Steeped in history, both ancient and modern, the city of Hanoi is an understated walk around a road less travelled and a cultural experience that anybody - not just backpackers - should strive to enjoy at some point.
As Vietnam’s capital and second largest city by population, its location on the bank of the Red River to the north of the country masquerades the vast area as a natural haven, but a short journey into the centre also unveils an economic honeypot, a historical masterpiece and an enigmatic array of leisure activities awaiting all sectors of traveller.
For the suit-wearing business segment, its humid subtropical climate may present you with sweatier experience than you’d hope for on your average holiday, but there is no shortage of shaded delights, and amongst its boulevards, lakes, quaint backstreets and maintained traditional architecture, the ‘Paris of the East’ is fast becoming Asia’s unsung tourism hero.
In fact, since 2014, the city has consistently been present among TripAdvisor’s top 10 global destinations, while also being ranked the most affordable international destination in its Tripendex report in recent years.
On the flip-side, for those wanting to splash the cash, Hanoi is certainly not void of luxury either, but for a purist experience, the best advice would be to throw yourself in at the rustic end, and to immerse yourself into one of the most complex, fascinating and poignant cities that Asia has to offer.
Facts and figures
Area: 3,329 square kilometres
Population (2015): 7.59 million
GDP (2015): US$26.5 million
Time zone: UTC+7
Dialling code: +84
Internet TLD: .vn
Climate: Humid subtropical
Highest recorded temperature: 42.8°C
The business end
While stereotypically somewhat of a backpackers’ paradise, the city has inadvertently shaken that tag in recent years virtue of development on a more corporate level.
As the major metropolitan area in the region and the country’s political hub, it has evolved rather rapidly into a thriving financial domain; all the while retaining its natural appeal.
Its population has subsequently grown 3.5 percent a year for the past decade or more, putting pressure on its traditional archaic infrastructure but, conversely, paving the way for the business travel segment to bring more capital into the city.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Hanoi is expected to be the fastest growing city in the world in terms of GDP growth between 2008 and 2025, and - now in the middle of that period - the signs are already clear to see.
A sector diversification is occurring, and being compounded by five new large-scale industrial parks, as well as a strong increase in trade portals being formed to overseas partners. Its economic structure across aspects of finance, real estate, tourism and agriculture are also seeing large amounts of investment to meet this new era of fiscal prosperity.
With that of course comes a growing swathe of international business visitors too, hence the city’s newfound - albeit slow progressed - attempt to develop its hospitality, corporate and leisure functions.
If anything though, the fact that its development is occurring slowly becomes a blessing. Instead of a westernised, modern attempt at a metropolis, what greets you - purposely - is a mix of old and new, of deterioration and renovation, and of concrete and nature. The charm has been kept, but is now complemented by modern facilities expected of a contemporary economic heavyweight.
“Hanoi is known as being a unique Asian capital. With a long-storied history stretching more than 1,000 years, the city boasts a number of heritage buildings and tangible traces of the past. The beating heart of Hanoi is undoubtedly its Old Quarter, the city in miniature, a glimpse of Old Hanoi amidst the fast pace of its modern present. With good reason, visitors to Hanoi always enjoy learning about and exploring the city’s history, culture and Old Quarter.”
These are the words of the city’s foremost tourism entity, Vietnamtourism-Hanoi, who have been in operation since 1960 and can therefore share better than most the story of how Hanoi has gone from an untouched aesthetic wonder to a structured and organised tourism hub.
“In the past, visitors to Hanoi had to rely on guidebooks or tips shared online to learn about the city,” explains the Company’s Deputy Manager for the Department of Tourism Promotion, Ms Nguyen Lan Phuong. “However, thanks to the recent establishment of free tours offered by Vietnamtourism-Hanoi JSC - as a gift to international visitors - tourists now have the opportunity to experience the culture and history of Hanoi’s ancient “36 Streets” while being led by well-trained guides.
“These free tours are operated on a fixed schedule and depart from the Tourist Information and Support Centre, 28 Hang Dau Street, Hanoi. Located in the heart of downtown, the Tourist Information and Support Centre at 28 Hang Dau Street, Hanoi was jointly established by Vietnamtourism-Hanoi JSC and the Hanoi Tourism Department to provide tourists with access to timely assistance and the best quality services when visiting the capital.”
To date, the Centre has launched four free tours; the first ever free professional tours in Hanoi operated jointly by a private business in conjunction with state agencies and universities specialising in tourism.
“Designed by Vietnamtourism-Hanoi’s experienced tour guides, the tours are led by a team of passionate, enthusiastic and well-trained students studying tourism at university level. Since their debut, the tours have been warmly received and have garnered positive comments by the dozens of guests who take the tours each day,” Ms Phuong continues. “Each tour introduces visitors to a different aspect of Hanoi which, when pieced together, creates a vibrant tableau of Hanoi’s ‘Old meets New’ vibe: exploring Hanoi’s typical architecture; discovering the craft guilds of Hanoi’s cultural Old Quarter; uncovering a ‘hidden Hanoi’ along some of the Old Quarter’s smaller streets and alleyways; and exploring where east meets west in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.”
At the start of 2016, Vietnamtourism-Hanoi JSC also launched Hanoi’s Old Quarter Cultural Tour visiting five sites, showcasing some of the area’s most enduring characteristics: Hanoi Old Quarter Cultural Exchange Center, Bach Ma (White Horse) Temple, Kim Ngan Communal House, Traditional House 87 Ma May Street dating back more than 100 years, and Anh Tuyet Restaurant serving traditional Hanoi cuisine.
“Each stop on the itinerary represents a unique characteristic of Hanoi in the areas of finance, culture, the arts, architecture, cuisine and religion,” Ms Phuong emphasises. “The tour ends on a highlight at the White Horse Temple where visitors can witness a “hau dong” performance, a religious ritual of the Mother Goddess worship of Northern Vietnam.”
Vietnam’s leading tour operator, Vietnamtourism-Hanoi JSC, is Vietnam’s most established travel Company, offering tours within Vietnam and internationally, and providing top-quality services at very reasonable prices. As a longstanding and trusted brand, Vietnamtourism-Hanoi JSC has been the travel Company of choice for our clients and partners throughout our 57 years of operation.
Out and about
As epitomised by Vietnamtourism-Hanoi’s tours, the array of activities available in Hanoi are plentiful, whether you’re looking for a sedate walk among the trees, or a vibrant night out in some of the city’s reputed eateries and bars.
All levels of culture are catered for on the entertainment front, whether you’re looking for a sophisticated evening at the theatre, or a more athletic evening of ten-pin bowling. From there, the cuisine available is up there with the best that Asia can provide, with traditional Vietnamese dishes in-keeping with the indigenous feel of the city itself. While many tourism hubs give into to western peer pressure in providing all formats of cuisine, Vietnam very much encourages you to become a local, and - even if that involves you eating a snake or two - it’s certainly worth participating.
Not necessarily renowned for its retail, that’s not to say that Hanoi is void of a pleasurable shopping experience either and the various plazas and malls present this opportunity should you wish. However, most roads lead to history, and it is among these traditional ruins and spectacular views that the true essence of Vietnam reaches you.
The aforementioned Bach Ma Temple, as well as the Temple of Literature, serves as a house to bring many of these historical facets under one roof; as do the city’s numerous museums, including Hoa Lo Prison Museum, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History.
And at the end of a long day, Hanoi certainly doesn’t fall short on the hospitality front either, with its previous array of bohemian lodges, and tranquil bed & breakfasts now accompanied by a host of luxurious five-star hotels to meet more modern consumer demands. Amongst the best of these is the Army Hotel whose perfect location sets the scene for the ‘extraordinary experience’ that waits inside.
“With a long-storied history stretching more than 1,000 years, the city boasts a number of heritage buildings and tangible traces of the past.” - Vietnamtourism-Hanoi
Within walking distance of numerous landmark attractions, yet still situated among the serenity of Hanoian nature, the Army Hotel has become one of the city’s most popular hotels over the years. Capitalising on its beautiful surroundings, it intertwines a culture of entertainment, luxury and refined relaxation, stating that it never stops giving its best to “make your stay an extraordinary experience”.
Art and culture
Bach Ma Temple
Food & Drink
With every new infrastructural development, a new road or transportation system has been introduced in tow, and as such, Hanoi has become one of the most refined transport networks in Southeast Asia.
Initially served by Noi Bai International Airport upon your arrival, the plethora of options that are then on-hand to dictate your movements from then-on leave no stone unturned. Where other cities may present you with obvious choices across rail, road, taxi or bus, all four have been honed successfully in this case to suit preferences rather than necessity.
If push comes to shove, internal movement probably favours the road via car, taxi or bus - especially while its metro links are being developed - but once these are unveiled as early as next year, the network really will be complete.
Until then, it could loosely be advised that while tourists capitalise on the bus and open-top bus array, the business traveller may instead opt for taxi luxury or by getting about under your own steam.
That being said, ‘your own steam’ in Hanoi, often means motorbikes or bicycles, so if you’re not overly confident on two wheels, then perhaps the four-wheeled taxi option is a way to stay on the safe side. It should be noted though that some metered taxi owners will attempt to negotiate a flat fee in advance of the journey, which may sound daunting but can often end up being cheaper if you know roughly where you’re going and how much it should cost.
For the more daring of you, motorbikes can be rented from agents within the Old Quarter and in all honesty are the most exhilarating way to enjoy the magnificent city and its surroundings.
“The city’s largest lake, known as both Ho Tay and West Lake, is 15 kilometres in circumference and ringed by upmarket suburbs, including the predominantly expat Tay Ho district. On the south side, along Ð Thuy Khue, are seafood restaurants, and to the east, the Xuan Dieu strip is lined with restaurants, cafes, boutiques and luxury hotels. The atmosphere makes a calm change from the chaos of the Old Quarter. A pathway circles the lake, making for a great bicycle ride.” - Lonely Planet
Lotte Tower Observation Deck
“The Sky Walk features a wide reaching sight of the city, as if walking on Hanoi’s clouds,” Lotte Centre’s website explains. “From the 65th floor’s Observation Deck, one can see at one glance the dynamism of Hanoi. One can’t help but lose oneself while observing the rest of Hanoi from the top of Lotte Center Hanoi.” The Observation Deck is split into four zones in making up one of Hanoi’s most popular attractions: the Attraction Zone, Welcome Zone, Experience Zone, and Romantic Zone.
Hoan Kiem Lake
“If you are about to visit Hanoi for a few days, it is very likely that you will reside somewhere near Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake is considered the centre of Hanoi, not only physically but also symbolically. In fact, the more you spend time learning about the lake, the more special it becomes. The lake is not only special in her history. The water colour of Hoan Kiem Lake is not commonly found in other lakes elsewhere in the country: greenish, with dark or light shade depending on the reflection of the sky.” - Vietnam Online