Xin Chào to Hanoi Vietnam
Hanoi is actually two Vietnamese words. Ha for river, Noi for Inner, Hanoi for “Rivers Inner” or perhaps “Inner Rivers.” This is an apt name because it gets something within you flowing. The smell of spices in the air will hit your olfactory senses in powerful waves.
My name is Kwame and I am happy to introduce you to Hanoi, Vietnam – one of my favorite cities in Asia. I am a student from Accra, but I have also studied in London and currently live in New York.
The kindness of the people will fill you with a flood of emotions, and the water puppet shows may bring trickles of laughter. My witty water puns aside, Hanoi is a fantastic place to experience Asian culture as it has been occupied both by Japan and China.
The people of Hanoi have held their own against the French and the Americans in war. They came away from the battles with a little bit of those cultures too. Experience how traditional and contemporary Vietnamese culture flow together in this marvellous city.
Photo of Hanoi Water Puppets courtesy of LoggaWiggler
Hanoi Things To Do & See
1. Ho Chi Minh museum
Visiting the Ho Chi Minh museum is a must. Travellers can learn about the charismatic leader, Ho Chi Minh, who galvanised the Vietnamese people in fierce battles against the French and the United States. The exhibits examine each point of the illustrious leader’s life, from his upbringing to his creation of the founding principles of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
2. Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French and originally called Maison Centrale. It was primarily constructed to hold 460 prisoners, mostly political. John McCain ended up in Hoa Lo Prison when his plane was downed during the Vietnamese war. The prison has since become a museum. Some argue that the museum has a polarised depiction of Vietnamese prisoners versus American prisoners. Although most of it was demolished to build apartments, the part of it that exists depicts exhibits from the French colonial period, complete with guillotines. Tourists can also find propaganda from the Vietnamese war period.
3. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Water puppetry dates back to the 11th century as a form of entertainment for villagers when rice fields flooded. Today it is a sophisticated art form that is sometimes enjoyed with orchestral accompaniment. Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is the best place to see puppets come to life across bodies of water.
4. Hanoi Opera House
Another must-see is the Hanoi Opera House, which is a little over 100 years. Here, you can enjoy ballet, modern and contemporary dances, and acrobatic performances that take place on bamboo sticks.
Photo of Scooters in the streets of Hanoi by Inactive Account
Ethnic groups and tribes
The government of Vietnam recognises 54 distinct ethnic groups. The Kinh folk are by far the largest ethnic group at 85.7% of the population.
Customs and etiquettes
Travellers must be mindful of some etiquette that can be counter to their first instincts. The Vietnamese frown upon public displays of affection, touching members of the opposite sex and wearing less than conservative clothing. At tables, the Vietnamese wait to be shown where to sit and always allow the elderly to sit first. Speaking in loud tones is considered rude, and so is putting hands on hips or crossing arms or expressing anger and aggression. In business/professional environments, Vietnamese do not look a superior order in the eye. They would sooner bite their tongue than vocalise disagreement for fear of being disrespectful. Another significant unspoken rule is the passing of objects, which must be done with both hands.
The people of Vietnam are very family-oriented; their definition of family includes both the nuclear and the extended. In the Vietnamese household, it is not uncommon to see three generations of the family living under one roof. Vietnamese families are patrilineal, and fathers are depended upon to provide for their household.
Photo of Hanoi Bun Oc Dish by Chuong Nguyen
Anyone who hasn’t heard of Pho hasn’t eaten it, doesn’t like it, will have a challenging time in Vietnam avoiding it. Pho is, without a doubt, the most popular meal choice for Vietnamese people. This famous soup dish has made its way across all corners of the globe, but it’s probably best tried in Hanoi. There are other lesser-known but equally traditional dishes such as Bahn Chung, which is rice and pork fat boiled in a banana leaf.
In Vietnam, there’s a sub-culture for casual drinking. Locals often brew alcohol (mostly rice-based) in their own homes. However, when women drink, it is viewed slightly differently. Beer is the drink of choice, and after working days, a beer hall is a go-to place for weary professionals.
When in Hanoi, tourists have so many street food options to choose from, which offer a diversity of meals and the added benefit of having to hustle to keep a place in line to order food. This list of restaurants is for travellers who do not have the stomach for street food culture and would rather wait to be seated. The award-winning Essence Restaurant is on the ground floor of the Essence Hotel in the Hoan Kiem district of Hanoi. People love the customer service and the variety of food offered. The Hung Snake Restaurant is also famous for its customer service and its added benefit of allowing customers to view the preparation of food.
Vietnamese lacquerware involves coating craft objects with several layers of resin to create a shiny, polished finish — crafters lacquer puppets used in water puppetry. Crafters do the same with furniture and wood ornaments. In Hanoi, one can see examples of embroidery, batik, and appliqué work, along with all the crafts mentioned earlier.
Markets and shopping
Built-in the late 1800s by the French, complete with French Court style arches, the Dong Xuan Market is Hanoi’s Hanoi’s largest covered market. One can find food, clothing, and more, here. It is a great place to experience Vietnamese shopping culture for the first time.
Photo of Ho Chi Minh Museum courtesy of Paul Mannix
Vietnamese music is diverse and based on what generation you may be from and what kind of music you enjoy. Younger generations usually listen to V pop, which is starting to incorporate international acts such as Snoop Dogg. The Vietnamese Music charts also boast some western acts. On the Vietnamese top charts, one can find artists like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and other famous American artists. However, when it comes to concert-going, you’re more likely to find local acts in Hanoi.
1. Giong Festival
Thánh Gióng is a folk hero in Vietnamese history who magically grew from a boy to a giant hero on an iron horse. This giant hero is said to have led the Vān Lang kingdom to victory against the Han Chinese. Every year in May, a festival is held to celebrate the mythical boy. If visiting in May, catch an enactment of his legendary story at the Phu Dong temple.
2. National Day
2nd September is a holiday which commemorates Hồ Chí Minh’s reading of Vietnam’s Declarations of Independence at Ba Đình Square. There are fireworks, parades, speeches, and all the pho one can eat.
3. Tet Han Thuc
The cold food festival is a holiday that is also observed in China and South Korea, where people do only eat cold food. This is a perfect time for people with constant ice cream cravings.
Day trips from Hanoi
Tam Cốc-Bích Động
Tam Cốc-Bích Động is based in the Ninh Binh province, a 2-hour ride from Hanoi by coach. Visitors can explore three caves in small boats from Van Lam village. Along the way, they can enjoy the sight of rice fields, limestone karsts and more
Languages in Hanoi
Vietnamese is the primary language of Vietnam. However, many people speak French as a second language; this makes sense as Vietnam was once a colony of France.
Photo of Hanoi Narrow Houses by David McKelvey
1. Cyclo – Bicycle rickshaw
On a bicycle rickshaw or cyclo, visitors can expect to pay between 12,000d and 25,000d for a short ride, and 25,000d and 40,000d for a longer trip or a ride in the evening. This mode of transport is most likely found near markets and hotels.
2. Xe Om
Xe Om (motorbike taxi) prices are similar to Bicycle Rickshaws for short trips. Xe means motorbike, and om means hug (or hold). Visitors can expect to find a motorbike to hug around every street corner, hotel, and bus station. If you still can’t find one of these, download Grab, it’s like Uber but for motorbikes.
Taxi’s in Hanoi are safe and affordable, with an average price of about 12,000d to 15,000d per Kilometre. However, visitors are advised to only travel with reputable companies to avoid being taken advantage of price-wise.
Cost of living
In Hanoi, the average meal price is 252,148d ($11), the average travelling price is 936,367 ($40), and the average hotel room price for a couple is 979,014d ($42) for those on a budget. Those who love to live lavishly can expect to pay 634,849d ($27), 2,822,320d ($122), and 3,179,081d ($137) respectively for the same expenses.
Airport and Travel
Visitors will most likely arrive from Noi Bai International Airport, which is a maximum of 90mins north of the city. Travellers from New York will most likely fly with Cathay Pacific or China Airlines; those leaving for London are likely to use Thai, Cathay Pacific, or Emirates.
There are many taxis with fixed rates from the Airport to the city centre. Visitors should look up prices beforehand.