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.
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.
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.
Hanoi's nightlife is all about legs: the squat, plastic legs of tiny stools crowding around equally diminutive tables in your average bia hoi (beer hall); the proud, carved wooden legs of the chairs in fine restaurants; and, your own two legs sashaying your body across the dance floor. Whichever kind of legs you choose to employ, select early, as Hanoi operates on your grandparents' clock.
Short, plastic table legs usually indicate a low-budget dining/entertainment option. Groups of men puffing on cigarettes and sipping coffee sit pretzel-like on stools inches from the ground in cafés scattered about the city. A concentration of local cafés can be found on Trieu Viet Vuong Street and Bao Khahn.
The backless, plastic stool is also almost compulsory in Hanoi's other renowned watering hole, the aforementioned bia hoi. Also generally male turf, these airplane hangar-like venues offer cheap beer on tap and local munchies and meals. Some spots do not beckon the lone female traveler, but there are a few other options frequented by a mix of locals and foreigners. They include Quan Bia Minh, Cua Hang Bac Nam Bia Hoi and 60 Ly Thuong Kiet Street and provide an inexpensive and casual place for groups to chat away the afternoon and early evening.
Another low-to-the-earth entertainment choice is paddling across Hanoi's several lakes. On weekend afternoons, swarms of Vietnamese flock to West Lake for picnics and floats atop the water. Keeping with the outdoorsy theme, soccer matches at National Stadium provide an insider's view into the lives of Vietnamese soccer fanatics.
Restaurants and cafés that cater to a mostly foreign clientele raise both the seats and the prices. The newspapers at Moca Café and the books and evening movies at Lac Viet Café provide you with something to do while you eat.
Chairs of a similar height, but with more cushioned comfort than those of restaurants, fill establishments that offer sensory distractions. Several movie theaters, such as the Alliance Francais Cinema, Fansland Cinema and New Age Cinema screen foreign flicks. Check the local English papers or call 1080 for listings. The Hanoi Opera House, the Central Cultural House, Green Ho Guom, the Terrace Bar in the Press Club and several of the bigger hotels provide space for musicians, dancers and actors to perform. The Municipal Water Puppet Theater and several of the more refined Vietnamese restaurants, such as Indochine, Van Xuan and Dinh Lang Restaurant feature nightly traditional performances. The private rooms furnished with plush, body-hugging sofas in karaoke bars provide venues for rock-star wannabes to live out their fantasies.
Off the chair and on your own two legs, roaming the maze-like streets of the Old Quarter, poking into shops, galleries and pagodas offers a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. Several museums displaying elements of Vietnamese history and culture provide a rich view of the nation's heritage. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and adjacent museum are frequented by Vietnamese and foreign tourists alike.
The more than 600 temples and pagodas scattered throughout the city provide a glimpse of traditional Vietnamese architecture and heritage. The One Pillar Pagoda, constructed in 1049, is perhaps Hanoi's most famous place of worship. The tranquil grounds of the Temple of Literature, Hanoi's first university (built in 1076) provide a peaceful retreat from the chaos of the city streets. The Botanical Gardens, a smattering of parks and the Thu Le Park and Zoo appeal to those in search of a bit of greenery amidst Hanoi's urban landscape.
If you're out in the evening hours, you'll probably find yourself passing the time at a few nondescript bars. Backpackers and young expatriates tend to bop between the Thu Le Park and Zoo and other bars in the Bao Khanh area. Friday night happy hour at the Press Club draws a regular, button-down-shirt-wearing expatriate crowd. If you're looking for a more low-key vibe, the R & R Tavern features Friday night specials and endless Grateful Dead tunes. On the fringe of the Old Quarter, the simple but grooving Modern Toast draws a late-night pre-dancing crowd.
When Legs Move
Several loosely organized sporting events, pools and gyms attract entertainment seekers needing activity. Regular gatherings include weekly soccer, volleyball and Frisbee matches, as well as Saturday morning running, walking and drinking excursions organized by the Hanoi Hash House Harriers. Look for signs in cafés and hotels around the city. The Minsk Club, headquartered in the moody Le Maquis Bar, often coordinates trips outside the city for those who love the road. A few bowling alleys, fitness clubs, swimming pools and the recently opened Ho Tay Lake Water Park offer sporting venues for independent athletes.
Nightclubs provide the space to flail your limbs without the competitive edge. Try Hanoi's only after-hours dance venue, the venerable Apocalypse Now.
Weary bodies and aching muscles might want a workout of a different sort - a massage. Several hotels, including Thang Loi Hotel and the Hanoi Hotel offer reasonably-priced sessions. For a quick dose of relaxation, trundle over to the nearest cat oc (hairdresser). Almost all hair washings include a lengthy head and scalp massage that will rub tension away.