Hanoi travel guide - Rusty Compass

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Hanoi travel guide

Hanoi Introduction

| 21 Aug 2017
Last updated 21 Aug 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, can make a strong claim to being one of Asia’s most compelling and beguiling cities. The tangled streets of the old quarter still teem with atmosphere, while French era tree-lined boulevards and fading grand villas showcase relics from an ambitious colonial project that was roundly repudiated.

Hanoi travel highlights

Photographer’s dream - Hanoi is one of Asia’s most photogenic cities. Architecture, street life, people and food - it’s all there.
History - Hanoi and the Red River Delta are where Vietnam’s story begins. The city’s historic heart is still beating amidst the rush to modernity.
Street food - Hanoi’s street food scene is a culinary delight.
Museums - Vietnam’s best museums are found in the capital
Make it your base - Hanoi is the best place for accessing some of Vietnam’s most loved places - Halong Bay, Sapa, Mai Chau, Ninh Binh and more.

Get the details in our Hanoi see and do listing.


Introduction continued...

But Hanoi is in a hurry. And the challenges to the city’s age old rhythms are real.

Hanoi may be rich in tradition and the source of much of Vietnam's legend, literature, music and poetry, but upheaval and consumerism have been the defining themes of the past decade.

Grand old heritage buildings disappear. Pagodas are renovated beyond recognition. The upheaval strikes family life too.

Yet so soon after embracing consumerism, in some quarters at least, Hanoians are showing signs of fatigue. Many young people are animated by environmental issues - evidenced by the huge campaign that mobilised against cynical plans to cut down thousands of the city's magnificent colonial-era trees in early 2015.

Others are concerned by the age-old threat from China that has resurfaced over competing East Sea (aka. South China Sea), claims.

Hanoi has also led Vietnam's "Pride" movement - agitating for gay rights.

For centuries, national heroes have been created here, leading armies against Chinese invaders. And it was from Hanoi that Vietnam’s long southward march to its modern borders began in the 11th century - picking up Cham and Khmer territory along the way.

In the early twentieth century a national movement took shape in French administered Hanoi that went on to evict colonial forces in 1954 before humbling the United States 21 years later.

But Hanoi’s victories over foreign aggressors have come at a terrible human cost. The twentieth century was a rolling disaster of colonial repression, hardline communism, war and famine, briefly interrupted by victory celebrations. The relative prosperity of the present has been hard won.

Even in 1976 when Hanoi officially became capital of a peaceful, unified Vietnam, the dividend was continuing misery and dire poverty. The nation’s communist leaders proved unable to translate battlefield success into post-war prosperity.

By the late 1980s, the communist hardliners had cracked. Limited market reforms were put in place and a rapid economic turnaround began to smooth over the hardest edges of life in the city. But Hanoians, conservative by nature, were slow to take up the new opportunities of economic reform.

In the mid 1990s, congenitally commercial Saigon began to race ahead of the capital.

During the past decade, Hanoi has started to catch up. The capital today is a captivating collision of generational extremes. The elderly, steeped in tradition, formed by battle and sacrifice - the globalised young, impatient and acquisitive. Bentleys and BMWs ply streets that were congested with bicycles only a generation ago.

It could be the story of any city. But here, the extremes are magnified many times by the excessive hardship of decades past and the excessive wealth at the fingertips of Hanoi’s young elite.

Much of Hanoi’s daily life still unfolds on its busy cramped streets. It’s a dramatic visual feast, perfect for photographers. The human landscape - especially Hanoi’s ever visible elderly - is a big part of its magnetism.

Hanoi’s streets are home to an impressive food culture. Locals are rightly proud of their culinary specialties. Avoid debating whether pho noodle soup is tastier in the north or the south. But don't miss local dishes like bun cha and cha ca.

Hanoi has long been one of our favourite cities. The profound bitter sweetness of its past still imbues its contemporary persona.

Few places are as rich in history and character. But Hanoi retains an elusive quality and reveals just enough to keep your interest piqued.

For information on travel to Hanoi, read on.

Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi
Photo: Mark Bowyer Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi 


Hanoi need to know

Hanoi - getting there and away

Advice and information for travellers about arriving and departing Hanoi including visas, flights, rail, road and airport information.

International Flights

Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport is the country’s second busiest after Saigon in the south. It serves direct flights from most major Asian cities as well as long haul points from Europe and Australia.

Jetstar, Air Asia, Vietjet and others offer low-cost flights into Hanoi from various South East Asian points.

Taxis and a cheap reliable shuttle bus service operate between Hanoi’s international terminal and the city centre. It's also possible to hail Uber drivers.

Taxis are now metered and cost around 360,000VND (around 17USD Feb. 2017). Shuttle buses are much cheaper and quality is OK. A slow local bus with lots of stops also operates to the centre for around 10,000VND.

Domestic flights

Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar Pacific and Vietjet operate multiple daily flights from Hanoi to major domestic points like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hue, Danang, Nha Trang, Dalat, Phu Quoc Island as well as Dien Bien Phu. Daily flights operate to most other population centres in the country as well.


Hanoi's French era railway station is right downtown. The unsightly Soviet style section in the middle was added after the original structure was damaged by US B52s in the 1972 Christmas bombing.

Rail services operate south from Hanoi along the coast all the way to Saigon including major points Hue, Danang and Nha Trang.

The train from Hanoi is the most popular route for travel to Vietnam’s far northern mountains around Sapa - though new roads make the 5 hour bus service popular as well.

The journey to Lao Cai, the gateway to Sapa and the northern mountain country, is under 9 hours and there are many services operating - mainly in the evening. Trains are also a cheap and enjoyable way to travel to nearby places like Ninh Binh, Nam Dinh and Haiphong.

A relatively small number of hardy travellers take the train from Hanoi to the Chinese city of Nanning. These connect to Beijing and other points in China. As schedules and details change, check this out when you’re on the ground and keep in mind you need a visa to enter China.


From Hanoi, road travel to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, Hoa Lu and Mai Chau is common. If you’re travelling from the south on an express bus, you may also make the long journey from Hue in central Vietnam to Hanoi by road.

Hanoi's weekend walking precinct.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hanoi's weekend walking precinct.


Hanoi getting around

Hanoi is an easy and enjoyable place to get around. While the Old Quarter is notoriously easy to get lost in, it’s small enough that it never takes long to get your bearings back. The Old Quarter’s jammed with commerce, people, motorbikes and cars so it’s a pretty intense walking experience. Other parts of Hanoi are more friendly to walkers. More than likely, you'll mix things up with some walking, cyclo rides, motorcycle taxi and taxi rides.

By taxi, Uber and bus

From the airport

Taxis in Hanoi now follow metres from the airport and are around 360,000VND (Feb. 2017) The ride is 40 minutes depending on traffic. A reliable shuttle bus also operates for around 40,000VND. Uber can also be called to the airport terminal.

It pays to be confident about where you’re headed - hotel name, number and address. There have been reports of taxi drivers scamming travellers and taking them to the wrong hotel. This is less of a risk with the official airport taxis.

When heading back to the airport from town, check the best option with your hotel. There are dramatic price differences between official "airport" taxis and normal taxis. Uber and hotel cars are often a better option.

Around town

Taxis are an inexpensive and convenient way to get around, though Hanoi’s drivers are legendary for taking travellers the long way around. There’s plenty of surliness as well - especially late at night. If you’ve got GPS on your smartphone and local SIM card, it will come in very handy. Hanoi

On foot

Apart from the heat and humidity in summer, Hanoi is a good city for walking. The Old Quarter is chaotic but we’d recommend spending as much time as possible on foot. It’s a great way to get to know the city.


Cyclos are still a fun way to get around Hanoi. Be sure to clearly agree your price in advance and remember that in these days of high inflation in Vietnam, a cyclo is usually a more expensive way to get from point to point than a taxi.

Some travellers have reported nasty experiences with cyclo drivers threatening them and grossly overcharging. Be careful and be absolutely clear on your pricing. Cyclos seem to be demanding around 50,000 to 70,000VND per hour these days.

Xe Om

Motorcycle taxis (known as xe om which translated literally means hug bike -  you have to hold on to your driver to stay on) took over from cyclos in the 90s and remain popular. The introduction of mandatory helmets at the beginning of 2008 made them a little less attractive to some but they're still a quick, fun and occasionally hair raising way to get around.

Like cyclos, make sure you clearly name your price first.

Chan Cam street villa, Hanoi
Photo: Mark Bowyer Chan Cam street villa, Hanoi


Health and safety in Hanoi

Hanoi is a relatively safe destination for travellers. Violent crime against foreigners is rare. There are some hazards worth noting though and these problems seem to be getting worse as inflation, economic hardship and drug related crime, afflict Vietnam.

Hanoi’s reputation for scams is legendary so keep your radar and your common sense well tuned. There's no cause for paranoia, though plenty of travellers have come unstuck in Vietnam's capital.

You’re most likely to be scammed when travelling in a taxi, a cyclo, changing money on the street (always a no-no) or responding to inexplicable offers of hospitality from random people on the street or in bars.

We’ve not encountered issues with security in Hanoi hotels.

Common scams and crimes in Hanoi:

Airport arrival scam: Travellers have reported booking an airport transfer but being intercepted by another driver who, we’re told, copies names and details from the legitimate driver at the airport. Sounds a tad strange, but be aware. If you happen to get in the wrong car, he’ll likely hit you up for a hefty fee or try and take you to the wrong hotel.

Dodgy taxis: Hanoi taxis are renowned for taking the long way around. The confusing street layout and the many one-way streets mean that foreigners often think they're being scammed when they're not. Try and get a sense of the geography yourself (pick up a local SIM card with data and use the GPS on your smartphone) and you'll minimise taxi hassles.

Cyclo, xe om, intimidation: At the completion of a journey, the cyclo or xe om driver will insist on a large payment (often as high as US$200) and threaten you if you don’t comply. These problems seem to be most common when travellers don’t pre-agree a price.  There’s something to be said in getting some casual happy snaps with your driver if you’re doing a longer tour with them. The photos may well help to keep them honest. 

Bag snatching: Travellers sometimes fall victim to bag snatchers on motorbikes when crossing the road though this is far more prevalent in Saigon. Be very careful with your valuables. Cameras are especially prized by thieves. Pickpockets are also a problem and target travellers around Hoan Kiem Lake.

Dodgy tours. Hanoi is infamous for dodgy tour companies selling cheap Halong Bay, Hoa Lu / Tam Coc  Sapa and Mai Chau tours - though the problems is especially bad with Halong Bay tours. If your hotel feels dodgy and untrustworthy, don’t trust them to handle your Halong Bay or any other tour. There are plenty of reputable operators. Good hotels also tend to be dependable in booking these services.

Late night crime: Hanoi’s nocturnal scene is pretty subdued by big city standards and this means that there are very few incidents. Your taxi is probably the week link in your night time chain.

If you’re a victim of crime, the Vietnam police experience is likely to be unsatisfying. Reporting a crime can be a serious hassle and empathy is not the strong suit of the local constabulary. You may need a statement for insurance purposes however so persist.


Hanoi’s medical facilities for travellers have improved lots during the past decade but they’re still behind Saigon in the south and well behind the best regional and international standards both in expertise and facilities. Seriously ill patients are commonly airlifted to Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Here is a list of international medical facilities in Hanoi:

Hanoi French Hospital 

No.1 Phuong Mai, Dong Da, Hanoi, Vietnam
Telephone: 84-4-5771100
Website: http://www.hfh.com.vn

International SOS 

Unit A, Central Building,
31 Hai Ba Trung Street, Hanoi
Telephone: (04) 9340555 (also for 24 hour emergency), (04) 9340666

Hanoi Family Medical Practice 

Suite 109-112, Building A1,
Ground Floor 
Van Phuc Diplomatic Compound,
Telephone: (04) 8461748/9 Mobile: 0903401919 (24 hour emergency) 

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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