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First Time Travel Guide To Hanoi

Visiting-Tay-Ho-Pagoda

Headed to Hanoi for the first time? Unsure about what to see, where to stay, if a cooking class is really worth it? Well, this first time travel guide to Hanoi will serve as an indispensable guide to visiting the Vietnamese capital. I hope you enjoy!

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All about arriving & departing

If you’re arriving or departing by air, you’ll fly into or out of Nội Bài International Airport but depending on where you’re flying in from (or to), you’ll either arrive/depart from the domestic or international terminal. The two terminals are not close OR connected to each other (as is the case at other airports), so make sure your driver knows which terminal to take you to. Even though I had arranged my transfers in advance and obviously provided where I’d be flying to when leaving Hanoi (I was flying to Saigon), the driver (who didn’t really speak any English) incorrectly dropped me off at the international terminal, assuming that since I was a Westerner, I must be flying somewhere internationally. By the time I realized the mistake and learned there was no way I could walk to the domestic terminal , he was long gone. Thankfully there was a bus that takes passengers and workers between the two, but you may wait a while for it to come (and as a result, spend stressful moments as you are).

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Minus the hiccup at the end, I had booked my round-trip private transfers with Hanoi Transfer Service and I would definitely recommend them. It cost $27USD and the driver who greeted me was also my only driver the entire trip.  Also, he was actually there waiting for me and not the other way around as was the case in Singapore and Saigon.   That’s not what you’re paying for, especially when one’s flights are on time.

The airport is approximately 21 miles (35 kilometers) north of the city and a ride to or from the Old Quarter will be around 30 minutes, depending on the traffic.

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The two neighborhoods you’ll (probably) spend the most time in

Most first time visitors to the Vietnamese capital will either stay in the Old Quarter or the French Quarter as that’s where most hotels and hostels are located. The Old Quarter is the historic heart and soul of the city as it’s been the site of trade, commerce, and activity for over 1000 years. It’s also incredibly noisy and chaotic at what seemed to be all hours of the day.  That’s not to mention the traffic here and more importantly, crossing the streets, can be  quite a stressful affair. But the maze of the Old Quarter’s backstreets will definitely intrigue you and make you want to stop for a glass of the ubiquitous Vietnamese ice coffee at every turn. The French Quarter, which as its name suggests was settled by the French colonialists,  is a quiet, much more subdued, and relaxed locale than the Old Quarter. The streets are also infinitely easier to navigate here.

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Fun fact:

In the Old Quarter, all of the streets are named after the goods they sold so there’s a silk street, light bulb street, brass street, and so on. It certainly made shopping easier back in the day with all the particular goods clustered together.

Two hotels I would recommend

O’Gallery Majestic Hotel & Spa

38 Trần Phú | Điện Bàn | Ba Đình

I can’t say enough how absolutely wonderful the staff was here, everyone from the lovely front desk staff (who greeted me by name) to the restaurant staff to the front door greeters who always gave me such lovely smiles. Part of the Oriental Hospitality Group (they have four other hotels in Hanoi), the O’Gallery Majestic Hotel is a small boutique accommodation and is located right on the cusp of the Old Quarter. Check-in was personal and friendly- upon entering  from the chaotic outside, I was led to a chair in the lobby and given a complimentary hot tea drink and some snacks while waiting for a clerk to come over and assist me.

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I booked a classic suite with a standing balcony;  the room got stuffy at times, even with air-conditioning,  so it was nice to be able to go outside and get a burst of fresh air occasionally.   It was incredibly spacious, the bathroom too. All rates include breakfast in the hotel’s basement restaurant, and this was also quite lovely. In addition to continental breakfast offerings, you could also order an entree from the menu, which included both Western and Vietnamese options. I also  dined at the hotel’s restaurant for dinner one night as I had been out all day and was exhausted.  Hence,  I opted for the convenience of just riding the elevator to the basement instead of braving the chaotic mess of Hanoi’s streets (or trying to find my way too).

ogallery-majestic-hotel ogallery-majestic-hotel-hanoi

Amenities: There is a small fitness center and outdoor pool but during my time in Hanoi the weather was cool (for Vietnam) and overcast so I never partook of the latter. There’s also a spa and I treated myself to a 60 minute foot massage as I had trashed my feet  during my time in Singapore.   With all the walking I did and the intense heat too,  my feet swelled badly. The massage was only $24USD. And because I was traveling for so long and was (incorrectly) told that there would be no laundry facilities aboard my Mekong River cruise ship, I had my laundry done at the hotel too. Fifteen items (and some of them pressed) for $29USD,  returned the same day too.

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The view from my balcony

I stayed a total of three nights here and my bill (excluding the incidentals I mentioned above) was around $370USD.

FYI: The room’s floors and doors are old-style wood so be aware that noise travels…far…and loud when people are pushing in chairs, opening AND closing their doors etc. That’s really my only negative.

Hilton Hanoi Opera

1 Lê Thánh Tông | Phan Chu Trinh | Hoàn Kiếm

I only spent a night here (following my return to Hanoi after my overnight Halong Bay cruise) so it was more a place to sleep and relax and pack my bags again before I flew to Saigon the next morning. There was a small  bakery/ cafe in the lobby where I got a croissant to go for my flight that morning and also a gift shop featuring many beautiful and unique artisanal souvenirs, where I did some final shopping.

It was a Hilton, so a generic chain property, featuring none of the unique beauty or details of the O’Gallery Majestic;  the room was also in need of a renovation. But I was primarily staying here for convenience and that it gave me as I had the chance to really explore the French Quarter and specifically make the short five minute trek to the famed Metropole Hotel (more on that below).  My final day in Hanoi was also the sunniest it had been the entire time I was there and so I enjoyed a lovely walk (along with everyone else) around the beautiful Hoàn Kiếm Lake.

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For my one night stay it came out to around $100USD.

My final thoughts about location?

I personally preferred the French Quarter and wish I had stayed the bulk of my time here instead. Visiting Hanoi for the first time can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a ton of experience traveling in a developing country and I found it would have been an easier introduction and assimilation to the city.

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What to see & do

Train Street

As its name suggests, this is where locomotives journey down a still active track just inches away from homes and other buildings. In the fall of 2019, authorities clamped down by shuttering the many cafes that had sprouted up along Train Street as a result of its popularity with tourists coming to witness this spectacle, some of whom were apparently behaving in an unsafe manner. The tracks were built by the French in 1902.

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5 Trần Phú, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm (located between Le Duan and Kham Tien street in the Old Quarter)

St. Joseph Cathedral

It may not be the first thing people think about Vietnam, but seven percent of the country’s total population  is Catholic and it is home to beautiful cathedrals, a lasting remnant from the country’s French colonial days. St. Joseph was built in 1888 in Gothic Revival style and features twin bell styles which will greatly remind you of Paris’ Notre-Dame.

prettiest-catholic-churches-in-vietnam

40 Nhà Chung, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

The final resting place of Vietnam’s great leader is only open for a couple of hours each morning (8AM-11AM, the last entrance at 10:15AM) because as my Hanoi tour guide told me, “he becomes like ice cream by the afternoon.” I was lucky enough to walk through Ba Dinh Square to get a decent outside photo of the mausoleum because my guide also told me that sometimes it’s not open to pedestrian traffic at all.

Also on the grounds of the mausoleum complex is Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

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2 Hùng Vương, Điện Bàn, Ba Đình

Hỏa Lò Prison Museum

I came here because, as a lover of history,  Hỏa Lò Prison is an important site. It was first  used by the French colonists in French Indochina to house  political prisoners. It was later used by North Vietnam for American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War,   thus earning the sad and ironic name  “Hanoi Hilton” by the  POWs who were imprisoned there.

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As a human being, it was sad and upsetting to read about and see the horrific conditions in which Vietnamese political prisoners were kept during the French colonial period when all they were doing was fighting for  their country to be free and independent- the leg shackles in “bed,” the windowless, almost coffin-like cells, the guillotines that were still used. But then as an American as well as a human being, it was appalling to read the  blatant propaganda regarding the American POWs.  John McCain was “rescued” after his plane “crashed” into the lake when in fact his plane was shot down (a fact of wartime, I know).  He was   horrifically beaten upon being grabbed from the lake and then many subsequent times,  just like  the treatment other POWs received. The American military members imprisoned there were looked upon as criminals rather than POWs. It’s just sad that such propaganda gets propagated.

guide-for-visiting-hanoi-for-the-first-time Visiting-Hoa-Lo-Prison

1 Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm

Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature was Vietnam’s first national university and was built in 1070 to honor Confucius. It’s literally tucked behind a walled compound with five separate courtyards,  each having  a unique purpose when the university was operational.   Honestly, once you enter through its gates and leave behind the noisy and chaotic mess of the Hanoi streets, you would think you were somewhere else entirely, it’s that peaceful and serene. So I highly recommend visiting here for first time visitors to Hanoi. Shortly after it was built in the 11th century, it became the country’s Imperial Academy, a renowned school for the best of the best in academia.

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My favorite spot at the Temple was the third courtyard as this particular one housed the Stelae of Doctors. The Stelae are turtle statues that were carved out of blue stone and have the names and birthplaces of all of the 1307 graduates from the 82 separate Royal examinations. At one time students rubbed the heads of the turtles for good luck.   Today, however,  that practice is strictly forbidden in order to preserve the turtles. Instead, I bought a miniature stelae to give to a friend back home.

Visiting-the-Temple-of-Literature what-to-see-in-hanoi

58 Quốc Tử Giám, Văn Miếu, Đống Đa

Trấn Quốc Pagoda (also known as Tay Ho Pagoda)

This was probably my favorite sight in Hanoi and I consider it an absolute must for first time visitors to Hanoi. The oldest Buddhist temple in the capital, it’s located on a small island near the southeastern shore of Hanoi’s West Lake (Ho Tay). The temple is home to elaborately carved altars, panels, and frescoes and is dedicated to the Mother Goddess. Its lakeside setting could not make the sight any more picturesque.

Tay-ho-Pagoda visiting-hanoio-for-the-first-time What-to-see-in-Hanoi-in-2-days

Đ. Thanh Niên, Yên Phụ, Tây Hồ

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long 

Another spot to escape the chaos of the Hanoi streets and also to glimpse into the country’s deep  past is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010, the citadel is home to everything from  architecture dating from the 11th century, to secret bunkers that were used by the North Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War (I went down in one and it was incredibly creepy, more so by  being the only one down there and knowing “big brother” was watching me), and just zen-like surroundings.

how-to-visit-the-imperial-citadel Imperial-Citadel

It served as the seat of the Vietnamese court until 1810 when it was abandoned when a royal capital was established just over 400 miles  (700 kilometers) south in Hue, which is in the center of the country. During the  colonial era, the French used the abandoned buildings and grounds of the citadel as a military post and you’ll see some French-style architecture here too (my favorite).

visiting-Hanoi-for-the-first-time-guide should-I-visit-the-imperial-citadel

19C Hoàng Diệu, Điện Bàn, Ba Đình

Hanoi Opera House

I didn’t get the chance to actually go inside the opera house but I definitely admired it from the outside since the second hotel that I stayed at in Hanoi was literally right next door. Built in `1911, the opera house looks straight out of Paris (naturally the Palais Garnier  provided the architectural inspiration) and is truly one of the city’s prettiest newer sights.

Hanoi-opera-house

Số 01 Tràng Tiền, Phan Chu Trinh, Hoàn Kiếm

Hoàn Kiếm Lake

The first time I saw Hoàn Kiếm Lake was at night and I ended up with terribly blurry pictures. The second time I saw it, the day was incredibly gray and dreary. The third time was pretty sunny and beautiful.  So it was neat to have three visual perspectives of this stunning and peaceful area of Hanoi which even has its own temple that’s accessible by a historic scarlet footbridge (admittance fee) and is perfectly illuminated at night.

first-time-visitors-guide-to-hanoi Visiting-Hoan-Kiem-Lake

Fun fact:

Every morning around 6AM, local residents practice traditional t’ai chi on the shore.

Wandering the maze-like streets of the Old Quarter

Most of the sights I mentioned above can be found in the Old Quarter, but I also recommend just wandering its streets with no set plan in mind (just make sure you have a phone with data to turn on the GPS when you’re done aimlessly wandering). I did a lot of this (some planned…some unplanned when unable to find certain addresses) but it sure made for great photos and experiences.

hanoi-travel-guide-for-the-first-time Exploring-Hanois-Old-Quarter

Take a cooking class

There is no shortage of cooking schools in Hanoi and the most wonderful part is that unlike in Europe, classes are so…inexpensive. I ended up booking with Hanoi Apron Up and my three hour class was only $32USD. My class might as well have been private as it ended up being just me and one other woman due to tourism being at a low in February of 2020.

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Go on a food tour

Navigating Hanoi’s streets in the Old Quarter in search of a particular eatery can be somewhat difficult (even when aided by GPS). So taking a food tour is one of the first things you should do after arriving in the Vietnamese capital since you’ll not only discover great places to eat but  also delicious foods to try other than those found on every Vietnamese restaurant menu, phở and bánh mì.   (Don’t get me wrong, I love both  but there’s so much more to Vietnamese cuisine.)  I booked with Hanoi Street Food Tour and I would recommend them.

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Nộm bò khô (dried beef salad). One of the many things I tried on the tour.

Note: I’ll be writing more in-depth about Vietnamese food and my experiences with both my cooking class and food tour in a separate post.

Go crazy with the coffee scene

This is the god’s truth-  I became an avid coffee drinker when I was in Vietnam. Even though I had tried becoming one during my semester abroad in Spain since Spain also has a coffee heavy culture, I couldn’t acquire the taste of even the most sugary and sweetest of coffee drinks. Well, 14 years later I did acquire the taste, namely due to the inclusion of condensed milk which is the key ingredient in cà phê đá (Vietnamese coffee).

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Other popular Vietnamese coffee drinks include egg coffee (cà phê trứng) which is traditionally prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk, and robusta coffee, and coconut coffee which is essentially Vietnamese coffee but with the addition of icy hills of sweet and frothy coconut slush. The French love their coffee and that is one long lasting legacy of French rule that the Vietnamese love and proudly tout, too. 

You will find coffee shops everywhere on the Hanoi streets. I never sought out ones mentioned in my guidebooks but rather stopped at ones that had locals sitting inside and just looked good. I became one of those bloggers who did the whole “hold my coffee glass up to take a picture to add to Instagram…”

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Note about ice: You’re advised not to drink the water in Hanoi (or anywhere in Vietnam) not even to brush your teeth. Unlike in Mexico where I have been  indoctrinated  to always say “sin hielo” (without ice) when ordering a soft drink at a restaurant, the first time I got a Vietnamese coffee I was asked if I wanted it hot or cold.    Always a fan of cold drinks, I without thinking said “cold.” It came with ice and even though I had an internal struggle going on in my head for about 30 seconds before taking the first sip and not wanting to be plagued with bathroom problems, I drank it. I was fine. And even the second time I ordered a Vietnamese iced coffee at a random coffee shop  and still had the same internal struggle, I drank on. I think any stomach issues I had were a result of my paranoia making it worse in my head. Long story short-I can’t confirm this but it seems that venues do not make their ice from the taps. My opinion, since I never had issues all the times I had drinks with ice in Vietnam.

Get a drink at the Sofitel Metropole

15 Phố Ngô Quyền, Street, Hoàn Kiếm

One of the poshest hotels (and most expensive too)  in Hanoi is the Metropole, a grand dame that’s been accommodating guests since 1901. For most people, staying there is out of their reach, but thankfully, having a drink and a delectable pastry is not. Just be sure to dine al fresco at La Terasse (just like Thomas Fowler does in Graham Greene’s A Quiet American).

sofitel-metropole Visiting-the-sofitel-metropole

Fun fact:

Charlie Chaplin stayed here on his honeymoon in 1936.

One restaurant you don’t want to miss

KOTO

59 Văn Miếu, Đống Đa

During my day long tour of Hanoi with a private guide (we walked everywhere so I was exhausted and famished) he recommended I try  KOTO. I would soon learn that KOTO stands for Know One Teach One and it’s a restaurant  started by Jimmy Pham, a Vietnamese-born Australian citizen who  fled the country with his family during the Vietnam War.  Pham is definitely a person worth reading up more on. But the purpose of the restaurant is taking Vietnamese street children and teaching them a legitimate job skill (working in the restaurant industry) as opposed to begging on the streets or selling useless wares.

Koto-restaurant-Hanoi

Here I overindulged and had bún chả (grilled pork and noodles, the famous Hanoi dish that President Obama and Anthony Bourdain shared together when they were in Hanoi), and chả giò (fried spring rolls).

KOTO-Hanoi

The food was really good and I was happy to patronize such an establishment.

Safety

Taxis

During my time in Hanoi I only ended up taking a taxi twice, both on the day I arrived.  I was still feeling all turned around and somewhat unsure of the maze of the Old Quarter’s streets and jet-lagged too,  as I had still only been on the Asian continent for three days at that point.  My hotel hailed the first one for me and the bell hop told the driver in Vietnamese where I needed to go. The second, my food tour guide ordered  through a Vietnamese-style Uber app called Grab.

I had heard horror stories (mainly from Vietnamese people themselves) about tourists being horribly ripped off by cab drivers. Many locals told me that the local ride-sharing apps are better and you should do that as opposed to getting a random taxi on the street. Once I became more comfortable, I was happy enough to just walk everywhere.

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Walking alone at night

Even with all the walking I did at night (and most of it was when it was dark out due to it being mid-February), I never felt uneasy on Hanoi’s streets. Most of this was due to the fact that there were  always people out and about, especially in the congested Old Quarter.   But also,  with Vietnam being a communist country, I think crime is not AS big  an issue as it is in other places. I obviously received looks because of my personal appearance, but none disquieted me, just more looks of curiosity than anything else.

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I did have my phone out a lot (only because I was relying so heavily on the GPS) but thankfully everyone today has smartphones so it’s not as if you’re walking around with the Hope diamond on your finger.

Crossing the streets

For me, probably  the most dangerous and unnerving part of Hanoi  was  crossing the street. I’ve never been one to shy from jay walking but it’s a lot different when the stream of traffic never lets up…and there are no stop signs or traffic lights…and even when there are they’re often blatantly ignored. Hanoi’s streets are truly a clusterf*&% free for all and your first day or so there witnessing it can be a bit unsettling.

First-time-travel-guide-to-Hanoi

Vietnamese guides told me to never look at motorbike drivers, just to cross slowly and assuredly and the most important thing, never stop dead in the middle, just keep going. I didn’t always find that last bit of advice to be very helpful since the inner part of me was never (and could never be) 100% sure that the motorbike coming right at me would indeed slow down.

And the really crappy part is if you try to play it safe and wait for an opening in traffic, you sometimes could be standing there on a street forever. I definitely experienced that more than once, especially  one time when I was literally right across the street from my hotel and was unable to cross  and I could see one of the bellhops watching the spectacle and probably playfully laughing too.

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Language matters

Vietnamese is a tonal language or as some people refer to it, a “musical language” since the inflection you put on a word changes its meaning. As such, I mastered nothing except the words for “thank you” (cảm ơn) and “hello” (xin chào) which I found much easier to say. I know I never got the inflection right for cảm ơn but I always tried and I think the people appreciated my (meager) efforts.

Did I forget anything? Miss anything?

Is there anything else you’d recommend to someone who’s visiting Hanoi?

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Džangir Kolar
    June 23, 2020 at 11:35 pm

    I’m visiting Vietnam in October, so this information will come handy

    • Reply
      Julie
      July 31, 2020 at 10:06 am

      I’m glad it helped, Vietnam is an incredible country!

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