One of the most beautiful of the colonial cities of Indochina, Hanoi is often the start or end point of a trip to Vietnam, and what a great welcome or farewell it is. Oozing with charm and bursting with memorable sights and sounds, the capital city has gone through wholesale changes since Vietnam swung open its doors to tourism in the late 1980s. It remains a fascinating, head turning city to explore.
Tree-lined boulevards slice through the upmarket embassy district, while winding back-alleys stacked with steaming pho stalls are more the norm in the city’s Old Quarter. It’s a bustling capital with cargo-laden motorcycles intermingling with everything from pedestrians, fruit carts and slow-going cyclos to heavy trucks and shiny Mercedes. As with Saigon in the south, delicious street food can be enjoyed just about everywhere.
Outside the capital there’s breathtaking Ha Long Bay — the country’s star attraction and an absolute must-see for any first-time visitor to Vietnam. Both mystical and magnificent, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is an incredible feat of nature of some 1,600 islands and islets that never fails to impress. When it comes to boats and tours, you have oodles of choice. Don’t make the mistake of opting for a rushed single-day tour. Give Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island as much time as you can afford. There’s nowhere else like it.
Closer to Hanoi, from the Perfume Pagoda to the hill station at Tam Dao and the scenery of Ninh Binh, there’s enough to keep you busy for a week to 10 days in this region of Vietnam. Savour the sights, food and experiences that make the northern capital such a comfortable contrast to the commercial capital of Saigon in the south.