By James Durston (CNN GO)
Ditch the guidebooks and grab your passport. Here’s all you need to know for a trip to Hanoi, so what’re you waiting for?
1. Visa — You can pre -arrange a visa on arrival online but you run the risk of waiting up to 90 minutes in Hanoi airport while the visa officers decide whose turn it is to do some work. Better to get it sorted before you leave, through your local embassy or travel agent.
2. Flights — Don’t book your flights too soon, but don’t leave it too late either. Airlines tend to jack their prices up six months before the travel date, slowly bring them down until two to three weeks before travel, then start to raise them again.
3. Booking — When you do book, best options from Hong Kong can be found at these carriers:
Air Asia: www.airasia.com
Cathay Pacific: www.cathaypacific.com
Dragon Air: www.dragonair.com
Hong Kong Airlines: www.hkairlines.com
Vietnam Airlines: www.vietnamairlines.com
4. Taxis — Hanoi cabs are cheap and pretty decent. A ride into town from Noi Bai airport costs around VND 350,000 (US$17) and a 10-minute ride in-city around VND 30,000. Your hotel may also arrange a pick-up and drop-off service from and to the airport.
Most reputable cab companies are Hanoi Taxi (+84 (0)4 3853 5353), Taxi CP (+84 (0)4 3826 2626) and Mai Linh Taxi (+84 (0)4 3861 6161).
5. Shuttle buses — Are cheaper: VND 40,000 (US$2) from the airport to the Old Quarter, but drivers may try to persuade you into staying at “their cousin’s hotel” by saying a typhoon in Halong Bay means your chosen hotel is still full. Don’t believe them.
6. Buses — Are cheaper still, VND 5,000 (US$0.25) from the airport to the Old Quarter, but they won’t take your baggage unless you offer a small “luggage fee.” In town a ride costs a standard fare of VND 3,000.
7. Scooter taxis — The best way to experience the rush and blur of daily Hanoi life, just make sure you are equipped with a helmet. And as they don’t have meters make sure you know what you’re paying before you set off. A typical 10-minute ride should cost around VND 10,000-15,000 (US$0.50-0.75).
8. Communication — Most locals speak a few phrases of English, but don’t count on it. You could try your luck with a Vietnamese phrase book, but it’s a tonal language and so your pronunciation may not be quite up to it. Best bet is to hire a personal tour guide or just wing it with the international language of wild bodily gesticulation.
9. Tours — Everywhere offers guided tours, but one of our favorites is an innovative concept from a student-run NGO: Hanoi Kids Tours. The idea is for tourists to get a flavor of the city by being shown around by local children. www.hanoikids.org; firstname.lastname@example.org;
10. Currency — There are around 20,000 Vietnamese dong to one U.S. dollar, so don’t freak out when the bar tab comes along. U.S. dollars are also widely accepted.
11. ATMs — Cash is king and cash dispensers are everywhere. International ATMs include HSBC and ANZ Bank but many have a maximum withdrawal of VND 1 million (US$50). If you need more head to the ANZ ATM near Hoan Kiem Lake, which has a limit of VND 9.9 million.
12. Climate — An intolerable mix of heat and humidity in the summer (June-August) reaching 40 C, a pleasant shower-splashed spring (March-May), a gorgeous walking-in-the-park-every-day fall (September-November) and a cold yet humid winter (December-February).
13. Vaccinations — Travelers are always advised to get themselves protected against the most common diseases, including: Hepatitis B, tetanus-diphtheria and typhoid. Also wise to take anti-malarials if you’re spending long periods outside the major urban areas or traveling in the hot and humid months.
14. Eating — You can’t come to Hanoi and not eat pho ga (chicken noodle soup). In fact, you can’t avoid it. Other “delicacies” such as cobra blood wine and dog meat get written about a lot, but aren’t common and are mostly avoided by locals.
Some great eateries worth checking out:
Verticale, 19 Ngo Van So St., +84 (0)4 3944 6317; www.verticale-hanoi.com. French-Vietnamese fusion.
Cam Chan Quan, 108 K1 Giang Vo St., +84 (0)123 259 7696. Singapore-oriented fare
La, 25 Ly Quoc Su St.,, Hoan Kiem;+84 (0)4 928 8933. Western bistro.
Joma Bakery Café, 21 Dien Bien Phu, & 54 To Ngoc Van. Fairtrade organic café.
La Badiane, 10 Nam Ngu, Cua Nam, Hoan Kiem; +84 (0)4 3942 4509. French experimental.
15. Drinking — You can’t come to Hanoi and not find yourself at least once sitting on a tiny plastic seat that feels like its about to buckle under you sipping on a mild beer in a frosted glass. Hanoi’s bia hoi are about drinking beer, and that’s it. Best to arrive at 5 p.m. as they tend to run out of beer around 8 p.m.
16. Sleeping — There’s a wide range of accommodation in Hanoi. Here are a few select options:
17. Shopping — Hanoi’s old Quarter is lined with various fashion stores, souvenir stalls, snack and trinket sellers. But if you’re looking for an air-conditioned mall experience head for the Vincom City Towers where you’ll find luxury brands, a cinema and a colorful gaming area. Vincom City Towers, 191 Ba Trieu St., Hai Ba Trung.
18. Doing — Various popular tourist activities include Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum/Museum, the Hanoi Hilton prison (officially called Hoa Lo Prison), Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and “green” city tours on electric carts. They’re all worth a peek, and you could do all these in one afternoon.
Don’t miss the night market in the Old Quarter, from 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturday. More about strolling around aimlessly than shopping.
And make sure you check out Long Bien bridge, an awesome spectacle bolted together by history.
19. Coffee — If Hanoians aren’t drinking beer, they’re drinking coffee. Check out Café Pho Co, a café hidden behind a home hidden behind a souvenir shop, and one of the best places to get a view across Hoan Kiem Lake. 11 Hang Gai, Hanoi; +84 (0)4 3928 8153
20. Don’t bother with — The one-pillar pagoda. A hut on a cement column is just a hut on a cement column, no matter how old.
21. Internet — If scooters are the most obvious Hanoi quality, Internet cafés come not far behind. They’re everywhere. All hotels have connections too.
22. Traffic — When Hanoi people move they tend to do it on scooters. And if you wait for a break in the flow of scooters when trying to cross the road, you may miss your flight home. Walk out with intent, and they will avoid you. We promise.
23. Day trips — Trips out of Hanoi are easily arranged via hotels or tour agents. If you want to check out Halong Bay (and you should) spend a night on a boat there too. It’s too far for getting there and back comfortably in one day and this way you can explore some great caves and do some kayaking too.
Or take a trip to the Perfume Pagoda 60 kilometers away. It’s a great way to get some fresh air and chill out on a boat ride for a day.
For a longer getaway, consider a trip to Sapa for a few days. You can travel the 350 kilometers from Hanoi by train and minibus and it has some amazing mountain treks. Hiring a guide is essential.
24. Photography — You’ll be tempted to snap away at everything so photogenic is Hanoi, especially the Old Quarter. But many locals find it rude to be photographed, especially the older ones, so be polite and ask first.
25. Don’t be scared — Hanoi can overwhelm you, but that’s what’s great about it. Try everything, go everywhere, and if you do get lost, physically or mentally, just ask someone for help. A smile can solve anything in this city.
Olive Hanoi Hotel – 22 Hang Be Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hotline: (+84) 972004080