Some Random Notes for Travelers to Hanoi
1. Before entering anyone’s house or apartment, you MUST take off your shoes! This is very important here. Even at the dentist’s office, before entering the clinic, patients (me) took off their shoes on put on clogs that were provided.
2. Be careful of the water. Everyone here cautions us not to drink it. We use bottled water to brush our teeth. We have been drinking drinks with ice cubes in them at various street food venders and at restaurants and have been ok so far, so it appears that most places do use filtered water.
3. No tipping required here and outside the main tourist areas locals are puzzled by it. We don’t always demand our change if it is small (2000 –10,000 VND or 10 -50 cents) but other than that, no one expects to be tipped.
4. Probably more of an issue for long-term independent travelers, but this is a cash economy and places out of the standard tourist areas refuse to deal with credit cards. If you travelling for any extended time period, we strongly recommend you open a CapitalOne Direct Banking on-line checking account and get their debit card and credit card. CapitalOne DB is the only bank to not charge a foreign transaction fee on debit card and credit card overseas charges. They also credit you any ATM fees you incur getting cash with the debit card and they give a higher rate of interest than anyone else for the first year. You need to do this a month before you travel since it takes some time to get it all set up. We put a significant amount of money into an account and have used the debit card to regularly get cash at ATMs. Most places outside the tourist area will not accept credit cards at all.
5. Hanoi hazards: there are many. How anyone survives to adulthood is a mystery to us. Crossing the street is even more hazardous now than it was in 2009. The scooters and bicycles may try to avoid hitting you, but you can’t count on that anymore and they seem determined to come as close as possible. The cars, buses and trucks will absolutely not stop for you and assume you will not step in their path. Never, never step in front of any car or truck. This may sound like a simple caution, but remember, often cars and scooters travel on the wrong side of the street if their side is too slow. The scooters regularly speed down the sidewalks. And the sidewalks are … are…. not really sidewalks as we imagine them. Open holes with no surrounding barriers are quite common. Broken tiles, construction materials, exposed pipes and scooters parked so thickly that one continuously has to step into the street as one walks. Walking here is possible, but it is a slow process and you have to pay close attention to what you and others are doing at all times.
6. Tourist precautions. There really isn’t much overt crime here, although be VERY careful in crowds. One holiday weekend four women bumped into Roz in a crowded area near Hoan Kiem lake. She clutched her bag and later discovered that they had sliced it open, but that they had not gotten her wallet, which was inside another bag. Back in 2009 someone did try to pick my pocket (unsuccessfully) and I, like an idiot, briefly chased him down the street.
Having said that, we find that most people here are quite honest. While there is something of a tradition of charging tourists more than the locals, last week when we mistakenly misunderstood the charge at a street pho place, the women immediately returned our overpayment. Still, best to keep a wallet in front pants pocket and never leave an open purse anywhere where it might tempt someone (like hanging on the back of a chair in a restaurant). Just be aware, as a tourist, some people will have you categorized as an easy mark.
Some taxi drivers will try to take advantage. Your hotel should always call a cab for you and they can recommend which ones are dependable (also, always have your hotel write down you destination!). Good taxi companies in Hanoi are: 1. Hanoi taxi, 2. BaSao taxi 3. My Linh taxi 4. My Dinh taxi and 5. TaxiGroup (have a red sign on roof that says Taxi Group). The guidebooks all tell you how much a taxi from the airport should cost. For us to travel from where we live at the far western edge of Hanoi to the French Quarter costs anywhere from 120,000 – 150,000 VND ($ 6 – 7.50) depending on which company we take The streets are very complicated here, so it may feel like they are taking an indirect route, but often that is the only way to go. But if they don’t turn on the meter or if the meter seems to be going up very quickly, tell them to stop, get out and take another cab. If they ask for more than 150,000 VND, give them 120,000 VND and say “Police, police” (Caan Satt in Vietnamese). (If they get reported to the Ministry of Tourism they can get into big trouble). Rides are based on distance travelled not on time spent so it doesn’t matter if the trip takes 20 min or 40 min, price should be the same.
7. We eat food at street venders and tiny storefront restaurants that look very sketchy. Bun cha, Pho, rice dishes, etc.. So far, no problems and it’s all delicious and cheap. There is place that does grilling on a corner near the Old City which we found to be absolutely fabulous. It is at the corner of Hang Bong and Duong Thanh streets and opens around 6:30 PM
8. Along every street you will see women with a few small stools set up who are vending fruit juice, which they buy in the store and then sell by the glass at a few cents profit. Since they have no pure water for washing glasses, hygiene is very problematic. Best to skip this source of digestive challenge. There really is too much good food here to spend time being sick.
9. We recommend taking a cooking class. Hidden Hanoi and Highway 4 both offer these. We did one at Hidden Hanoi back in 2009 and we signed up for extended class in which you go an hour early (at 10 AM) and they take you to the local market and then they spend a pleasant hour having tea with you and discussing the philosophy of Vietnamese meals. Then they help you prepare a nice lunch, which you all eat together. We really enjoyed it. In 2012 we did a cooking class through Highway 4 which also started with a trip to a local market. We enjoyed that one as well. Definitely one of the things to do in Hanoi.
10. Leave time for a trip to Halong Bay. If you can arrange to spend two nights there you will have lots of time to do some fantastic ocean kayaking through dramatic limestone karst structures. We booked our trip through the Kangaroo café on Bao Kanh street – they are not the cheapest, but they are a reliable outfitter. Best to book through this some agent who is dependable and avoid the very large boats (50 – 100 people). Lots of scams where people double the price and then sign you up for a crappy trip. There are good travel agents but we were familiar with the Kangaroo café (check out their web site before coming here).
11. Bargaining: Every one tells us it is expected. We haven’t bothered as the amount saved is trivial for us but significant for them and without the language skills this is a drag. We are told to offer 50% of the asking price and then negotiate from there.
12. This may sound strange, but you may want to bring along some wipettes or paper towels with you. As mentioned in our blog, paper is scarce and expensive there. What passes for Kleenex here falls to pieces at the briefest glimpse of your nose. Restaurant napkins are 3 inches square and relatively useless. Paper towels dissolve into mush when they come into contact with water. So what’s the problem? If you need to use a toilet in a restaurant or museum, the facilities are ok, but there often is no toilet paper and when you go to wash up there is one small dishrag for drying your hands that everyone since Genghis Khan has been using for the same purpose. It is grimy and wet and you end up wiping your wet hands on your pants or waving them in the air like someone possessed as you leave the washroom (we call it the Vietnam wave). Nice to have you own paper towel along.
Some Personal Restaurant Recommendations in Hanoi
1) Noisy and crowded, but very popular for a reason – Full of locals and tourist.
Quán Ãn Ngon 18 Phan Bội Chuâ
Near this is Minh’s Jazz club at 65 Quan Su music every night 9 – 11:30. Very pleasant paper to relax and hear some fine jazz. We love this place
2) Highway 4
Highway 4 (www.highway4.com)
3 Hàng Tre (Hoàn Kiếm) and other locations. Also has cooking classes
3) Known for its shrimp cakes / nice location right on West Lake
Bánh Tôm hô Tây
Đường Thanh Niên, Tây Hố
4) Bun cha at 1 Hang Manh
famous place for bun cha. Highly recommended – no tourists, just locals
5) Buddhist (vegetarian) place
Cơm Chay Nàng Tấm
79̣A Trấn Hung Đao
6) Further away from tourist quarter, but good enough to warrant a trip
31 Huynh Thuc Khang (near Oxford Immersion)
Attractions in Hanoi
(I recommend you hire a guide and driver for a day to see some of these – the information you will get will be worth the price – check out various Hanoi tourist companies for this). Note: Most museums (with a few exceptions) are closed on Mondays and from 11:30 – 1:30 every day, so plan accordingly)
1. One of the covered markets (Cho Dong Xuan !!) – don’t miss this
2. The streets of the Old City
3. Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake
4. The Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution (very big)
5. The Museum of Vietnamese Women (nice modern museum – excellent)
6. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (get there early as the lines can get very long on the weekends) – on this site also is the Ho Chi Minh museum and house
7. The Temple of Literature
8. Hoa Lo Prison (what we called the Hanoi Hilton)
9. The Ethnology Museum
10. The Army Museum
I would skip the Water puppets – or maybe just catch a bit of the performance at the Ethnology museum where it is shown once or twice a day – it’s a bit much to sit through a whole performance.
Of course, do leave time to just sit and have a ca phe da (iced coffee with condensed milk) at any of the cafes and watch the world go by – definitely an important way to spend your time.
If you have the energy for a long day trip, Halong Bay is definitely worth seeing. It’s a 3 hour bus ride and then you go out on a boat for lunch and a tour – then back to Hanoi at around 7 – 8 PM. Far preferable to do as a two day trip and spend one night on a Junk on the Bay (many, many tours available), but worth seeing if only for an afternoon.