Ignoring the gaggles (for want of a better collective noun) of cyclos carrying tour groups, which clog up streets all over Hoan Kiem district, I’m a fan of cyclo rides and think it’s worth taking a cyclo for an hour or so at the start of a visit to Hanoi. Some will say walking is better, but I think the perspective you get from a cyclo ride is worth seeing — plus it’s far easier to look around and take photos if you’re not watching where you’re walking the whole time. Of course, if you want to explore and investigate the back alleys and stop off here and there, that’s not possible on a cyclo, but an introductory ride will help you get your bearings.
You can’t walk far in Hoan Kiem, particularly around the old streets and the lake, without seeing a cyclo. You can’t even walk far without being accosted by a cyclo driver, offering to take you on a ride around the area. In other words, the answer to the question, “Where can I get a cyclo in Hanoi?” is easy: “Anywhere there are tourists.”
That said, if you do manage to pick a time when there are none about, head to the north of the lake; quite a few usually cluster near the tourist office opposite KFC or around by Ngoc Son pagoda. If it’s a sunny day, many can be found in the shade along the southern end of Hang Dau, behind the soldiers’ monument. Further south, the area around the Opera House — next to the park opposite the Hilton Opera Hotel or towards the History Museum — is a popular waiting spot.
The standard offer is a one-hour trip around the Old Quarter streets: expect to visit Hang Bac, Ma May, Hang Ma and the other usual suspects. To get a bit more variety ask to include a ride around Hoan Kiem Lake and over to the Opera House and past the Sofitel Metropole — that should be feasible in an hour.
As well as the sightseeing tours you can also take a cyclo instead of a taxi or motorbike. I’d only really recommend this if you’re going somewhere reasonably close to the centre, and would combine it with the Old Quarter tour. For example, the ride out to Quan Thanh temple or Tran Quoc pagoda, near West Lake, is pleasant enough, and if you don’t want to stop and go in you could just stick with the cyclo for a ride around Truc Bach lake. Alternatively, you could take a cyclo over to the Mausoleum, as you should get to pass Lenin Park and the flag tower.
Now to prices. A reasonable price is 100,000 VND for one person for one hour. If two of you want to share then expect to pay a bit more. You might be able to haggle down a bit lower — 100,000 VND was the first asking price of one driver I talked to yesterday, which suggests he would have dropped it had I asked, the next started at 150,000 VND — but remember, these guys are cycling your weight around for an hour in the heat and probably only get one or two passengers a day, so don’t be too hard on them.
If you want to be dropped off somewhere outside Old Quarter you may have to pay a bit more, but try to negotiate that into the hour-long trip — if you’re ending at a tourist spot this shouldn’t be too difficult as they’ll have a chance of picking up a passenger for the return. Also, make sure that if you ask the cyclo driver to wait for you at a sight, you should agree a total price first. I got stung on that one when I first got here so do be clear!