Hanoi Travel Tips: 18 Things To Know Before Visiting Hanoi
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and second-largest city, stands as a bustling metropolis that demands exploration, especially if you’re keen on immersing yourself in its rich culture. Amidst the chaotic energy that defines this city, there are hidden facets and tranquil pockets waiting to be uncovered, revealing themselves the longer you stay. However, venturing into Hanoi requires adequate preparation, as it’s a world away from the familiar comforts of home.
To truly savor Hanoi’s attractions, sights, and delectable cuisine, you must approach it with an open mind and be willing to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re gearing up for your inaugural visit to Hanoi, here are 18 essential insights to keep in mind.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Know the Vietnam visa rules
Many newcomers to Vietnam grapple with the ever-changing visa regulations, which depend on factors such as your nationality, intended duration of stay, and mode of entry (air or land). Certain nationalities must obtain a visa in advance, with tourist visas typically permitting a maximum stay of 30 days. As of the current information, the fees stand at $20 for a 30-day Single Entry tourist visa and $70 for a 90-day tourist visa.
For those seeking convenience and a time-saving option, obtaining a visa on arrival approval letter from an online visa agent is viable. After completing an application form and paying a small fee to the agency, they will email you the visa on arrival approval letter, which is endorsed by Vietnam’s immigration department. Upon arrival at a Vietnamese airport, present a printed copy of this letter along with two photos to secure your visa on arrival (with a stamping fee of $25 for a single-entry visa). It’s crucial to bring the exact change in USD, as strict adherence to this is observed.
Certain nationalities enjoy visa exemption and can stay in Vietnam for up to 15 days. However, bear in mind that your passport must remain valid for at least six months from your arrival date. If you plan to extend your visa within Vietnam, it’s advisable to do so well in advance, particularly in major cities like Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City, through a reputable travel agent, as navigating the bureaucracy independently can be both time-consuming and costly.
Hanoi Travel Tips: The traffic in Hanoi is terrifying and terrific at the same time
Hanoi, and indeed Vietnam as a whole, is renowned for its staggering number of motorbikes, with Hanoi alone boasting a population of over five million of these two-wheeled vehicles. This abundance of motorbikes translates into a bustling and sometimes overwhelming traffic scene. Your first encounter with Hanoi’s motorbike culture often occurs during the taxi ride from the airport to the city, serving as an initial jolt of culture shock.
The sheer volume of motorbikes on the road can be unlike anything you’ve witnessed before, and their incessant honking can take some adjustment. The traffic can be so frenetic that you’ll frequently encounter low metal barriers on sidewalks, designed to deter motorbikes from using them as makeshift lanes. However, it’s not uncommon to witness daring riders flouting these barriers in areas where they’re absent, adding to the city’s unique traffic tapestry.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Crossing the road in Hanoi is terrifying and terrific at the same time
Crossing the road in Hanoi is an adventure in itself. You can’t expect traffic to come to a halt for pedestrians, so you’ll need to summon your inner assertiveness. Stepping out in front of oncoming vehicles can be a heart-pounding experience, especially in the beginning when it feels quite intimidating. There were moments when I genuinely thought I might get run over, and the initial reflex was often a small shriek.
However, it’s important to note that people in Hanoi are surprisingly courteous. If you take the initiative and start crossing, they will slow down to let you pass. Just keep in mind that cars and trucks don’t stop or maneuver as swiftly as motorbikes, so it’s wise to maintain a bit of extra distance. Lock eyes with the drivers as you traverse the road to ensure they’ve spotted you. Crossing Hanoi’s bustling streets can undoubtedly provide an adrenaline rush, and after a few days, you might even find it transforming into a thrilling and amusing game.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Vietnam’s currency is called dong (VND for Vietnamese Dong)
And the exchange rate will leave you fumbling with the notes in confusion, at least in the beginning. At the time of writing 100 USD equals 2,340,705 Vietnamese dong. So you can imagine that transactions in Vietnam begin in the six figures, i.e. several thousand dong.
Be careful when you’re paying for stuff as it can be easy to make mistakes with the notes. Keep enough cash with you as your card might not be accepted/work everywhere and card cloning attempts are common.
When shopping at a market or shop in Hanoi, don’t be surprised to find that prices of goods change by the hour/day. It all depends on how the shopkeeper’s day has been so far, how much business they’ve had and how they’ve sized you up as a tourist. Just bargain to a price you’re willing to pay and leave it at that.
Hanoi Travel Tips: In Hanoi, the adherence to road rules can be quite flexible.
Don’t be surprised to come to a traffic light where the pedestrian light is green but the motorbikes and cars aren’t bothering to stop. Also, one-way roads are always two ways for motorbikes in Hanoi, who knew? Nobody seems to follow the road rules, but to our surprise, we didn’t see any accidents.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Don’t drink the tap water
It’s essential to note that tap water in Hanoi, as well as throughout Vietnam, is not safe for drinking. To stay hydrated and ensure your well-being, it’s advisable to purchase bottled drinking water from reliable supermarkets or stores. Always double-check the seal on the bottle for your peace of mind. Alternatively, consider bringing your own reusable water bottle equipped with a water filtering system to reduce plastic waste and ensure a steady supply of clean drinking water during your stay.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Everything can be carried on a motorbike
As you walk around Hanoi you’ll notice all sorts of crazy things going on with motorbikes. You’ll see entire families of five on one motorbike (often without helmets!). You’ll see motorbikes so overloaded with goods that it’s amazing that they can even move, let alone not topple over!
Our favourite pastime in Hanoi was sitting out on the pavement, local beer in hand, spotting all the strange things people were carrying on their motorbikes. We saw so many crazy things such as live chickens, huge crates of beer, furniture, electrical equipment, ladders, three-metre long metal rods, piles of boxes, and much, much more.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Life in Hanoi happens on the street
Hanoi’s essence lies in its vibrant street life. While strolling through the city, you’ll quickly notice that most daily activities take place outdoors. Sidewalks become impromptu kitchens where women cook and wash dishes, and streets transform into open-air coffee shops and eateries, where people gather on tiny plastic stools to enjoy meals and drinks with friends. Onlookers will witness hairdressers skillfully styling hair right on the sidewalk, children engrossed in football games in the midst of the road, and metalworkers skillfully welding on the footpath.
One of the most captivating experiences in Hanoi is simply observing this bustling and dynamic street life as locals go about their daily routines. It’s easy to get lost in this ever-moving tapestry, making it a pastime one could indulge in for hours on end.
Hanoi Travel Tips: You can’t always walk on the sidewalk
If you think you might avoid the crazy traffic by walking on the sidewalk, then think again. Sidewalks in Hanoi are used as motorbike parking lots and as people’s “living quarters”. There’s often no place for pedestrians on the sidewalks, so you’ll need to use the road, crazy traffic or not. Enjoy!
Hanoi Travel Tips: The food in Hanoi is amazing
Well, it’s Vietnam, so of course, the food in Hanoi is amazing. Vietnamese is one of my favorite foods and so for me, Hanoi was heaven on earth. In Hanoi, there are amazing dishes to discover. Whether you prefer street food or fancier restaurants, you’ll be spoilt for choice; and the best part is that it’s all pretty cheap. Even an upmarket restaurant in Hanoi will probably be so much cheaper than a budget restaurant back home
Eat like the locals in no-frills street kitchens, seated on plastic tables and low chairs, with $1-3 meals served in plastic bowls. Here you’ll find bank executives in suits, chatty women in dresses and young college students washing down their meals with local beer. You can also take a guided tour of street food in Hanoi, if you aren’t sure about doing it on your own.
Make sure you try some of Hanoi’s stand-out dishes such as pho (noodle soup with meat and vegetables, pronounced fuh), cha ca (turmeric fish with dill), banh cuon (rolled cake), banh goi (fried dumplings) and the delicious banh mi, thought by some to be the best sandwich in the world. Bun cha Hanoi is a specialty of Hanoi and is a dish of grilled pork with noodles.
While eating at street stalls and street kitchens, especially with soups and broths, make sure the pot is boiling when you’re getting your meal. Soups that have been standing too long and gone cold are more prone to make you sick. At such places, I would steer clear of salads where the vegetables will have been washed with tap water.
Vegetarians might find it useful to have their hotel staff write Vietnamese for “I’m a vegetarian” on a piece of paper and carry it with them but bear in mind, a lot of vegetarian food is also cooked in pork fat. Otherwise, you’ll find plenty of vegetarian food with vegetables and tofu.
If you want to explore Vietnamese cuisine more deeply, you can also take a cooking class in Hanoi and learn to prepare some traditional dishes.
Hanoi Travel Tips: The locals in Hanoi are warm and friendly
As is the case with cities that see mass tourism, sure there are scammers in Hanoi and those that just want to make a quick buck. But, on the other hand, if you steer away from the tourist trail, even something as simple as walking around in the residential neighborhoods of Hanoi, you’ll find that people are warm, friendly and approachable.
Whether it’s asking for directions or striking up a conversation with a local at the market or in a café, don’t be shy. If the person speaks English, they’re likely to be willing to talk or help you. If they don’t speak English, they’ll still try to help or find someone who can. Use Vietnamese phrases such as Xin chào (sin chow) for hello and Cảm ơn (gahm uhn) for thank you, and see their faces light up with a smile.
Hanoi Travel Tips: The local beer in Hanoi is cheap
Hanoi is famous for its Bia Hoi which is a traditional light beer. The locals brew it daily all over the city and deliver it to small corner shops. It’s super cheap, starting at 5000 VND (25 cents) a glass and you drink it out on the sidewalk (of course) sitting on plastic stools. Drinking Bia Hoi with the locals is a great experience to have in Hanoi. This beer is only 2 or 3% proof so you’ll need to down a few of them if you want to have a big night, but either way, it won’t break the bank!
Hanoi Travel Tips: The egg coffee in Hanoi is (surprisingly) delicious
Yes, that might sound unappetizing but you shouldn’t make your mind up about it until you try it. The egg coffee in Hanoi is famous, and rightly so because it’s absolutely delicious. When I first heard about it I was rather skeptical but I was hooked after just one sip. We had to have one every day we were there. Egg coffee is sold all over town but one of the best places to try it is at Giang Cafe. Giang Cafe is owned by the son of Nguyen Giang, who created the egg coffee recipe back in the 1940’s when milk was scarce. The original recipe is still used today.
Hanoi Travel Tips: There are travel agents on every corner in Hanoi
If you haven’t organized every part of your trip, don’t fret. In Hanoi, you’ll find a travel agent on every corner. And for day trips from Hanoi, everyone you meet will know a friend, a friend of a friend or a family member who can give you a tour.
The prices are often very low but bear in mind that you get what you pay for. For trips such as cruising Halong Bay, I recommend being very careful who you book with. Do some research and read reviews, or it could turn into a very unpleasant experience. That said, doing tours to places like Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta make complete sense as you’ll save up on time, money and effort than if you go it alone independently.
There are many many budget Hanoi tours that do the Halong Bay cruise, but often, they’re very low quality, food is terrible and you come away feeling underwhelmed. If you’ve made up your mind to visit this wonder of the world, then it’s worth spending a little more for a good luxury Halong Bay cruise so that you actually enjoy your tour to Halong Bay. You might be also interested in this non-touristy alternative to Halong Bay.
Avoid booking Hanoi tours with your hotel or hostel, because they usually keep a hefty commission for themselves and the tours themselves are overcrowded and low quality. Best book tours directly with agencies online after considering reviews.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Hanoi is safe for travelers and women
Petty crimes against tourists, such as theft and pickpocketing, are common in Hanoi. Generally, the people are warm, calm and helpful and not everyone is looking to rip you off. But just like in any Asian city, it’s best to be vigilant and use your common sense.
Don’t show off expensive camera gear, phones, jewelry or watches. Beware of pickpockets. Use a cross body bag to keep your belongings and valuables close to you. When you’re on a motorbike taxi, keep your purse/bag/day pack between the driver and you to deter bag snatchers.
Don’t leave valuables unattended on overnight trains, take your phone, cash, wallet and passport with you each time you go to the toilet. Don’t wander about lonely alleys late into the night and stick to streets where you see other people.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Haggling is expected while shopping in Hanoi
As with a lot of Asian countries, you need to haggle for your purchases. In fact, sellers expect you to. If you don’t haggle you’ll be ripped off majorly because the markups they have while quoting prices are huge. Start with half of their opening price and work your way upwards until you both agree on a price. Sometimes you may need to pretend to walk away politely to get the best price but remember that sellers need to make money too. Be reasonable with the prices you expect.
Hanoi Travel Tips: Getting around in Hanoi is easy
The most common type of transportation in Hanoi, used by both locals and tourists is the xe om or motorbike taxi. However, as a woman traveling alone late in the evening, I wouldn’t take one of these. If you want something more comfortable or spacious, then go for a Grab taxi which has its own app.
If you plan to visit other parts of Vietnam, then the train, such as the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa, is both comfortable and reasonably priced. Book the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa (Lao Cai station).
Book your taxi from Hanoi airport to the city beginning at $14.
Hanoi Travel Tips: It may not be love at first sight with Hanoi
Some cities are so easy to fall in love with but Hanoi is not one of them. In fact, when we first arrived I hated it. But it didn’t take me long to change my mind (half a day to be exact).
What made me change my mind? Walking around the Old Quarter did. The Old Quarter is the heart of the city and it’s the best place to spend your time in Hanoi. The Old Quarter is where all the action happens and believe me, there is plenty of it going on. The Old Quarter has a very traditional Vietnamese atmosphere. You’ll see old women with their traditional conical hats, carrying heavy baskets hung from poles across their shoulders. You’ll also see chickens freely roaming the streets. It’s a totally different world and that’s why we loved it!