Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and is located in the north of the country, about 75 km inland. It’s hard to fathom that this city has existed for more than 1000 years – there’s certainly not a lot of evidence of that when you’re walking around this city of 6.5 million people, but there is plenty to see and do here all the same which is why we’ve created this Hanoi destination guide.
You certainly know very quickly that this is a crowded city! Just trying to cross the road at any main intersection is a whole new experience for most travelers. No fancy pedestrian crossings here, no lights, and it wouldn’t matter much if there were. To cross the street here, you have to boldly hold out your hand and smoothly walk into the traffic, hoping it will find its way around you as you cross. Or you can do what we did and attach yourself to a small group of Vietnamese kids, who seem to know instinctively how it all works!
Hanoi is also a city with an amazing colonial (and obviously pre-colonial) history and it’s everywhere to see. But don’t expect Singapore or Malacca, this is colonialism in the raw, with not too much updating since the French were pushed out in the 1950s. In downtown Hanoi, you can still stay in the faded opulence of the penthouse suite of a 1920s French colonial hotel for around USD$100 a night. Live it up!
While there are upmarket areas of Hanoi with opulent five-star hotels (like the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi and the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake), the Old Quarter is what continues to attract most travelers and it’s usually the best place to stay. It’s hard to recommend hotels here as they keep changing all the time, but the Hanoi Pearl Hotel, Hanoi Elite Hotel, and Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel are always very popular.
The streets around the Old Quarter of Hanoi are specialized and this is the place to spend your discretionary dollars … it’s also the place that will work the hardest to get them out of your wallet! There’s a shoe street (Hang Dau Street), with every conceivable style, size, color, and shape of shoe on earth. There’s a silverware street (Hang Bac Street) that has been around forever and produces some of Vietnam’s most beautiful jewelry. You can get a suit tailor-made from silk on Hang Gai Street in 24 hours! Just remember to bargain hard, starting around 50% of the asking price.
The street urchins here are very, very friendly and very, very persuasive. They’ll win your heart and have their little hands in your pockets before you know it. If they can’t sell you a dodgy copy of the Lonely Planet guide or a bunch of roses for your sweetheart, they just are your friend and tag along with you in the hope you’ll buy they something or just give them your spare change. Their English is amazing and they usually have a pocket full of business cards to establish their importance (“my foreign friends”). Don’t hurt them. Their lives are pretty hard and they’re often supporting their families.
If you want to explore what’s left of colonial France (or perhaps what’s been recreated of it), take a walk to the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel on Ly Tha To, and nearby you’ll discover the Gourmand Shop, full of imported French wines, Belgian chocolates and almost every other treat a European colonial master would expect to be accessible in the wilds of Indochina.
If the street urchins and Gourmand haven’t emptied your wallet yet, pop by the Trang Tien Plaza on the south-east corner of Hoan Kiem Lake where you’ll find the latest in boutique clothing stores, Asian electronics, and gadgetry to complete your shopping experience.
Now that you’re shopped out and tired of trying to cross the street without getting killed, navigate your way to 22 Bao Khanh Street where you’ll find the real Kangaroo Cafe, run by the Griswalds from Australia since 1994. Be careful, because two doors up at No 18 you’ll find another Kangaroo Cafe, on the site where the Griswalds used to be. It’s confusing and weird but go to No 22. It’s not just that we’re Aussies that we prefer to book our tours through Kangaroo Cafe, but because we trust them to look after their guests.
At the real Kangaroo Cafe, you get plugged into fair dinkum tours of Vietnam. We especially recommend booking your Ha Long Bay tour here as the Griswalds have their own Chinese junk which is gorgeous and very seaworthy, unlike some of the others you’ll be pushed towards. You’ll also get real Aussie hamburgers and chips!