Hanoi, Vietnam - Stein Travel
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Hanoi

Vietnam's small and pleasant capital lies at the heart of the northern Red River Delta, and is a city of lakes, leafy boulevards and open parks with a French colonial feel.

Hanoi was founded in 1010, and became the centre of government for the Indochina Union under French rule in 1888. In 1954 it became the official capital of independent Vietnam. Today ancient crumbling buildings dating from the 11th century lie scattered among grand French colonial residences, while shrines and monuments to Vietnam's first president, Ho Chi Minh, sit in the shadow of modern high-rise buildings. The streets of the Old Quarter preserve age-old customs, where trade takes one back half a century, and temples, pagodas and monuments reflect the historic character of Vietnam.

Although a city of historical importance, and the social and cultural centre of Vietnam, it is a surprisingly modest and charming place, far slower and less developed than Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Hanoi has retained its appealing sense of the old world, despite the onset of a brisk tourism trade in 1993, absorbing the boom of hotels, travellers' hangouts and Internet cafes, and the gradual infiltration of western-style food and fashions into the once inaccessible city.

As the early morning mist rises from the serene Hoan Kiem Lake, tracksuit-clad elders perform the slow movements of tai chi, like park statues coming to life. Streets fill with activity, mopeds and bicycles weave among pedestrians, while cyclo drivers (three-wheeled bicycle taxis) clamour for attention, and postcard vendors cluster around tourists like bees sensing an open honey pot.

Hanoi is fast becoming one of the most enticing and interesting cities in Asia. As a cultural centre there are traditional water puppet shows, and music and dance performances. It is also a good base for excursions to the beautiful Halong Bay, or into the Hoang Lien Mountains inhabited by several hill tribes.

Information & Facts

Climate

Hanoi has a humid tropical climate, characterised by monsoons, like most of northern Vietnam. Summers, between May and September, are very hot with plenty of rain, while winters, from November to March, are cold and relatively dry. During the transition months of April and October anything is possible, and spring often brings light rain. The hottest month of the year is June. January is the coolest month, usually beset with a cold north-easterly wind.

Eating Out

Vietnamese cuisine is defined by its fresh ingredients, use of herbs and fast cooking times. It is unlike any other Asian cuisine, and sampling its many variations is one of the true pleasures of visiting Hanoi. The ubiquitous phonoodle soup served with slices of beef ( bo) or chicken ( ga), fresh bean sprouts, and various spices is available everywhere around the city.

Although there are many fine dining eateries, a more democratic and authentic way to dine is to dine at the many street restaurants, sitting on tiny plastic stools. Here you can sample classic dishes like banh cuon, steamed rice pancakes filled with finely chopped pork; nem ran, fried spring rolls, and bun cha, flame cooked pork often served in a noodle soup. A well know street food joint is Cha Ca La Vong on Cha Ca Street. Here you can find the iconic North Vietnamese dish cha ca, which is fried fish and dill patties with noodles.

Lots of these restaurants only serve one dish, which means they've generally perfected it. So put aside your expectations of good service, pleasing décor and a varied menu, and try a different spot every day. Afterwards visit a café for some ca fe(coffee) and a pastry, or a bia hoi(draft beer) tavern for some low alcohol lager.

Getting Around

Public transport is limited to buses, which are extremely cheap, but slow, crowded and a challenge for non-Vietnamese speakers. There are plenty of taxis to be hired and this is the safest and easiest way to get across the city, but make sure the meter is switched on and change is given. Motorbike taxis are also a cheap and easy way to get around, but the driving can be nerve-wracking. Renting a car or a motorbike are also popular options; all cars come with a driver/guide, which is a good idea considering the chaotic nature of the streets. Visitors should be cautious about renting a self-drive motorbike, bearing in mind the primary cause of injury and death among foreigners in Vietnam is due to motorcycle accidents. Two-seater cyclos (cycle rickshaws) are plentiful and can be flagged down anywhere, but should be avoided at night. Fares should be negotiated beforehand and a map is useful, as many drivers don't speak English.

Kids Attractions

Hanoi is a very child friendly city for locals and visitors alike. Children's Park at the top end of Lenin Park is cleverly segmented into different attractions based on age groups. There are rides, boats, swings and plenty of space to run around in. It's also a popular hangout for expat families.

Another must see is the Museum of Ethnology with a huge and colourful selection of arts and crafts, plus lifestyle reproductions of different traditional homes used by ethnic minorities. In the evenings head to Hoan Kiem Lake to see the traditional Vietnamese art form of water puppetry. The vignettes are performed quickly and with great energy and musical fanfare so kids don't have time to get bored.

When things get desperate, or if the rain keeps falling, go to Vincom Tower, the most modern and action-packed of the city's modern shopping malls. You'll find cinemas, including family movies on Sunday mornings, arcade game parlours and kids rides.

The other truly kid friendly destination in Hanoi is the Old Quarter, with its ancient traditions, evocative old buildings and rich sensory experience. This is a slice of Hanoi as it was when founded a millennia ago.

Finally, on hot day in Hanoi - and that's most days - take a taxi out to Ho Tay Lake Water Park with 12 slides and other aquatic attractions. Don't expect the water to be crystal clear, although staff assure visitors it is hygienic.

Language

The official language in Vietnam is Vietnamese. Some Chinese, English and French are spoken. Tour guides can also speak Russian and Japanese. Numerous ethnic languages are also spoken in parts.

Money

The official currency is the Dông (VND). There are no smaller denominations. Currency can be exchanged at banks, bureaux de change, hotels and on the black market. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are becoming more widely acceptable, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but it is best not to rely on them elsewhere. It is recommended that visitors bring travellers cheques in US Dollars, which can be cashed at major banks in the main cities and tourist areas. US currency acts as unofficial tender and is useful as a back-up when banks won't cash travellers cheques outside the main cities, but notes must be relatively new and unmarked. Dông can be withdrawn from ATMs, which are becoming more widespread.

Shopping

Hanoi offers a less frenetic and commercialised shopping experience than Ho Chi Minh City in the south of the country. Traditional arts and crafts are more popular here than mass produced goods, and night markets are a vibrant social occasion not to be missed.

The old town is where most of the art galleries are situated. A lot of up and coming artists exhibit here and if you can spot quality and bargain skilfully you can pick a truly unique and worthwhile memento of your Hanoi visit.

Also popular souvenirs are paraphernalia from the communist and war eras, including Chairman Mao branded goods, medals, bullets, and Zippo lighters - the latter invariably of modern provenance and not found in a former battle zone as claimed by the salesman.

Other souvenirs include silk garments, wooden carvings, shoes from silk or bamboo, ethnic weaving, rice paper notebooks and paintings, and the distinctive conical hats which have been worn for centuries and are still much in evidence today. Look out for hats made in Hue which each have a unique poem inside the rim.

Avoid buying gemstones unless you have the skills to tell the difference between jewels and polished glass.

Time

Local time in Vietnam is GMT +7.

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