporary partition of the Communist North and the anti-Communist, US-supported South, to be reunified in 1956 following general elections. Hanoi, under the strict rule of Ho Chi Minh, reassumed its status as capital of the territory north of the 17th parallel.
The elections were not held and hostilities ignited a full-scale war, known as the American War, in which US troops backed the anti-communists. The Maison Centrale, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," served as a vast prison complex during the war. Built by the French in 1896, the sprawling complex now houses a museum, which provocatively displays the history of the American War.
During the US bombardments of North Vietnam from March 1965 to October 1968, the authorities evacuated 75 percent of Hanoi's population and much of the city's buildings suffered damage. In 1973, the United States withdrew. Three years later the victorious communist forces established the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, reuniting the North and South with Hanoi as the national capital. Tributes, both audio and visual, to Ho Chi Minh saturate the city. In the mornings, loud speakers blast songs singing praise to the former leader, and busts, posters and banners scattered throughout the city pay tribute. The massive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution offer glimpses of Uncle Ho's resounding influence even decades later.
Almost all the damage incurred during the American War has been repaired. During the decades following the war, Hanoi and much of the north have been ruled under a very stringent police state. Vietnam began opening its economy in the mid-1980s, a period marked by the liberalization of foreign investment laws and the promotion of tourism. A recent trade deal with the U.S. is expected to open the way for normal trade relations between the former enemies for the first time since the Vietnam War.
Evidence of the increasing foreign influence marks the city. Supermarkets stock Pringles potato chips, the youth pack Internet cafes and the tunes of ringing mobile phones are beginning to drown out the cackle of the city's loud speakers broadcasting government messages about social evils. Hanoi tentatively jerks toward the modern world.
Just as the magical sword of Hoan Kiem Lake mythology eventually found its rightful place in the depths of the water, you will have little trouble finding the accommodations that are right for you.
Hanoi is a small city with many lodging options. The high-budget tourist or business traveler will find luxury in hotels with beautiful suites, fantastic restaurants, pools, fitness centers and first-rate service. The backpacker will find comfort in guest houses that may charge less than USD5 for a night's stay. Visitors with some money to spend, but who do not want to spend it all at the hotel, will also be pleased with the large quantity of midrange accommodations Hanoi offers. This city has beds for everyone.
Your preferred means of travel should play a part in your choice of location. There are many ways to maneuver around town. Taxis are not hard to spot outside most nice hotels and nightclubs. Hop on a xe om (a hitched ride on the back of a motorcycle) for a fast trip if you are traveling alone without any baggage. Cyclos (pedicabs) offer slow effortless travel. With a rented bicycle most of the city seems easily accessible and, for the most part, it is.
Once you have tried to brave the Hanoi's chaotic traffic, though, you may decide pedestrian travel proves the best choice. The blaring horns of weaving motorcycles and unyielding automobiles make road travel daunting. If this is the case, you should select lodging within walking distance of the majority of places you plan on spending time. If you are willing to brave the Hanoi streets, taxis, xe om and cyclos will be happy to have your regular business. Outlying hotels will welcome you with open arms.
The exciting Old Quarter is generally a place that many people want to visit, but only the backpackers want to stay. The hustle and bustle of this 700-year-old commercial area weave through streets full of budget accommodations. Those of limited means can find singles or doubles for less than USD10. Amenities such as air conditioning may cost extra. Some of the better inexpensive options include Hotel Especen 11 by St. Joseph's Cathedral, the Old Darling Hotel, hidden on a quiet alley off Ta Hien, and the Nam Phuong Hotel, enjoying the activity of Gia Long Market Street.
If the enthusiasm of the Old Quarter attracts you but "cheap" does not, there are a number of pleasant choices. The competition for the backpacker business proves so great that for a few dollars more a night than the budget hotels you can stay in a small degree of luxury. The Salute Hotel, The Classic Street and The Quoc Hoa can all balance your needs for Old Quarter location and boutique hotel comfort.
Staying in Hoan Kiem District keeps you close to tourist attractions, museums, shopping and good restaurants. While the crazy Old Quarter sits to the north of the Hoan Kiem Lake, accommodations within a few blocks east, west and south of the water provides a wide range of comforts without the bedlam.
To the east sit two of Hanoi's premier hotels. You cannot find more opulence in more convenient locations than in the Hotel Sofitel Metropole Hanoi and the Hilton Hanoi Opera. These hotels spare no effort to please. To the south, the Thuy Nga Guesthouse affords views of the lake, and the Hoa Binh Hotel features 70 years of affordable splendor. Continuing west on Ly Thuong Kiet, the shiny towers of the Melia Hotel may beckon you or the boutique luxury of the Guoman Hotel.
Beyond Central Hanoi
For those not afraid to venture a little farther from the heart of the city, the range of possibilities grows. If not for the Asian financial crisis, the West Lake area would probably be the home of many fine places to stay. Some hotels remain unopened; some blueprints sit in wastebaskets. Two hotels have survived the storm: the moderate Thang Loi Hotel and, offering perhaps the best sunset view in Hanoi, the Meritus Westlake.
Ba Dinh District, west of the city's center, plays host to a number of embassies and government buildings. It is also the home of some of Hanoi's nicest lodgings. The glorious Daewoo Hotel is the choice of presidents and others of international nobility. A little closer in sits the comfortable and classy Lakeside Hotel (on Giang Vo Lake) and the five-star Hanoi Horrison (technically in Dong Da District).
The hotels of Hai Ba Trung District, though not far from the tourism and business of central Hanoi, offer a very different experience from their slightly northern counterparts. The very adequate accommodations in this area provide easy access to the "Vietnamese" shopping of Hom Market along with the morning exercise and evening romance of Lenin Park. The very reasonable Green Park Hotel, the sophisticated Hotel Nikko and the luxurious Sunway Hotel Hanoi are a few of the more notable options.
Whether you want to stay in the center of the city or the outskirts, in extravagance or thrift, Hanoi's accommodation choices are sure to satisfy.
To eat and drink in Hanoi is to taste the city's culture. The table, be it the plastic variety found in pho (noodle soup) sidewalk stalls or the taller and more substantial seen in restaurants, is a magnet for social interaction. Beyond your immediate party, the scenes that unfold in food stalls, cafés and restaurants offer a candid view of the local mode of life.
As Hanoi wakes and sleeps early, finding food before dawn is easy, but satisfying the late-night munchies is a bit more challenging. Breakfast Vietnamese-style can be found on most city blocks-join a group of Vietnamese curled over low stools, slurping the white noodles served submerged in a meaty broth by vendors of pho stands. Chau, like hot oatmeal except made from rice and mixed with fish or meat, fried scallions and herbs, make another typical morning meal. Both hearty dishes will fill your stomach for less than a dollar. Food stalls line Mai Hoc De and early morning pho stands ladle out noodles on Dinh Liet.
Several pricier chair-and-table establishments appeal to those craving the familiar tastes of a Western-style breakfast. The eggs Benedict drenched in a rich hollandaise sauce at Moca Café will quiet growling tummies, and the buffet at La Brasserie in the Nikko Hotel offers limitless pastries, fruits and coffee. Serving breakfast foods all day, Café 129 and Kinh Do 252 Café combine both local and foreign tastes in food and décor.
At noon the streets buzz with motorbikes as most Vietnamese rush home for a two-hour lunch and nap. The noon meal lingers. The tree-filled garden and lengthy list of salads and buttery pastries at Hoa Sua offer an ideal place for a ladies lunch. The restored French-villa setting of the Verandah Restaurant and Bar is another place suitable for pre- or post-shopping lunch. Au Lac, the Kangaroo Café and KOTO Restaurant also provide casual spots for a leisurely lunch.
Pho To Hien Thanh
Long tables of Vietnamese crack into crabs, prawns and clams at any one the casual seafood eateries on Pho To Hien Thanh. Other places serving food from the waters include San Ho Seafood Restaurant, which offers a set seafood lunch starting at USD5. Cha Ca La Vong serves grilled fish cakes, a specialty of Hanoi.
Several of the fancier private clubs and hotels offer lunch and dinner specials, which draw a more professional crowd. All-you-can-eat buffets featuring international cuisine change every season. Check the local paper for current promotions at the Press Club, Café Promenade at the Daewoo Hotel, Turtle's Poem at the Hilton Hanoi Opera and Le Beaulieu at the Hotel Sofitel Metropole Hanoi.
For group lunches or solo dining, The Deli prepares (and also delivers) sandwiches as does the more posh Hanoi Gourmet. Bui Thi Xuan is home to a concentration of com bias, rice stands where patrons select from a display of prepared foods including grilled meats, fried fish, shrimp, various pickled and blanched greens, and sautéed tofu, and mix them with rice.
Mid-afternoon grazers flock to the Ciao Café for pastries and light bites, sit at the lakeside balcony at Co Ngu Bar for sinh tos (fruit juices), and sip coffee topped with frothy egg whites at the tucked-away Café Pho Co. Tea drinkers should sample some of the 73 varieties brewed at the See Wan Ton Teahouse.
Bars & Casual Dining
The bars at Emperor Restaurant (enchanting scenery), La Salsa Tapas Bar and Restaurant (great olives) and La Brique (fine wines) are stylish, upscale places to enjoy a pre-dinner drink. Each presents a refined menu that might entice you to stay for dinner.
Casual eating en masse proves popular as locals and foreigners stretch the early evening hours. The easily adjoining tables, large menus and low prices of bia hois (beer halls) make these Hanoi institutions popular places for large groups. A few places currently en vogue include Quan Bia Minh, Bia Hoi Dai Nam, Cua Hang Bac Nam Bia Hoi and 60 Ly Thuong Kiet Street. For a truly Vietnamese gastronomical experience, assemble a group for a "dogs dinner" at Anh Tu Thit Cho Restaurant. As dog is the only option there, vegetarians might want to try Com Chay Nang Tam Vegetarian Restaurant and meet up with their carnivorous friends later.
Couples seeking romantic settings, travelers on business accounts and those impressing out-of-town guests frequent Indochine and Nam Phuong-two classy Vietnamese restaurants housed in French villas. Splashy non-Asian places include Il Grillo, the Red Onion Bistro and the Press Club Restaurant.
When quantity is your main objective try the ribs and pub grub at Al Fresco's or the Vietnamese buffet at the classy Brother's Café. Stomachs never leave empty after a hearty Indian meal at Tandoor.
For sweets Vietnamese style, try the soupy blends of creamy and crunchy textures ladled over ice at Che Sai Gon. Traditionalists can enjoy the cool richness of Fanny's ice cream while circling Hoan Kiem Lake or the soft-serve cool treats at Kem Kiwi Ice.
Vietnamese couples sit in the quiet shadows under the trees at Dak-Linh Café, drinking teas and juices while foreigners tend to frequent the pricier Thuy Ta Café. Both boast prime spots on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake for watching the night scene unfold and digest the day's events.