Direct flights mean you can now visit Hanoi for a long weekend (just about). Our writer takes a jet-lagged, surreal tour of Vietnam's colourful capital
Hanoi's fish market. Photograph: Alamy
The waiter was missing two fingers. The other two and his thumb were squeezed tightly around the throat of a bamboo snake, writhing and snapping and trying to relieve the waiter of one of his remaining digits.
With his other hand, he pulled a knife from his back pocket and made a delicate incision in the soft flesh of the snake's underbelly, into which he stuck his finger and ripped out its heart, plonking it into a small glass of rice wine in front of me. The wine blushed crimson.
He held the glass in front of my face. The heart was still pumping, sending little ripples through the liquid.
"Drink. Quickly," he said. "As guest, unlucky if you don't…"
I had arrived in Hanoi just a few hours earlier, having been invited on the inaugural direct flight from the UK to Vietnam, which cuts many hours off the travelling time.
It had seemed the perfect opportunity to see if Hanoi could work as a long-weekend destination. After a sleepless 11-hour overnight flight, with a seven-hour time difference and feeling utterly bewildered in the fog of jet lag, it was already looking like one of my stupider ideas.
"You here just for three days," Thone, my guide, had said at the airport. "Crazy. What do you want to see?" "Everything," I'd said, which was my second mistake.
And so there I was, surrounded by Hanoi families enjoying their reptilian repasts, swallowing the still-beating heart of a snake, followed by snake intestine and kidney stir-fry, sticky rice in snake bile, and snake-head crème caramel. As I washed it all down with a bottle of rice wine containing a cobra's penis, I had a vision of animal-rights activists and environmentalists in the UK slugging it out for the right to rip my heart out.
We walked back towards downtown Hanoi on the narrow walkway across the mile-long Long Bien iron-truss bridge, high above the Song Hong, or Red River – from which the city gets its name. Hanoi means "the city in the bend of the river".
It has six million people and 6m mopeds, and it seemed like they were all out riding across the bridge, carrying just about every load imaginable, forcing us to fling ourselves against the railings to avoid decapitation by a bed frame or getting knocked over the side by a wardrobe. The never-ending tide, combined with the trains that trundled across, made the whole structure bounce and pulse as if it was alive.
Huc Bridge, which spans Hoan Kiem lake. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy
Just off the bridge, we entered the labyrinthine streets and alleyways of the Old Quarter, Hanoi's beating heart of commerce, as old as the city itself. Beneath a canopy of banyan trees dripping with Spanish moss, the pavements were full of people washing clothes, men welding metal, and makeshift barber shops. This made it necessary to walk in the road, amid the moped madness. Thone had perfected the art of negotiating the mopeds, communicating where the tide should part by wafting his hand in some divine way, like Moses.
Women in coolie hats weaved past bearing vast loads of cassavas and dried fish in baskets at either end of a flexing bamboo yoke, tiptoeing under the strain as if wearing shoes two sizes too small. If there was ever a place to feed western fantasies of the Orient, here it was.
Every street has a designated purpose, the legacy of the 13th-century guildsmen who divided up the Old Quarter into 36 areas, so the prefix "Hang" on street signs means "merchandise". We turned into Hang Ma, where the Hanoians go for their paper votive offerings to be burned on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. The votives are a reflection of their interests, so there were paper cars, stereos and life-sized bicycles.
Most shops had altars with burning incense and flowers – bought on the 1st and 15th of the Chinese lunar month for luck – at their entrance, Casablanca lilies and orchids: Vietnam is blessed with more than 1,000 varieties.
On to Hang Dong (copper bells and gongs), Hang Cot (bamboo) and Hang Non (hats). It was like the ultimate department store. On Thouc Bac (herbal medicine), the shops were crammed with lotus seeds, huge cinnamon sticks and jars of rice wine full of snakes and scorpions. The sweet smell was quite overpowering.
I was flagging now, seeing all of this as if through frosted glass. Thone took me to my hotel. I'd just dozed off when the speakers that line every Hanoi street started up, like the call of mosques, but instead of muezzin inviting the faithful to prayer, it was the government reminding citizens to pay their taxes. That stopped after an hour, after which the couple next door started having very noisy sex. At 5am the street speakers kicked off again. Then my phone rang.
"Time to go, Mike," said Thone, "no time to waste."
Weavers with conical fish baskets. Photograph: Alamy
In the grey dawn light we arrived at the Brobdingnagian vastness of Ba Dinh Square, where elderly figures exercised, flapping like butterflies in time to staccato instructions from a woman at the front. A shrill flurry of whistles, then authoritarian martial music boomed out from unseen speakers and a column of soldiers appeared, marching with furious intent in uniforms as white as virgin snow. They raised Vietnam's flag in silent reverence.
"Now you go and see Uncle Ho," said Thone, pointing to a huge colonnaded building. "He's just back from Moscow for his annual touch-up, so should be looking good."
As I shuffled in, joining a snaking queue of Vietnamese, an angry-looking soldier told me to take my hands out of my pockets, and the one 10 yards along not to hold my hands behind my back. I felt like I was going to see the headmaster, which in a way I was, because suddenly I was staring at the yellow, goateed corpse of Ho Chi Minh – Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, revered father of modern Vietnam, liberator from French colonialism, who died in 1969 – lying in his glass sarcophagus. I looked around at the Vietnamese, some wiping away tears, some staring in awe, and felt like an interloper at a moment of private grief.
In front of Ho Chi Minh's house, we walked around a carp lake shaded by mango trees, which the Vietnamese seemed to appreciate, seeing as they were all applauding it. Thone explained that Uncle Ho is said to have called the fish to be fed by clapping his hands and thus visitors now do the same. I clapped. No fish came, but a boy next to me smiled.
We stopped at a backstreet restaurant for pho bo, Hanoi's delicious staple – a salty soup of rice noodles and beef, garnished with ginger and lime and fiery chillies. We ate it with our knees up around our shoulders, sitting on the Wendy House plastic stools that every Hanoi café seems to favour, and which Thone couldn't explain.
After lunch we walked through the five courtyards of the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first university, founded in 1076, a maze of beautiful formal gardens framed by fig trees, with low-slung pagodas with sinuous roofs. Young women in dazzling white and yellow silk ao dai dresses, embroidered with delicate silk roses and gerberas, prayed to a statue of Confucius for good exam marks.
In the middle of the city we walked around the most famous of Hanoi's many lakes, Hoan Kiem, which glittered like mercury under the sun. We weaved through games of badminton being played on makeshift courts on the pavements, the nets strung between flame trees festooned with red paper lanterns that hang like pendulous fruit.
If the morning had been full of light, the afternoon was darker. We visited the Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by US air crew downed during their ferocious bombing of the city. One room was full of dummies of emaciated Vietnamese prisoners shackled by the French colonial authorities to their beds, the next contained the prison's grisly original iron guillotine. Then there were photographs of smiling GIs playing table tennis, which illustrated either a more benign captivity or the fact that it's the victors who write the history books.
Close by, at Dii Vet, an Aladdin's cave of a shop selling exquisite lacquerware and hand-embroidered silk tapestries, a smiling boy held up a beautiful scene of Halong Bay for me to inspect. He had seven fingers on each hand and smooth skin on the side of his face where an ear should have been. Other young people sat at looms, their fingers weaving, but staring ahead with lifeless eyes.
"Deaf and dumb," said Thone. These were some of the five million people still hereditarily affected by the Agent Orange dropped by the US. "They make these things here and send the money back to their villages."
After another sleepless night for me, Thone turned up on his moped and patted the back seat. "Now you get to see Hanoi properly!"
We flew down a street lined with coffins and a street packed with shoes, along wide boulevards flanked by giant rosewood trees, around lakes and past temples, around us continued the intricate ballet of mopeds, carrying caged parrots, or hidden under mountains of flowers so they looked like carnival floats. We passed mustard-coloured French belle-epoque mansions, the magnificent French colonial opera house, and a huge statue of Lenin, and rode along a street of restaurants where glazed dogs lay on their backs in display cases as if waiting for a tummy tickle. I felt like I had never been to such a beautiful, strange, crazy place.
On the way to the airport, Thone dropped me off at the Thang Long, a water puppet show that has its 11th-century origins in the paddy fields of the countryside and which can be best described as Punch and Judy in a pool. I watched a succession of surreal giant fish, fire-breathing dragons and mutant mushrooms do battle with villagers, accompanied by a man playing the single-string dan bau, or zither, and a woman with the most haunting voice I've ever heard.
Fourteen sleepless hours later, I would be back in my flat in London, looking at two giant water puppets and a snake's penis in a bottle of rice wine, the only proof that this was no half-remembered dream.
From Nội Bài International Airport, take an official airport taxi to your hotel. Use the official taxi stand on the island across from the exit doors. Check the official sign at the taxi stand for latest flat fare). Do not, under any circumstances, accept a ride from someone intercepting you in the airport lobby offering to ‘help’ you or offering you a taxi ride, even if it’s at the going fare - just push your way through the gauntlet and head out to the official queue. Driving time: Approximately 45 minutes from the airport to most places downtown. West Lake area will be closer.
Itineraryat a Glance:
Ba Đình Square > Temple of Literature > lunch at Quan An Ngon > Old Quarter walk dinner at Highway 4 > optional stroll around Hoàn Kiếm Lake or after dinner drinks
A Day in Hanoi
Ask your hotel to recommend a nearby pho stall, or go for a bowl at Phở bò Gia Truyền, at 49 Bát Đàn Street on your way up to Ba Đình Square; if your hotel is near the Opera House (Nhà Hát Lớn) or south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, tryPhở Thìn atno. 13 Lò Đúc. Driving time from Hoàn Kiếm Lake to Ba Đình Square: < 15 minutes
Soak in the expansive Ba Đình Square andimposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. If you arrive between 8AM and 11AM, Tuesday-Thursday, or on the weekend, you can go inside to pay your respects to Uncle Ho. The viewing is free, but you’ll still need to stop by the bag check and wait in line to be escorted in. If you a not a fan of the embalmed look, visit Ho Chi Minh’s residence instead, including his wooden stilt house and gardens. The residence is open daily between 7:30AM and 4PM, but closes for lunch between 11AM and 1:30PM. Another quick but interesting stop in this area is the Chùa Một Cột (One Pillar Pagoda).
If the weather is nice, consider walking from Ba Đình Square to the Templeof Literature. Walk down Điện Biên Phủ, say hello to Lenin’s statue in the small park directly across from the Army Museum, then head West on Trần Phú Street. Turn left at Phố Hoàng Diệu, then right on either Cao Bá Quát or Nguyễn Thái Học; head straight down (South) Phố Văn Miếu, which runs along the eastern wall of the Temple of Literature. Near the end of the street, you will see Craft Link, KOTO, and Pho 24 on your left. Turn right along the wall and you will see the main entrance of the Temple of Literature immediately on your right. Approximate walking time: 30 minutes. If it’s hot, take a taxi. Driving time: < 10 minutes Rest stops: Stop to enjoy a coffee or cool drink at Highlands Coffee under the trees just inside the walls of the Army Museum, on Điện Biên Phủ. Or, wait until you arrive at the Temple of Literature and either duck into KOTOto enjoy a coffee or fruit shake, or snack on a bowl of pho at Pho 24, both around the corner from the main entrance. Soak up the history, quiet gardens, traditional architecture and scholarly atmosphere at the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu). Rub the head of a stone tortoise supporting the scholars stellae for luck in studies. And keep on going through the series of courtyards and buildings until you reach the one with the museum (of sorts) inside, flanked by bell and drum towers. To get to this last area, you’ll have to skirt around the actual temple structure on a narrow walkway. Note: Don’t buy anything (except maybe postcards) in the gift shop at the Temple of Literature, or you will pay at least 10 times more than just about anywhere else. If you have time before you move on to lunch, stop by Craft Link (note: they close for lunch between 12:15 and 1:15PM), also on Văn Miếu Street, just a few yards up from KOTO and Pho 24, which is a quality non-profit handicraft cooperative offering great one stop shopping for a range of tableware and house wares.
Feast at Quan An Ngon Restaurant, sampling street food from all regions of Vietnam. If the menu is too overwhelming, simply browse the stalls around the perimeter and point at anything that looks interesting. Take a taxi from the Temple of Literature. It’s walkable, but the route is a torrent of motorbikes, cars and buses, and is not very pleasant for pedestrians.Driving time: < 10 minutes
Explore the Old Quarter on foot (or by pedicab, but you’ll have a lot more flexibility to nose around if you are on foot). You can pretty much make your own route through the narrow winding streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Of the guidebooks, Insight Guide’s Hanoi book offers the best detailed descriptions of different walking routes with an excellent accompanying map. Even without a map, it’s a very small city, so you can wander at will and if you get lost, just ask for Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake) and people will point you back toward the lake.
Barebones shopping geography: North of the lake, you can find all you need and more without going further from the Hàng Bè, Hàng Bạc, Đinh Liệt, Cầu Gỗ loop. For those interested in propaganda art, there are two shops north of the lake, one on Hàng Bạc (between Hàng Ngang and Đinh Liệt, on the north side) and the other on Cầu Gỗ (between Hàng Bè and the alley leading to the Hàng Bè market, on the north side). There is another interesting propaganda art store near St. Joseph Cathedral. Facing the cathedral, head left on Nhà Chung street; keep your eyes peeled on the same side of the street as the church. You will see a small sign and a small metal spiral staircase in a small recessed area. Head up the stairs and you’ll find the shop. Don’t mistake the run of the mill propaganda poster shop across the street for this place.
To the west of the lake, Hàng Gai is chock full of silk shops, Hàng Hòm haslacquerware and bamboohandbags, bed and table linens, home décor andclothing. For ceramics shopping that’s a cut above what you’ll see everywhere else in design and quality, try Hanoi Moment at no. 101 Hàng Gai Street. For cotton bedding, quilts and embroidered linens (including great children’s items), visit Tân Mỹ, at both no. 66 Hàng Gai and around the corner at no. 62 Hàng Trống. Two popular shops that sell house wares, and home furnishings are Dome, at no. 71-B6 Hàng Trống, near the intersection with Nhà Thờ, and Mosaique, at no. 22 Nhà Thờ, to your right as you face the cathedral. tableware and home wares, and Hàng Trống and Phố Nhà Thờ are lined with all manners of Hanoi’s high end shops selling
Besides soaking up the busy street scenes, fascinating store fronts and French colonial architectural detail, there is shopping for local trinkets and handicrafts on pretty much every street and corner. Do not miss the openHàng Bè Market that runs east-west on a small alley between Hàng Bè and Đinh Liệt, parallel to and between Hàng Bạc and Cầu Gỗ. Also take the time to wander over the little red arched bridge to Ngọc Sơn Temple at the northeast corner of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Rest stops in the Old Quarter: Slogging through Hanoi’s frenetic streets and sometimes earsplitting traffic will take its toll on you. Sneak up to the top floor of the Secret Café at the head of Hàng Gai, or rest your feet and clear your head at Hapro Coffee (formerly Highlands Coffee) on Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Small cafes and restaurants are also dotted around St. Joseph Cathedral. To escape inside but keep an eye on the activity below, head upstairs to Highlands Coffee or Legends Beer at the top of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, on the east side of the traffic circle. A seat on the balcony will offer a mesmerizing perspective on the vehicular chaos below. If you opt to stay on the street, stop and try a local bia hơi anywhere you see a plastic keg (yellow on both ends, with a green belly); there’s usually a small sign propped nearby indicating the price per glass. (1,500-3,000 Dong)
Highway 4 (Hàng Tre or Mai Hắc Đế locations). If you are exploring the Old Quarter, you may want visit the Hàng Tre restaurant, since you can walk over. Approximate walking time: 10 minutes from the traffic circle at the top of Hoàn Kiếm Lake The rooftop seating at the Mai Hắc Đế location offers a nice al fresco dining option and after dinner, you can also walk up Phố Huế/Hàng Bài back toward Hoàn Kiếm Lake, experiencing Hanoi’s street life at night. The road will be packed with young people on motorbikes, heading out for the evening or just catching a breeze. Driving time: 10 minutes from the traffic circle at the top of Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Enjoy a walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, observing the night life and traffic around the lake. You’ll see dancing or aerobics in front of the statue of Lý Thái Tổ, hordes of young couples huddled together on the backs of motorbikes. If it’s summer, stop at Fanny’s Ice Cream, across from the Hapro Coffee on the southwest corner of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, to sample some lychee, durian, or soursop sorbet (the dark chocolate is also excellent). Estimated time for an idle lap around the lake: 45 minutes to one hour.
Or, watch the action through the giant plate glass window from the bar ofBobby Chinn’s. To escape the din entirely, retreat for a quiet drink at theLy Club, or Le ClubBar in the Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Check our Night Life in Hanoi page for more late night options.
Most international flights have a late night departure out of Nội Bài Airport. Allow an hour for the drive to the airport, just to be safe. The same companies that run airport taxis from the airport also have fixed rates for rides out to the airport (VND150,000 from Nội Bài and VND120,000 from Hanoi to Nội Bài). These are much cheaper than taking a taxi out on the meter. Note that it costs more for a ride out than a ride in. Keep a card from the company if you are satisfied with your trip in, and be sure to call a day ahead to book a pick up at your hotel.
If Hanoi and its lavish array of attractions still cannot satisfy your adventurous spirit or you are simply getting fed up with this noisy crowded city and want some fresh air, just pack up and move out of the inner city to explore numbers of destinations where both stunning scenery and fresh atmosphere are always welcoming you. This guide shall introduce you to five must-see sites near Hanoi for a one day trip.
1- Huong Pagoda (Perfume Pagoda)
Huong Pagoda is an immense complex of Buddhist pagodas, several Gods temples and communal houses, located on Huong Son Town, My Duc District, Hanoi. The center of this complex is laid inside Huong Son Cave, called Chua Trong (Inner Pagoda).
In order to reach this holy sanctuary, tourists are given chances to travel on boats cross a long and narrow but romantic stream. Along its side are extending patty fields where egrets flying intermittently above; grassy dunes and temples here and there. It may take ones 2-3 days to pray at all temples and explore the entire zone.
The real challenge is the uphill path which consume both of ones’ time and energy with thousand of slippery stone steps. After sweating a little bit to reach the top, where the main pagoda is settled inside Huong Son Cave, ones are advised to wear on warm clothes or take a few minutes to dry your sweet because the inner cave is quite cold. This cave is naturally decorated with wonderful shapes of stalactites and stalagmites that may dazzle visitors’ eyes.
Huong Pagoda is most well-known for its festival, lasting very long from the beginning of January to early April. During the occasion, Huong Pagoda welcomes thousands pilgrims from both inside and outside of Vietnam.
2- Traditional handicraft villages
Visiting traditional handicraft villages around Hanoi should be a good idea for travelers getting bored with busy life of the inner city. The tour will be divided into two morning and afternoon session with one village to visit in each depending on travelers.
Bat Trang Ceramic Village: Getting to the destination either by motorbike or bus crossing Chuong Duong Bridge, a large area of ceramic pottery workshops are open to you. In here, ones can buy the best quality ceramic products, moulded by skillful hands of craftsmen and in various sizes, colors and design. It’s even more exciting when ones are invited to create a ceramic product yourselves.
Van Phuc Silk Village: The site is undoubtedly a paradise of silk and fashion lovers with over 1,000 silk shops, offering a diverse range of delighting shirts, crafts, ties and dresses made of silk here are standing out thanks to its light weight and smooth appearance, high quality and a variety of colors that will definitely be suitable for any skin tones.
3- Duong Lam Ancient Village
The village is 60km from Hanoi center that may takes you a whole day trip. Duong Lam Village is proud to be the most ancient village in Vietnam which is still remaining its lavish array of historic relics and ancient architecture dated to 1,200 years of history. Besides, Duong Lam landscape is typical for a Vietnamese village with poetic rivers with rows of bamboo on its bank, vast patty field where several buffalo or cow digging glass nearby.
4- Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay has just been qualified to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World is definitely a must-see destination. Located within the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay is a spectacular formation of around 2,000 small limestone islets with the total square of 1,553 km2. The Bay’s outstanding scenic beauty promises tourists unforgettable experience.
5- Ancient Capital Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh)
The Ancient Capital Hoa Lu is the first capital of feudal system in Vietnam, which associated with two prosperous dynasties: Dinh Dynasty and Le Dynasty. From 968-1010, the old capital achieved lots of glories before King Ly Cong Uan decided to move the capital to Thang Long.
Hoa Lu is a complex of ancient vestiges, which has been officially preserved by Vietnamese Government since 2003. The collection of national relics here is larger than any other provinces of Vietnam which consists of temples and communal houses worshiping national heroes Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh; antique pagodas which are well-known all over Indochina like Bai Dinh Pagoda, Ban Long Pagoda or Nhat Tru Pagoda; underground palaces and grottos; not to mentions a bunch of natural wonders like Thien Ton Cave, Tam Coc – Bich Dong; Ma Yen Mountain, Flag Mountain.
Spring is really a festivity season in Hoa Lu thanks to dozens of carnivals being held in this first capital of Vietnam.