Walking through the streets of Hanoi is like trying to read Braille. It’s a tactile experience of people selling anything, motorbikes honking and a constant barrage of the sounds of the streets. There’s a cultural code Hanoians have that tourists and visitors can only feel during their first experiences. Life happens on the streets.
Crossing the street
Crossing Hanoi streets is all about survival. To survive you must grasp “the politics of the pavement”. Vietnamese drive freestyle in Hanoi. The relentless sound of horns commanding, “Attention please – look at my nice motorbike” or “Get out of my way”. The rule of thumb is to keep walking forward, never step backwards. A native Hanoian explained, “You must keep walking at your natural pace but slowly so the traffic can go around you. If you go quickly and make sudden moves they can’t know how to get around you and accidents happen.” Never step backwards because chances are a motorbike will be behind you leaving only 20 centimeters in between. The sidewalks are fair game for motorbikes, so the same rules apply. Motorbikes zoom into oncoming traffic, cut pedestrians off at corners and seem to jet out from nowhere carrying a family of four. When in doubt, follow a Vietnamese person across the street.
Cyclos, XE OM (pronounced Say Om) & Taxis
Cyclos are only allowed in the Old Quarter because they create traffic jams. The three-wheel bicycle taxi is a popular tourist attraction and drivers will take you around the Old Quarter and charge about 200,000 VND ($10 US) for an hour.
Both the motorbike and XE OM are safe and reliable ways to get around. The XE OM drivers are usually regarded as living maps. They know every street and every short cut of the city. Typically the cost is about 10,000 VND per kilometer and be sure to practice the art of bargaining. Taxis may charge the same prices as XE OM’s but with traffic in Hanoi it could take longer. Be mindful of Taxi meters that overcharge. It’s a well known scam to have meters that run faster and overcharge.
Hanoi has some excellent and reasonably priced hotels. The Hanoi Elegance Hotels are a group of boutique hotels in the Old Quarter. One of the best is the Hanoi Elegance 4 on 3 Yen Tahi Street, Hoan Kiem. (Rooms range from $45 -$80 U.S.) All the Elegance Hotels have exceptional staff, modern rooms with flat screen TV’s, free WiFi and an excellent breakfast.
The Angel Palace Hotel at 173 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem is new hotel. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, modern rooms with flat screen TV’s , free WiFi and breakfast delivered to your room. (Rooms range from $45-$70 U.S.)
Sights to See and Sights to Skip
You can spend a day wandering around the Old Quarter & Hoan Kiem Lake. The 36 streets of the Old Quarter still have the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. The names of the streets originally correlated to the trade of the merchants. Hang Bong was once “Cotton Street” and Hang Gai, one of Hanoi’s ancient streets, once specialized in thorny wire, hammocks and ropes. Today it’s known as “Silk Street” where over 75% of the shops sell goods and services related to silk. A reliable and reasonably priced tailor Yen, has a shop on 115 Hang Gai called Yen’s Boutique. She has a staff of quality tailors at fair prices. (Remember to practice the art of bargaining) The buzz and roar of Hanoi is constant in the Old Quarter. People sitting on miniature, plastic stools eating, drinking, keys being copied on street corners and women with coolie hats weaving in and out of traffic carrying anything imaginable. Turn down Ly Quoc Su off Hang Bong Street to the Nha Tho Cathedral and you’ll see throngs of young Vietnamese drinking tea in street corner cafes. From there you can rest and try good Vietnamese coffee at Moca Café, 14-16 Nha To with good WiFi and a comfortable atmosphere.
Legend has it that in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the restored sword) in the 15th Century, King Le Loi, found a holy turtle during a cruise on the lake. The turtle requested the King return the sacred sword he used to defeat the northern Ming aggressors in battle. The King unsheathed his sword and threw it to the holy turtle who returned it to the bottom of the lake. Apparently there is still one turtle left in the lake today and on certain days he appears above water and crowds of people gather around to catch a glimpse of the turtle of the lake. Walking around the lake path you can see the 18th century pagoda, Thap Rua, at the center of the lake. On another tiny islet in the middle of the lake is Den Ngoc Son, or Temple of the Jade Mound. Cross the red Huc Bridge to the temple and for 20,000 VND you can take a look inside.
Take a look at the mural along the Dyke Road (Au Co, Yen Phu, Tran Quang Khai) because it is something unique to Hanoi. It was constructed for the city’s 1,000 year anniversary in 2010 and is the longest mural in the world.
Another day can be spent in the Western part of Hanoi. From the old city it’s an easy motorbike or taxi ride to the West Lake area and then an interesting walk back to the Old City. The ride from the Old City is about 50,000 VMD if you practice the art of bargaining. West Lake and Truc Bach Lake are divided by Thanh Nien Street. You can see the Tran Quoc Pagoda and the area is humming with people as early as 5:30 am. Walk down Hung Vuong towards Dien Bien Phu Street and just before you get to Ba Dinh Square you’ll pass the imposing Presidential Palace, which is worth seeing from the outside. From there you can see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and if you arrive after 7am you’ll see a very long line of people forming for the 8am opening. One could easily skip the hours of standing in line to view Uncle Ho and see his house. Just beyond is Chua Mot Lot (one Pillar Pagoda) one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples.
Continuing down Dien Bien Phu, you’ll pass the Army Museum and Flag Tower. It has some interesting artifacts but unless you are a real military buff it can be skipped.
Close by is the 11th century Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and Vietnam’s first University founded in 1076. This is worth the 20,000 VND ticket to see the perfectly preserved five separate courtyards with pools, manicured lawns and the Doctors Stelae’s (stone scrolls). It’s stepping back in time.
Have some lunch at Koto Restaurant right across the street, 61 Van Mieu before an easy walk back to the Old Quarter.
Fantastic food lies at the heart of life in Hanoi. On every street someone is selling Bun Cha, Sticky Rice, Pho or fresh fruit. A tour of the street food alone would just scratch the surface. Tu Van Cong and Mark Lowerson have cornered that niche. They offer the “Street Food Tour” for $55 (U.S.) which includes all food and drink for 3 hours. If the cost sounds steep, truth be told, in three hours you get the best experience of what excellent, fresh, street food actually is. This is Hanoi culture, so if you love food, this is the tour to take. They both write well known tongue and cheek foodie blogs that are worth checking out. Tu’s is The Vietnamese God, and Mark’s is called Stickyrice. They tell you everything you want to know but don’t know enough to ask about eating on the streets.
With 48 hours you’ll need to find some tasty Pho. Conveniently located in the Old Quarter Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su is just off Hang Bong Street. It’s a clean comfortable setting with adult tables and chairs and is packed early in the morning for breakfast.
At #18 Phan Boi Chau Street is Quan An Ngon, an experience in itself with excellent food. People sit at communal tables and order from a main menu. The restaurant is open air with canopies above giving it an indoor and outdoor feel. Friends sit together in groups, Vietnamese families sit alongside travelers, while various plates of Bun Cha (Hanoi style vermicelli with grilled pork) and Mi Quang (noodle dish usually with pork & shrimp) roll by. You can see the food being prepared in the open kitchens lined around the communal eating area in the middle of the restaurant
Koto Restaurant opposite the Temple of Literature on Van Mieu is different experience. It has more of a western atmosphere and the menu has Western and Vietnamese dishes. The story behind it is as compelling as the food. The restaurant has a 24 month training program for street kids to teach them life skills, health and personal hygiene, self-esteem, and an introduction to the hospitality industry. After being with the program and working at KOTO for 24 months they graduate with full time jobs in hospitality and are able to support themselves.
In the summer months ice cream feels just as much of a cultural experience as well as a foodie fav. Where do the locals go? Is there good gelato in town? Fanny’s 100 % Natural Ice Cream at #6 Quang Trung has real gelato, creamy and smooth, they call it the art of ice cream.
If you’re walking around Hoam Kiem Lake and turn left on Trang Tien you’ll walk about 5 minutes to Kem Trang Tien (Ice Cream), 35 Trang Tien. There you’ll find a barrage of motorbikes parked outside with Vietnamese folks hanging out. Walk up to a small window, pay 12,000 VMD and get whatever flavor they have that day in either a cone or a cup. Also good but different, it’s where the locals go.
For panoramic view of Hoam Kiem Lake and a coffee Café Pho Co on 11 Hang Gai is a unique, classic building in the back of a clothing and souvenir shop. Their unique egg coffee tastes like a blend of tiramisu and thick Vietnamese coffee.
Evenings Around Town:
Since walking the streets of Hanoi is a full time job, the night walking street offers a relief with limited traffic. Hang Duong (Sugar Street) has a night market on Friday, Saturday and Sunday where you can buy the usual market gifts and souvenirs. Shops also specialize in dried fruits and nuts, a favorite Vietnamese delicacy.
One night splash out for a cocktail at the classic Hotel Sofitel. The Summit Lounge on the 20th floor is known for having the best view in Hanoi.
Top off a short stay at a comfortable but gritty Bia Hoi place to drink some beer. You can try the backpacker’s Bai Hoi Corner and places can be found in the Old Quarter, between Ta Hein St and Luong Ngoc Quyen St. South of the Opera house is Bia Hoi Hai Xom, 22 Tang Bat Ho, Hai Ba Trung, if you feel adventurous enough to leave the Old City and try a place filled with locals.
Just eating and drinking your way around Hanoi can fill up a short stay. Just be careful when crossing the streets.