The Old Quarter remains the most popular, interesting and inexpensive part of Hanoi to stay in. Wedged to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake, the area is characterised by a twisting mess of narrow roads and alleys, lots of attractive old buildings, interesting street scenes and plenty of noise.
The Old Quarter (or Pho Co, old streets) is home to streets named after the goods that were traditionally sold on them. The names usually start with hang, which means "something you sell", and then the thing itself. Some of these names may date back as far as 800 years, when trade guilds formed to market the goods they produced in outlying craft villages. Back then, the streets were just lines of makeshift stalls. When they eventually built on the land, they went deep and high because they were taxed by width of frontage – that's the explanation for all those skinny buildings, with a shop kept upfront. Each guild also poured some profits into the building of temples at which to pray for prosperity, and you can still find several along some streets. The most famous and best to visit is Bach Ma Temple along Hang Buom.
Many of the streets have changed with the times, especially in the southern part of the Old Quarter, which has been given over to tourism and its allied businesses. But a surprising number of streets still sell what they were named for centuries ago, and yet more have found new specialties that make them worth seeking out.
While the names of Hanoi's classic streets are colourful, unfortunately, they sometimes change every few blocks -- Bat Dan, Hang Bo, Hang Bac and Hang Mam are all the same exact street. This makes it tricky to get around, since you can be headed straight to your hotel and not even know it.
To the south of the lake is the French Quarter, home to Central Hanoi's poshest hotels: the Sofitel Legend Metropole and the Hilton Hanoi Opera, as well as the Opera House itself. Here you'll also find some of Hanoi's ritziest restaurants -- the Club Opera and the Press Club, as the well as the Museum of History and the Revolution Museum. It's a good place for a visit even if you're not staying here -- it's much better laid-out, with broad, tree-lined boulevards and, compared to the rest of Hanoi, moderate street traffic. Come evening, the streets are relatively deserted.
The western part of the city is home to West Lake, the Citadel, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex and a bunch of museums. Those visiting the attractions will often find themselves in this part of town, though there are not many hotels. When visiting West Lake in summer, be sure to look out for the lotus-flower farms rimming the lake -- an excellent photo op.
A word about the traffic. It's not uncommon to see foreigners standing on the curb, frozen in fear, waiting for a break in the onslaught of bikes, cyclos, trucks, vendor carts, and motorbikes (with two tons of bagged cement balancing, unfastened, on the back) ... but the break never comes. The terrifying solution is that you must simply step right into the street. Be sure to look carefully for vehicles moving in the wrong direction first, and give approaching vehicles room to manoeuvre around you without smashing into something -- or someone. What you'll find is that the traffic simply flows around you as you proceed slowly and steadily forward. Stop, while crossing, if you must, but stand firm and do not back up! That's the surest way to flummox the flow. Stand there like a pylon until the way forward is clear. And, again, keep an eye out for traffic going the wrong way.
Where should I stay in Hanoi?
By far the bulk of tourists and travellers opt for lodgings in the Old Quarter, which has the best selection of accommodation, from budget guesthouses through to comfortable midrange hotels, and even luxury hotels are popping up along the old streets. The French Quarter and West Lake have the bulk of plush hotels.
Picking a hotel in Hanoi can be daunting. Good hotels go bad, and bad hotels become good at a rate that even the most diligent travel researcher is hard-pressed to keep up with. Many travellers prefer to book ahead in Hanoi, and we can't blame them -- cheap digs fill up quickly during peak times and the last thing you want to do, especially after getting off an international flight, is hump from place to place. But committing to one hotel, sight unseen, is risky. Book one or two days, so if you don't like what you get, you can easily switch venues. And if you're happy where you are, rarely do hotels refuse when guests wish to extend their stay.
You can browse our selection of the best places to stay in Hanoi for 2012 here.
Sights and attractions
Hanoi has some fine spots to visit, but really, the attraction of Hanoi is the very town itself. Travellers who arrive in Vietnam via Hanoi are usually too busy taking it all in to worry about touring the sights. And those who wind up their trip here are usually toured out and just want to relax. Both groups end up wandering around the Old Quarter, eating and drinking, and revelling in the beauty and madness of the city. A third group pre-books a sightseeing tour, takes in all the culture, but maybe misses out on the city itself. If you really want to do both, you should dedicate at least a week to Hanoi alone. But if you have to choose, we see no downside to blowing off the tourist attractions and just immersing yourself in one of the great cities of Southeast Asia.
Numerous maps of Hanoi are available at magazine kiosks and bookstores throughout the city, as well as from roving booksellers, and start at about 20,000 VND.
The "Vietnam Tourist Map" by the Nhat Xuat Ban Ban Do company features a map of the whole country on one side with a bare sketch of the road network. On the reverse, the map of Hanoi is good for one-way streets, but the Old Quarter is small and hard to read, and there's no street index. There's also a map of Saigon.
The same company also publishes "Du Lich Hanoi Tourist Map" with Northern Vietnam on one side (and better coverage of roads) and a blow up of their Hanoi map on the other side, with one-way streets indicated, and a pretty good street index.
In general, for the Old Quarter, you may do just as well picking up a free map from your hotel -- many of them are good enough.
The freebie "Map of Hanoi City" provided by the Tourist Information Centre and available at most hotels and travel agencies will do at a pinch, but it's packed with ads, lacks detail, the street index is small and one-way streets are not indicated.
Some of the more popular maps of Hanoi which can be purchased online include (affiliate links):
Insight Flexi Map Hanoi
Hanoi Map by ITMB
Hanoi is an ideal place to stock up on reading material and maps for the rest of your trip too. The wandering book sellers are sure to approach you with their stacks, all of which can be bought a bit more cheaply at a proper book store, but you can usually bargain the price down to a reasonable mark-up. If you want to check out a merchant with walls, try:
Bookworm 44 Chau Long, Hanoi. T: (04) 3715 3711. email@example.com. Hours: 09:00 to 19:00.
Trang Tien Bookstore 44 Trang Tien, Hanoi. T: (04) 826 2934, F: (04) 934 1591. Hours: 08:00 to 21:00.
Secondhand books and book exchanges are available at some of the backpacker orientated hotels as well as at a few travel agents:
Love Planet 25 Hang Bac, Hanoi: 1 Hang Buom, Hanoi. T: (04) 6683 5539, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The international code for Vietnam is 84, and the city code for Hanoi is 04. Many cell phone numbers start with 09 and in some cases 01. When calling from oversees, drop the zero before the city code and cell phone numbers. Dial-out codes differ from country to country -- consult http://www.countrycallingcodes.com/ for more info. If you plan to make calls from your room, look for hotels that offer IDD (International Direct Dialling). But this is very expensive – far better to drag yourself to a cyber-cafe that offers internet phone services.
If you're got a WiFi enabled PDA or laptop you'll never be far from a signal in Hanoi as most hotels and cafes offer free WiFi, often without even requiring a password. Many hotels also have internet stations in reception for guest use and more than a few places supply desktop computers in their deluxe rooms. Failing that, internet cafes are rarely more than 10,000 VND per hour – though you may need to vie with the local kids for a station. Once place at 82 Ma May also offers international calls, CD burning and SIM cards.
If you're looking to keep up-to-date on the latest grain prices and other economic gems, Vietnam News is for you. Otherwise keep an eye out for imported dailies, like the International Herald Tribune.
Hanoi has adequate hospitals, though for serious injuries, evacuation to Bangkok is a good idea -- make sure you have travel insurance. Hospitals in Hanoi include:
International SOS 51 Xuan Dieu, Hanoi. T: (04) 3934 0666, F: (04) 3934 0556. 24-hour emergency. http://www.internationalsos.com
Hanoi Family Medical Practice Van Phuc Compound, 298 Kim Ma, Hanoi. T: (04) 843 0748, F: (04) 846 1750. 24-hour emergency. email@example.com. http://www.vietnammedicalpractice.com/
Vietnam French Friendship Hospital 1B Phuong Mai, Hanoi. T: (04) 577 1100, F: (04) 576 4443. Emergency, T (04) 3574 1111. firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.hfh.com.vn/
Medications and contraband
If you need to carry a large supply of medications into Vietnam through Hanoi, make sure they are well marked and, if possible, unopened. The authorities are very wary of drug trafficking and may, in some circumstances, suspect the worst. That said, once you're in Vietnam, many of the prescription drugs you buy back home are available over the counter at greatly reduced prices. Also, be warned that literature or visual media that might be deemed offensive (morally or politically) might be confiscated, at a minimum.
When it comes to violent crime, Hanoi, in general, is remarkably safe, particularly for foreigners. This is partly because crimes against foreigners are treated more severely by the government, which wants to encourage tourism. Petty crime is also infrequent, but foreigners are sometimes the target. We've heard of cat burglaries, bag-snatching, and pockets being picked. Advice is to take out only what you need, particularly in the evening; leave the credit cards, camera and iPod behind. Other than that, the overwhelming way foreigners are robbed in Hanoi is by being overcharged. If that starts getting under your skin, read some of the crime reports from Thailand or Cambodia.
One great thing about the cops in Vietnam is that they don't hassle tourists -- ever. There's apparently a new policy by the government stating that if a police officer tries to extort a foreigner for money (the way they do in Laos all the time), once you report it, they will be fired immediately. This has created a relaxed climate for expats and travellers that is second-to-none in Southeast Asia. Two notable exceptions, though: helmets are mandatory for drivers AND passengers everywhere in Hanoi, and radar speed traps are increasingly common on the main arteries.
The police can however be a little slow off the block when it comes to petty crime. This can be frustrating, but it won't help to scream and stomp your feet and threaten to call your embassy. Be patient and polite at all times. All they are really going to do is fill out a report which you'll need to claim the loss on your insurance. This situation changes dramatically however if the crime is serious, especially if you have concrete information about the perpetrator. Then, they snap into action.
The emergency telephone number for the police is 113.
Common needs in Hanoi
ATMs are everywhere, especially in the Old Quarter. Almost all of them take foreign cards, but you can look for HSBC, Sacom, BIDV, ANZ and Vietcom. They all, of course, have numerous bank branches with a wide range of services and many are open on Saturday.
Although foreign exchange is available at most banks, you may end up paying US$2 to change a US$20 note. ANZ for example, charges 1% on cash transfers, with a minimum of US$2. It's double that for travellers cheques. Most hotels will change USD into VND but check their exchange rate first and compare with xe.com. Another thing to watch out for is being left with VND at the end of your trip – banks are reluctant to change back into USD, due to low supply, and recent clampdowns have meant even the gold shops aren't a guaranteed source anymore.
Hanoi GPO is located at 75 Dinh Tien Hoang, Hanoi. It's on the southeast edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of Ngoc Son Pagoda and across the street -- you can't miss it.
T: (04) 3825 5948.
Open 07:30-18:00 Monday to Saturday, 08:00-18:00 Sunday, 09:00-18:00 public holidays.
Long distance phone services are available.
Basic postal services are also available everywhere you see the words "Buu Dien" and many hotels will handle postal services for you.
International GPO is at 6 Dinh Le, Hanoi. T: (04) 3825 4503. Open 07:30 to 18:00 Monday to Friday, 09:00 to 18:00 Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays.
If you're sending a package or letter internationally, the small office on the corner of Dinh Tien Hoang and Dinh Le, just a few doors down from the main Post Office, is a better option.
We wish we could give you an authoritative guide to the shifting sands of Hanoi travel agencies, but such is beyond the capabilities of any mere mortal. So many factors come into play when booking a tour or ticket. How much are you willing to pay? What will you put up with to pay less? How many others are signed up for a tour on a given day? New agencies pop up all the time, old agencies close down. Good agencies sometimes cut corners, crappy agencies sometimes give you the time of your life.
If you're headed to Ha Long, check out our Ha Long Bay section for a series of stories on picking the right tour. Otherwise, the key destinations are sites near Ninh Binh and Sapa, though city tours, trips to the Perfume Pagoda, and tours of nearby craft villages are also available.
Our general advice is, shop around for the best price, but be warned: the best price is not always the best trip for you. Nail down specifics: mode of transport, class of accommodation, number of people on the tour, available activities. As a rule of thumb, any ticket seller who wavers on answering or is obviously making things up as they go, is a red flag. But here's the kicker: the tour they are lying about may actually be fine, they just don't know one way or the other! You see our dilemma.
The following places seem to have good reputations. Let us know if they give you a bum steer.
Buffalo Tours 94 May May, Hanoi. T: (04) 3828 0702.
Ethnic Travel Viet Nam 35 Hang Giay, Hanoi. T: (04) 3926 1951, (0912) 783 358 (24/7 support), F: (04) 3925 1950. http://www.ethnictravel.com.vn
Exotissimo Travel Vietnam 26 Tran Nhat Duat, Hanoi. T: (04) 3828 2150, F: (04) 3928 0056. http://www.exotimssimo.com
Handspan Adventure Travel 78 Ma May, Hanoi. T: (04) 3926 2828, F: (04) 3926 2792. http://www.handspan.com
Ms Ly's Travel Agency 23 Yen Thai Street, Hanoi. T: (0976) 138 900.
Sinh Cafe 100 Ma May, Hanoi. T: (04) 926 0687, (04) 914 6100.
Travel Sense Asia 88 Yen Phu, Hanoi. T: (04) 3715 3977, F: (04) 3715 978. http://www.travelsense.asia
True Color Tour 18 Hang Be, Hanoi. T: (0912) 223 960.
Vietnam Tour Alley 12b, 26 Ly Nam De, Hanoi. T: (04) 3747 5456. http://www.vietnamtour.com.vn
Wide Eyed Tours T: (04) 3926 2241 / 4034. http://www.wideeyedtours.com
There are also plenty of tours to Vietnam offered by international adventure tour companies that include Hanoi as a part of a larger tour.
Finally, you will find a Tourist Information Centre smack on the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake (on 7 Dinh Tien Hoang south of Cau Go). They tout tours by AsianaTravelMate, and unless they are giving you ingots of gold as a parting gift, much better deals are available elsewhere, even for a luxury tour. There is another Asiana Travel Mate at 21 Luong NgocQuyen.
With four providers offering domestic flights, as well as numerous international flight operators, booking in advance online is usually the cheapest and easiest option. But if you prefer to leave your plans more flexible you're unlikely to have any problems booking when you're in Vietnam, either through a travel agent or direct with the airline, as availability is good except during Christmas and the Tet holidays.
Jump to a destination
- Hot spots
- Hanoi, Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba
- Sapa, Bac Ha & Dien Bien Phu
- Phong Nha Cave & Vinh
- Da Nang, Hoi An & Hue
- Dalat & Kon Tum
- Mui Ne & Nha Trang
- Saigon & surrounds
- My Tho, Can Tho & Phu Quoc Island
Top accommodation by review
14 votes 48 Ngo Huyen
T: (04) 3828 5372
1 vote 26 Bat Su
T: (04) 3828 1911
F: (04) 3828 1928
1 votes 15 Ngo Quyen St
T: (04) 3826 6919
F: (04) 3826 6920
1 vote 58 Hang Be
T: (04) 3926 4761
F: (04) 3926 4761
1 vote 9 Ma May
T: (04) 3935 1890
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.