Hanoi is one of those cities that I kept at the back of my mind for the longest time, like a page bookmarked for future reading. I had initially “bookmarked” it in 2007 when I first visited Vietnam but only had the time for Ho Chi Minh City. I was reminded about it in 2009 when a colleague from New Zealand was raving to me how great his weekend break in Hanoi was. But it was only last week that I finally got to visit this thousand year old city during a self-imposed 3-day long weekend.
emerald waters of Hoan Kiem Lake / Lake of the Returned Sword
The city currently known as Hanoi has gone by many names. In its current form, it means “river’s interior” referring to the multiple rivers adjacent to the city including the Red River. Over the centuries, the city has changed hands multiple times between the Chinese, French, Japanese and Vietnamese. Despite this, many of the city’s colonial and precolonial structures remain intact, lending to a very historic feel to Hanoi.
huc bridge in the ngoc son temple
Many of the city’s attractions are centered around a small lake called “Hoan Kiem” or translated as the Lake of the Returned Sword. Immediately north of it is the Old Quarter, where we stayed, which is home to many of the city’s boutique hotels. East of Hoan Kiem is the charming French Quarter, where many of the grand colonial buildings are located including the famous Hanoi Opera House. Both the Old and French Quarters are within walking distance of each other. We set out for a walking tour immediately after checking into our hotel.
old quarter street scene
First-time visitors to Vietnam may be shocked by the loud honking of horns and sheer number of motorcycles competing for space with pedestrians. This is especially evident in the Old Quarter where the streets are extremely cramped and the sidewalks are usually taken up by parked motorcycles. Although I had been to Ho Chi Minh City previously, I was still taken aback. The motorcycle traffic seemed denser and the noise more startling.
turtle pagoda in hoan kiem lake
The Old Quarter is an interesting mix of shops set against some colonial shophouses. The streets are named according to the types of shops found there – there is a street for jewelry (Hang Bac); a street for shoes (Hang Dau) and so on. Our hotel was located in Cha Ca Street which is famous for roasted fish. From here, it was a short walk to Hoan Kiem Lake which is the stuff of Vietnamese legends. There are large sacred turtles that are said to inhabit the lake. In a small island on the lake rests the turtle pagoda – perhaps most commonly found in postcards relating to Hanoi. The lake itself is a famous gathering point for the city folk especially in the mornings for tai chi.
hanoi opera house
From here, the French Quarter was practically staring us in the face. Appearing more affluent, this district was dotted with small parks, brand-name boutiques, luxury hotels and buildings from the French colonial era. Its contrast with the Old Quarter could not have been any more pronounced. The Opera House is also located in this part of town, said to be one of only 3 French-style opera houses in the country. Across it is a rooftop coffee house called MyWay where one can get a great view of the activity in the opera house area.
We also passed by the Sofitel Metropole – a hotel which consistently gets rave reviews from hotel critics and receives frequent appearances in “Best Hotels in Asia” lists. Its colonial style evokes memories of Raffles in Singapore, Strand in Yangon or the eponymous Manila Hotel.
one of the many colonial buildings in Hanoi’s old quarter
We capped the night at MyWay for drinks before returning to the hotel. We had a jampacked day ahead of us due to the Ha Long Bay day trip booked.
our room which cost us only US$30 per night!
I stayed at New Century Hotel which is conveniently located in the Old Quarter. Due to the location, it may be a bit noisy due to the tons of motorbikes on the streets so ask for a room in the upper floors. The rooms are generally quite spacious and the interiors look like it’s a much more expensive hotel. Our room costs only US$30 and was big enough for 3. Breakfast included — a bit basic but hey, I wasn’t expecting a buffet for the price I paid so it was all good. The staff were very friendly and attended to all our needs.
This is the first of two parts on exploring Hanoi — click here for Part 2.
How to get there: Flights to Hanoi land at Noi Bai International Airport which has direct links to cities such as Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and of course, Ho Chi Minh City. Most hotels will gladly arrange for airport transfers and Hanoi is one of the places where this proves useful. Update: Starting 1st Quarter of 2012, Cebu Pacific will be reinstating its direct flights to Hanoi from Manila
New Century Hotel
12B Hang Manh Str
Hoan Kiem District
Tel # +84 (4) 38244005