HanoiKids was set up in 2006 and is a student-run organisation offering free city tours in Hanoi. The programme provides students with the opportunity to practise their English and provides visitors with a great value guide to Hanoi. The organisation says it hopes to bring to travellers insights into Vietnamese culture, tradition and sightseeing.
Tempted by positive comments I’d read, I decided to book a tour to see firsthand what the deal was. After a bit of trouble with the website (note: it doesn’t seem to work too well on Internet Explorer so if you have a problem try a different browser) I managed to find the information I required and sent a reservation request.
Rather than bore you with the detail of the email to-ing and fro-ing that followed, I can offer you one piece of advice: book well in advance! Despite the fact that HanoiKids has 200 student volunteers, they are often booked up and arranging an alternative date can be time-consuming. I have since found out that when someone requests a tour it is posted on their site and the volunteers can sign up to take any tour that fits with their schedule. This makes sense but perhaps accounts for the delays I encountered in arranging an alternative.
So finally this morning, at 10:00, Linh turned up at my apartment. She was all smiles and I instantly felt at ease in her company. As it was just me on the tour — tours can be booked for any number of people, though if there’s a large group more than one volunteer will be assigned — we jumped on her motorbike and headed into Old Quarter. Your guide will meet you anywhere you require and transport is usually by taxi, paid for by the guest.
HanoiKids tours aren’t fixed: as standard they offer four half-day and four full-day tours to some of the key tourist spots in Hanoi but they’re flexible on timings and locations. Neither are they even really “tours”: according to Linh they provide “travel mates”. This seems quite a suitable term, as while volunteers are given training and share knowledge with each other about locations of interest, they are not experts and are more there to guide you and offer interesting titbits about places en route and about the culture of Vietnam rather than to provide detailed information.
I hadn’t provided much of a brief regarding what I wanted to do or to get out of the tour, so it wasn’t a very structured two hours, but we wandered along Hang Buom and down Hang Ngang to the lake, then along to the Opera House and back to Hang Buom via Hang Be and Hang Bac. Linh readily admitted that she was not full of information about the places we were seeing but the conversation never ceased: her English — despite her protestations — was excellent and we chatted about religion, weddings, food and various other topics. We also discovered a temple that neither of us had noticed before, proving that there’s always more to discover in Hanoi.
At the end of the walk we headed to Hang Dieu for lunch: Linh usually takes Western tourists to Quan An Ngon (“it’s safe”) but we went to an eel restaurant. I approached with some trepidation, expecting jelly-like chunks of fish, but my eel noodle soup — mien luon — was delicious. The deal is that the guest pays for lunch for the travel mate — at just 30,000 VND a bowl, that’s a great deal.
All in all I would highly recommend booking with HanoiKids but remember to book well in advance, particularly if your dates are fixed, and try to be as clear as you can about what you want to see and do: if there’s something you’re really interested in be sure to specify as this may influence which guide you get (no guarantees!).
It’s also important to go with the right expectations: don’t go expecting a detailed lecture on everything you pass as the tours are more appropriate if you’re looking for a more personal experience and are interested in finding out about everyday life and the culture of Hanoi, rather than wanting to know what year a particular building was constructed.
Finally, ask questions and give information back: the students are likely to be just as interested in hearing about your life as you are in hearing about theirs and you’ll get more out of a two-way conversation.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 24th October, 2014.