HANOI, VIETNAM – 48 hours may not sound like enough time to experience everything Hanoi has to offer, but in a tourist-friendly city like this, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you can accomplish.
As Vietnam's capital city for almost a thousand years, Hanoi has long been considered the country's cultural center. Hanoi's many museums, embassies and holy shrines to the late Ho Chi Minh reveal the rich history left behind by its storied dynasties. However, with new high-rises going up, and cars and motorbikes multiplying daily, it is also a city on the verge. Life in Hanoi is getting faster all the time. Split your time between the city’s historic Old Quarter and take a day trip to Halong Bay for maximum benefit. Here’s a guide on how to get the most out of your two days in the city.
Check into the Medallion Hanoi Hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter. This three star boutique hotel is clean, offers a decent breakfast with an omelet station, and is walking distance to several attractions. Request a room away from the street in order to limit noise. While located next to a bustling and distinctly lower class hostel next door, the Medallion is simply the best accommodation option in the Old Quarter. Address: 11 Ma May Street, Hoan Kiem District. Telephone: (+84 4) 3926-1302.
Walk around and discover all the fantastic shops and boutiques that the Old Quarter has to offer! Especially prized by French tourists are the country’s lacquerware. The Lacquer Shop offers a wide range of handicrafts and furniture at competitive prices. Coconut shells with a gilded lacquer interior are an especially popular souvenir. Address: 28 Ta Hien Street. Telephone: (+84 4) 3926-1332.
Another popular shopping option is t-shirt chain store Papaya. Claiming to “help children and mother nature in Vietnam,” this store sells a wide variety of t-shirts suitable for gifts. Address: Across the street from The Lacquer Shop.
Have lunch at the Blue Butterfly Café. A short walk from the Medallion Hotel, this popular café serves delicious fried spring rolls and other Vietnamese specialties for reasonable prices. Ordering so-called “Irish Coffee” was a bit of a surprise. Instead of coffee and a splash of Irish whiskey, I was served with a glass of Bailey’s Irish Crème, Irish Whiskey, and Kahlua! Address: 61 Hang Buom Street. Telephone: (+84 4)3926-3845.
Take a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Built with Russian aid, this is Vietnam’s definitive museum dedicated to the life and times of the Communist leader. Documents, photographs, artifacts and tableaux are presented to trace Ho’s passage from birth to death, and the evolution of his philosophy and vision for Vietnam’s future. The museum is closed on Mondays and Fridays. Admission is 25,000 dong. Address: 19 Ngoc Ha Street, Ba Dinh. Telephone: (+84 4) 846-3572.
Have dinner at The Rooftop. Offering one of the best views of Hanoi’s skyline, The Rooftop offers some of the city’s most sophticated cocktails, an extensive wine list, and an eclectic menu. Of course, these views and Western standards will result in paying for the privilege. Address: 19th floor, Pacific Place, 83B Ly Thuong Kiet, Hoàn Kiem District. Telephone: (+84 4) 3946-1902.
Have breakfast in your hotel and head out to Halong Bay. A four hour drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay is undoubtedly the country’s greatest natural treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Boasting a stunning 3,000 lush limestone islands, the bay also has a suite of natural wonders such as illuminated caves, emerald grottos and sandy beaches. A short day cruise, exploring some caves, and eating lunch on board your boat will easily last four to five hours.
After you arrive back in Hanoi, stop by Le Pub for their daily happy hour specials and food options. No trip to Vietnam is complete without sampling the country’s finest beer: Bierre Larue. Address: 25 Hang Be Street, Hoan Kiem District. Phone: (+84 4) 3926 2104.
In Vietnam, men tend to deal with men and women tend to deal with women. Addressing an opposite member of the sex is considered somewhat direct. If possible, divide interactions based on gender.
The Vietnamese currency is the dong. You can exchange currency in any of the following ways: at a bank, through an authorized exchange bureau or at a hotel reception desk. The best rates are at banks, but exchange bureaus are the most convenient option, as they're open longer hours. Most major credit cards should be accepted in almost any major city or popular tourist spot. Additionally, US dollars are eagerly accepted virtually everywhere.
Vietnamese generally expect foreigners to tip, and may even request one. However, the 15-20% rates that are common in the West can be much less here. Even 10,000 dong will be warmly received.
Vietnam is a safe country, and you should protect your belongings the way you would anywhere. The biggest threat to personal safety likely emerges from the zooming e-bikes that clog roads. Skilled drivers are unlikely to hit you, but keep alert when stepping off sidewalks.
A surprising number of Vietnamese taxi drivers and vendors speak English and are quite eager to engage in conversation.