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South by Southeast: Hit and run Hanoi
You don't just visit Hanoi. Hanoi visits you. Take a walk down any street of this fast-paced Vietnamese capital of commerce and communism and prepare to be overwhelmed by sensory delights (and annoyances). Motorbikes buzz around intersections like nests of angry hornets. Your feet trip over small plastic stools at street-side noodle shops. Vendors chase you down the street like used car salesmen, endlessly peddling a mish-mash of boat trips, tropical fruits and Lonely Planet guidebooks. It's enough to make a Southeast Asian traveler go mad. But beneath this cacophony of life and movement lies an emerging must-see destination of achingly beautiful architecture, vibrant street life and cutting-edge culture. Get out of the way - we're taking a "hit and run" tour of Hanoi.
For many years, getting to Hanoi was more of a roadblock than a green light. Situated in Vietnam's furthest northern reaches, it was a capital both hard to get to and literally hard to enter. Veiled behind a curtain of communism and painful memories from decades of war, it was a destination most American travelers couldn't and didn't visit. But with the normalization of relations in 1994 and Vietnam's admission to the WTO in 2007, tourism has been on the move. Nowhere is the "new Vietnam" more evident than in rapidly changing Hanoi. Where infamous prisons once stood, there are now luxury high rises. And in place of guns and grenades, you'll find fashion boutiques and trendy coffee shops.
Ready to take another look at this on-the-move Vietnamese capital? Keep reading below for the ins and outs of a proper Hanoi visit.
Getting to the furthest northern reaches of Vietnam has never been easier or more inexpensive. Thanks to cheap budget airlines like Air Asia and Jetstar, flying into Hanoi from other Southeast Asia capitals is a snap. If you're coming direct from the U.S., consider United Airlines and Delta, both of which now fly to Vietnam (with a layover in Asia) from the United States. For those arriving from points south in Vietnam, the country's competent rail system offers sleeper trains for around $30-40 depending on the point of origin.
What to See
Hanoi is a city with a rich history. Anyone interested in the history of the Cold War will find lots to explore at the city's many war monuments and museums, covering Vietnam's struggle for independence as well as the conflict between North and South. In addition, Hanoi is increasingly home to a thriving arts, food and nightlife scene.
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – The body of "Uncle Ho," architect of modern Vietnam, is entombed at this vast complex. There's no more surreal (and creepy) sight in Hanoi than paying a visit to Ho's preserved body. Surrounding the mausoleum visitors can investigate a large museum and complex of buildings where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked.
- Old Quarter – To see where old and new Hanoi collide, head to the city's Old Quarter. Just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, the area is home to a growing collection of trendy art galleries, bohemian coffee shops and happening bars. These businesses mix effortlessly with the area's chaotic array of merchants, selling everything from textiles to fruit shakes to motorbike parts.
- Beer, Ahoy! - Hanoi's street food is legendary. Stumble down any street and you're likely to find delicious local specialties like Bun Cha and savory bowls of Pho noodle soup all accompanied by Vietnam's infamous brew, Bia Hoi (draught beer). And for 25 cents a glass, you can afford to buy a few rounds for your pals.
- Temple of Literature – Take a trip back in time to ancient Vietnam at this well-preserved monument to the teachings of Confucius and Vietnamese scholarly works. The Temple of Literature represents an oasis of serene Chinese-style pagodas in the city's chaotic traffic-choked center.
A stay in Hanoi is incredibly friendly on the wallet. Considering the range of amenities like free WiFi and satellite TV available at most hotels and guest houses, a budget traveler will find themselves spoiled for choice starting at around $15 per night. Great options include the Especen Hotel situated just west of Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. Shoestring travelers should check out Hanoi Backpackers, which attracts a happening crowd for its daily happy hours and is a great bargain at $7.50/night for a dorm bed. High rollers frequent the Sofitel Metropole, a grand dame of Asian colonial elegance, with rooms starting at just over $200/night.
Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures "South by Southeast" HERE.