This post was written jointly along with Cindy of Free Two Roam.
Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and its second largest city after Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a chaotic city but one that you absolutely must explore while in Vietnam, especially if you’re interested in culture. While, its utter craziness makes it one of our favorite places in South-East Asia, there are interesting layers to the city (and some quiet spots) that you discover the longer you stay. But you do need to be prepared before visiting Hanoi because it’s nothing at all like home. To truly appreciate Hanoi’s attractions, sights and culinary offerings, you will have to step outside your comfort zone with an open mind. So, if you are planning your first trip to Hanoi, here are 14 things you need to know before you go:
Vietnam Travel Tips: Things To Know Before Visiting Hanoi
1. Know the Vietnam visa rules
Most first-time visitors to Vietnam find it difficult to wrap their heads around the country’s often-changing visa regulations which vary according to your nationality, duration of stay and how you intend to arrive into the country (by air or land).
Many nationalities need a visa in advance and tourist visas issued in advance allow you to stay in Vietnam for a maximum of 30 days. The fees are $20 for a 30-day Single Entry tourist visa, and $70 for a 90-day tourist visa, at the time of writing.
If you simply don’t have the time or want to keep things convenient, you can also get your visa on arrival approval letter from an online visa agent. The agency will email the visa on arrival approval letter to you after you fill out an application form and pay a small fee to the agency for the convenience. Then the visa on arrival approval letter, signed by Vietnam’s immigration department, is emailed to you. Take a print out of it and submit that along with two photos when you arrive at the airport in Vietnam to get your visa on arrival stamped (stamping fee of $25 for a single-entry visa). Bring exact change is USD as they’re strict about that.
Some nationalities are visa-exempt and allowed to stay in the country for 15 days. Bear in mind that your passport must be valid for at least six months from the date you arrive into Vietnam. If you decide to extend your visa in the country, the easiest way to do it is well in advance and in big cities like Hanoi, Hue and HCMC through a trusted travel agent, as the bureaucracy can cost you both money and time.
2. The traffic in Hanoi is crazy
Hanoi (and Vietnam in general) is famous for its huge number of motorbikes. Hanoi alone has over five million of them! That’s a lot of motorbikes, which means a lot of traffic. When you first arrive in Hanoi, you’ll be hit with your first bout of culture shock when you take your taxi from Hanoi airport to the city. You’re unlikely to have seen so many motorbikes on the road before. Their constant honking takes a while to get used to. In fact, the traffic is so chaotic that you’ll often see low metal barriers placed across the footpaths to stop motorbikes from riding along them! We saw several episodes of footpath riding in places without those barriers.
3. Crossing the road in Hanoi is terrifying
Don’t expect people to stop and wait for you to cross the road. If you want to cross, you’ll just have to be assertive and walk out in front of the oncoming traffic; it’s pretty scary at first. A few times I quite expected to be run over and I often let out a little shriek as I began to cross, particularly in the first few days!
But people are very courteous and they will slow down to let you cross, but only if you make the first move. Just remember that cars and trucks can’t stop as quickly or swerve around you as well as motorbikes, so give them some extra distance. Try and look the drivers in the eye as you cross, to ensure that they’ve seen you. Crossing the road in Hanoi will certainly give you an adrenaline rush! But after a few days of it, you’ll begin to enjoy the challenge and it turns into a bit of a fun game.
4. 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. Here’s a guide to buying souvenirs in Hanoi.
5. Road rules in Hanoi aren’t rigid
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.
6. Don’t drink the tap water
The tap water in Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam is not drinkable. Buy bottled drinking water from supermarkets and be sure to check the seal on the bottle. Alternatively, bring a bottle and a water filtering system.
7. 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.
8. Life in Hanoi happens on the street
Hanoi is all about the street life. As you walk around Hanoi, you’ll find that most daily activities are done outdoors. Women cook and wash dishes on the sidewalk. People use the street as coffee shops or restaurants. They’ll sit on little plastic stools and eat or drink with their friends. You’ll see hairdressers styling hair out on the sidewalk, children playing football in the middle of the road and metalworkers welding on the footpath. One of the most fascinating things to do in Hanoi was to just observe all of this frenetic activity as people went about their daily lives. We could easily just sit and watch it for hours!
Here’s a two-day Hanoi itinerary.
9. 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!
10. The food in Hanoi is amazing
Well, it’s Vietnam, so of course, the food in Hanoi is amazing. Vietnamese is one of my favourite 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 (especially for us Australians).
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.
11. 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.
12. You can walk on a train street in Hanoi
In Hanoi’s old quarter, you’ll find a very unusual street called Train Street. What’s so special about Train Street? Well, the apartments in this residential street are built right up alongside a still operational train line.
Just like every other street in Hanoi, daily life unfolds on Train Street. People walk along the track, children play on it and chickens forage on it. That all happens right up until just before the high-speed train comes storming through. A few minutes beforehand everyone clears the line. The children head inside, chickens are returned to their pens and everyone just watches the train blast past, its horn blaring.
Once the train has passed, everything returns to normal. This event happens twice daily, at approximately 3.30 pm and 7.30 pm. The street is so narrow that when the train passes by it fills almost the entire street. If you want to watch you’ll have to stand right up against the wall. It’s a real adrenaline rush!
13. 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!
14. 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.
15. Avoid scams in Hanoi
It seems like there are a lot of unlucky travelers that get scammed in Hanoi, but I wouldn’t judge the city from these instances. You’ve got to have your wits about you and be a little street smart.
When booking hotels or hostels in Hanoi, be sure to have the right address. Some fake hotels take on the name of other, more famous hotels and the hotel you show up at might not be the same one you read about on TripAdvisor.
Don’t go along with random touts at the railway station who offer to take you to a hotel or hostel- they’re most likely taking you to a shit place and get a commission for that. When getting into a taxi to your hotel, know the address and pretend like you’ve done this a hundred times before. Looking lost makes you vulnerable to a scam. Read about common taxi scams in Hanoi.
Beware of train ticket booking scams for long-distance trains. Some ticket agents promise to book a sleeper berth and charge you extra for a lower berth but when you show up on the train, it’s not what you expected. They usually pocket the difference. At other times, travelers have found that they were sold fake tickets by scammers claiming to be ticket agents.
Book through a reputed agency only or directly at the train station. If you book through an agency and are sent a receipt and ticket by email, you’ll have to exchange this for a proper ticket at the train station ticket counter. Do not handover the receipt to a stranger at the train station claiming to be an agent who can help you skip the line.
16. 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.
17. 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 belonging 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 the toilet. Don’t wander about lonely alleys late into the night and stick to streets where you see other people.
18. You can get tailor-made clothing at reasonable prices in Hanoi
While there’s lots to do in Hanoi, getting tailor-made clothing, if you have the time and money, is a popular thing to do in Hanoi. There are many tailoring shops and boutiques in Hanoi where you can get customized suits, shirts, trousers and dresses made at a fraction of the cost you’d find in Europe or elsewhere in the west. Vietnamese silk is known to be good quality and you’ll find that boutiques offer a variety of designs.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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!
22. To enjoy Hanoi, you’ll need to learn to relax
For first time visitors, Hanoi can be very overwhelming. Especially for westerners used to more tranquil environments. The cultural difference is huge but that’s what makes Hanoi so special. If you relax and adapt to the local lifestyle for just a few days, you’ll have a much better time. Take it all in and laugh about all the quirky, funny things that you come across. There will be no shortage of them!
We are Cindy and Simon, the two travelholics behind Free Two Roam. We recently decided that part time travel was no longer for us and decided it was time to leave our jobs, sell our belongings and roam the world! So far between us we’ve visited 47 countries, but our list of places to visit keeps getting longer and longer. So why don’t you come and journey along with us on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.
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