Hanoi has been my home city for the best part of 3 years. It really should be on everyone’s list as it still holds the charm, architecture, awesome cuisine that Vietnam is knowned for. It doesn’t feel like a large Asian city and has a small town feel. The city can be split up into the following areas
This is where most travellers stay (doesn’t have 4 of 5 star hotels) but has many 1 – 3 star hotels dotted around. It is hectic but fun. A place to see local people going about their local lives. My advice is to get rid of your map, grab a camera, walk around (dodging motobikes) and get lost. Don’t feel bad about walking down the tiny alleyways, wandering into the local temples (make sure you leave yuor shoes at the door and your knees and shoulders are covered), try the array of street food, stop off at Bia Hoi Corner (corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien) and soak up the best of SE Asia.
On the west of the Old Quarter (near St Joseph’s Cathedral) you’ll find a cool coffee shop area, where the locals sip on ca fe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) against the parisian style bakeries, tapas restuarants and chic clothing shops (which, by the way, have western sizes!). This is a great place to be based and my advice is to get a hotel near here (see accommmodation later on). Taking a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake is also fun, be warned though, if you sit down, vietnamese students will ask you to help them with their english, if you have time then this is an easy way to give something back to the people, they are so appreciative.
This area is south of the Old Quarter and contains the Sofitel Metropole (arguably the nicest hotel in town and if you have some spare dong go and enjoy their daily chocolate buffet between 3 – 5pm). The streets are wider (still crazy with motobikes), it has more of a local feel and some beautiful buildings. It is also home to the Hanoi Opera House and Lenin Park which is one of my favourite parks to wander around early morning or late afternoon, to watch the locals going about their daily exercises.
West/North West of Old Quarter
This is where most of the historic buildings etc are located. You’ll find the Temple of Literature (def worth going to), One Pillar Pagoda (hmmm), Ho Chi Minh Museleum (is ok for a weird expereience but those without much time, don’t worry too much), this is closed in November when his body goes back to Russia to be preserved. This area also has old colonial buildings which are now government buildings, large treelined streets and a few good cafes/restaurants.
This area is north of the city and has a huge lake (17kms (4 hour walk around)). It is home to many expats as the air is cleaner, there are new, chic winebars/restaurants and having a lake on your front door, sure beats having a sea of motobikes. The Intercontiental Hotel is up there which has a fantastic sunset bar (open only from May – October) right over the lake.
Other areas in Hanoi are out west and best explored on motobike/taxi. There is Korea Town which is seeing huge amounts of construction, in fact, the local government are trying to make this the CBD.