Vibrant and chaotic, Hanoi is one of our favourite cities in Southeast Asia. Although it’s well set up with tourist infrastructure, it doesn’t feel as though you’re in a tourist trap – it still feels utterly authentic. The old quarter oozes charm, from the faded-yellow facades of the remaining colonial-era buildings and the impressive fig trees with their curtains of filamentous roots to the women in their traditional conical hats, grilling pork in the gutter, wheeling bicycles loaded with fruit or burdened with baskets of flowers. It’s also pretty flat, so getting around on foot is easy. And the food, oh, the glorious food.
THINGS TO DO
For a fascinating insight into local life, take a walk down the railway tracks. There’s a section between Le Duan and Kham Thin streets in the Old Quarter where the locals’ houses back right onto the train line. Make sure to check on the train timetable before venturing along the tracks, however, as there isn’t a lot of room to escape should you be there when a train passes by.
Located on Dinh Tien Hoang Street at the north end of Hoan Kiem lake, Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is one of Hanoi’s cultural icons, keeping alive a tradition that dates back to the 11th century. The hour-long performances are accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music. There are five shows a day. If time is short, make sure to get your tickets nice and they often sell out ahead of time.
If any of your kids are starting to look a bit shaggy, why not get one of the many street barbers to give them a haircut? It’s cheap, quirky and they do a great job – and it would be a bit of an adventure.
Dong Xuan, Hanoi’s oldest market, is mainly targeted towards the locals, selling bulk food items, clothing and accessories over three storeys. It can be slightly claustrophobic – the stalls are all very tightly packed together, with just a narrow walkway between. However, it’s culturally very interesting and can be great for buying cheap clothes and footwear for the kids (although, bizarrely, the last time we were there the stallholders refused to even countenance the idea of selling us shoes, for reasons we couldn’t ascertain). Avoid visiting around lunch-time or in the early afternoon as many stallholders will be having a siesta and keep an eye out for thieves. Other options include Quang Ba Flower Market, Chau Long Market and Long Bien Market.
When your kids get tired of walking, try taking a cyclo ride. On most street corners you’ll find a congregation of cyclo drivers looking for fares; if you can’t find any, head down to the north end of the lake as they often gather there. The standard offer is for an hour’s ride, but the drivers are usually pretty flexible and will discuss other options. It’s actually not a bad idea to do this at the start of your visit as it will help you to get your bearings – the old quarter is a bit of a maze and it’s easy to become disoriented. It should cost around 100,000 VND for one person for one hour, a bit more for two (the cyclos take two passengers).
Hanoi’s Old Quarter can feel like a bit of a maze and it’s very easy to get lost. Streets rarely meet at right angles and with all of the traffic whizzing by, it can all feel a bit bewildering. It’s definitely worth keeping a map handy and consulting it often.
Hanoi has three different train stations, which can make things a bit confusing. For journeys north into China, you will be departing from Gia Lam Station, which is on the other side of the Red River. For journeys within Vietnam, you’ll be leaving from either Hanoi main station or Long Bien Station, which are southwest and north of the Old Quarter respectively. For more information on train travel in Vietnam, check out The Man in Seat 61.
Hanoi’s taxis are now metered, but it appears that some drivers fiddle with their meters to bump up the fare. You shouldn’t pay more than about 350,000 VND to get from the airport to the old quarter, a trip that should take about half an hour, although it’s very much traffic dependent. It’s worth considering getting your hotel to organise a driver to pick you up – it will generally cost about the same as a taxi and you’ll have someone waiting for you when you arrive, rather than having to brave the scrum of taxi drivers that will surround you as you leave the arrivals hall.
There’s a little left luggage outpost on the first floor of the airport if you want to store some bags, but beware, the prices are pretty steep.
Walking around Hanoi with children can feel a bit confronting. The traffic is chaotic – a seething mass of bicycles, scooters and the occasional car, truck or bus – and because the locals tend to park their scooters on the pavement, you’re often forced to walk along the side of the (narrow) street. There are very few traffic lights and the pedestrian crossings are merely there to suggest places where it’s slightly safer to cross – you can forget about people stopping for you. The good news is that the drivers/riders are used to it and will just weave around you. When you need to cross a road, wait for a slight lull in the traffic and then start crossing (tightly holding your child’s hand!). Keep your pace slow and steady so that the oncoming vehicles can predict your trajectory – if you stop and start, it makes it more difficult for them to avoid you. If you’re crossing in a big group, line up along the road and cross together; don’t just wander across in a loose clump or in single file. And always make sure to look both ways. As traffic will often be mostly moving one way, it’s easy to think that the you’re on a one-way street and step out in front of someone coming the other way.
Embassies for onward travel
If you’re travelling further through SE Asia and planning to cross land borders, it’s definitely worth getting any visas you’re missing while you’re in Hanoi. Land borders are notorious rip-off sites and if you arrive without the necessary visas, you’re somewhat at the mercy of whatever shady characters you get to ‘organise’ them for you. Click through for details for the Laotian and Cambodian embassies in Hanoi.
We stayed at the Golden Time Hostel 3. The location is great – in the old quarter, close to the lake – the staff are extremely friendly and helpful, and the rooms, although on the shabby side, are generally pretty clean. The downside is that the rooms are accessed via a very steep staircase, so getting your luggage up and down can be a bit of a chore.
FOOD AND DRINK
For us, Vietnamese food is at its best at street level. One of our favourites is bun cha, a dish that consists of grilled pork placed in a bowl filled with rice noodle and a tasty broth. It comes with a side dish of fragrant herbs that are added to the broth – as well as chopped chillies and garlic. We’re also rather fond of the grilled pork skewers and the ubiquitous pho. Of course, eating food from street stalls is a bit of a gamble – and not one that should be taken lightly, particularly if you’re travelling with children. However, if you’re careful and only buy food that has been freshly prepared using good ingredients, it can be a great way to sample the local cuisine – and to eat some really tasty food.
If your children like fruit, Hanoi is a great place for indulging – and for experimenting. The streets are well populated with women pushing bikes or carrying baskets loaded with one, two or more varieties of fresh fruit at extremely reasonable prices. Availability is, of course, seasonal, which guarantees that what you’re buying is ripe and ready to go. If you decide to experiment but aren’t sure how a particular fruit should be eaten, the vendors will be happy to show you what to do and to prepare it if necessary.
Western fast food
There’s no shame in admitting that, every so often, despite being surrounded by some of the best food you’ll find anywhere, you find yourself in a glaringly fluorescent-lit local incarnation of those chains you know and despair of pandering to your children’s desire for some Western-style fast food. Hanoi offers KFC, Dominos, Dunkin’ Donuts and Hungry Jacks, all conveniently clumped together at the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake.
One of the great pleasures of a visit to Hanoi (for parents, rather than kids), is being able to regularly partake in ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk). And the good news is that the ice in Vietnam is generally safe now. There are little cafes dotted all over Hanoi; those open to the street offer a great opportunity to people watch, while the others are typically air conditioned, providing a welcome respite from the heat and humidity. Among our favourites werw Coffee Zone, Miu's Coffee House and Joma Bakery Cafe (their bagels are awesome).
In our experience, when eating out in Hanoi there’s an inverse relationship between quality and ‘fanciness’. Most of the best food we ate came from street stalls; the worst food we ate came from more upmarket restaurants. Probably our favourite restaurant was New Day – unpretentious pan-Asian food served quickly (get there early to score one of the tables set up outside each night; it can get a bit hot and noisy inside). We also rather liked Cha Ca Thang Long, a restaurant that only serves one dish – a very tasty DIY cook-at-the-table fish meal. We were much less keen on Hanoi Food culture and Blue Butterfly, both of which were very welcoming and had lovely décor but served very disappointing food – upmarket takes on local specialties that weren’t a patch on the street versions.
Scattered around Hanoi are numerous street-side bars that serve cheap beer to customers sitting at the customary child-size table settings. In the afternoons, we would often pull up a stool and play some cards while sipping on beer and soft drinks (bought from the 7-11 up the road) and nibbling on pork skewers as the traffic zoomed past us. If you’re after something a bit more upmarket, try the Lantern Lounge – low tables, cushions on the floor and yes, lots of lanterns hanging from the ceilings.