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Online Extra
May 2004

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Chaos Reigns in the Streets of Hanoi

Hanoi Online Extra
Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Commuters drive shoulder to shoulder through the lively streets of Hanoi.

By Melissa Stillman

Many people have not yet experienced Vietnam because of its war-torn history. Those who have taken the chance, however, realize that Vietnam has not only opened its borders, it has warmly embraced its visitors. Today, Vietnam faces the tricky task of balancing a history of turmoil and traditional values with its new generation of more progressive thinkers and a recent influx of tourism.

The capital city of Hanoi, along with other metropolitan areas of Vietnam, is becoming increasingly developed while villages nearby retain the traditionally rural way of life. In cities, economic development has had its benefits and drawbacks—more people are being educated and making money but economic success has also resulted in increased traffic and the chaos it yields.

Tourists can be unprepared for the game that accompanies the simple task of crossing the street. The timid visitor might wonder how to make it to the other side of the intersection without having to walk blocks out of the way. For the most part traffic laws exist in name only. So, to be prepared for city life in Hanoi, take a look at these unofficial rules of the road. And don't be shocked if a robed monk, smoking a cigarette and driving an extremely sought-after Honda Dream motorbike, whizzes by you without a second glance.

Tips for Drivers
  1. Always yield to what is bigger, faster, and not getting out of your way.
  2. It is OK to drive a motorbike with as many passengers as you think appropriate. Depending on size, that could be anywhere from two to as many as eight.
  3. All vehicles should drive on the right side of the street, unless of course the driver chooses to drive on the left (which many do if it is more convenient for them).
  4. Drivers can operate any type of vehicle as long as their feet can reach the pedals. So, watch out for the kids behind the wheel who look like they could still be in grade school.

Tips for Pedestrians
  1. Always look for oncoming traffic and never forget the unofficial traffic lane for those driving in the wrong direction.
  2. Don't hesitate. Once you step into the street never step back because the drivers will assume you are walking forward and drive behind you.
  3. Take a break in your sightseeing during rush-hour, when the sidewalk becomes an extension of the street.
  4. Smile. People on the road will look at you oddly because you are most likely bigger and holding a money belt under your shirt. Being friendly in Hanoi will make people comfortable around you and more likely to help you out, even when you're trying to cross the street.

There is never a good or bad time to travel in Vietnam. When one part of the country is sweltering or freezing, another part is always pleasant. Hanoi, along with the rest of northern Vietnam, has cool, wet winters from November to April and hot summers from May to October. Between July and November, typhoons threaten the northern and central regions.


Go to for information on flights. For such a long flight, you will appreciate Singapore Airlines' big leather seats, individual TV screens, video games, and attentive staff. And, that's not even first class.

Visit for a complete list of airlines flying into Vietnam.
Once there, traveling from city to city is relatively easy. Vietnam Airlines flies to major cities within the country. Or you can charter a bus or rent a car inexpensively.

If you crave an adventure, the Reunification Express Train is an alternate way of traveling. The train goes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping at Vinh, Hue Danang, and Nha Trang. It is a little more than a 30-hour ride, and if you choose to experience travel the way a lot of Vietnamese do, get a berth so that you can sleep part of the way. The station in Hanoi is located at 120 Le Duan Road, (84-4) 8252628.

Around the cities, you can ride on the back of motorbikes for practically nothing, take taxis, rent your own motorbike, or buy an inexpensive used bicycle if you are willing to brave the traffic. When you leave, give your bike to a local street kid, or drop it off at a nearby school where someone will be glad to take it off your hands.

The exchange rate is approximately 14,000 Vietnamese dong to 1 U.S. dollar.

Tourists can exchange traveler's checks in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and large provincial cities at branch offices of Vietcombank and the Vietnamese overseas company, Cosevina.

Credit cards are not accepted most places, but you can use Visa at some hotels and restaurants.

There is a plethora of small, cheap hotels mainly for backpackers in the Old Quarter. Check out the room and bathroom before paying, though, as some of them are not the most pristine accommodations.

For a list and descriptions of better hotels in Hanoi, visit or or


Now that you know how to get around and where to stay, it's time to step outside and see the sights.

The Old Quarter
If you walk around the big office buildings just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, you will enter a congested area of streets and alleyways known today as the Old Quarter. This is Hanoi's merchants quarter with street names that date back five centuries. It is a quaint part of town where you can experience the lives of the working-class Vietnamese shopkeepers and pick up a souvenir from one of the many children selling crafts in the streets. You can buy anything from silk-embroidered lanterns and conical hats to fish sauce and snake wine. You can also find Internet cafés, inexpensive hotels, and restaurants catering to backpackers and students.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
President Ho Chi Minh's body rests in a mausoleum located in Ba Dinh Square. The building, at Hung Vuong and Le Honh Phong Streets, contains only a glass coffin with "Uncle Ho's" embalmed body in his faded khaki tunic. Visitors must sign in at 8 Hung Vuong Street and drop off their possessions before entering. A 4,000 dong (30 cents) donation is appreciated. The mausoleum is closed in October or November when Ho Chi Minh's body is sent to Russia for maintenance. (For more information about Ho Chi Minh's final resting place check out Did You Know?)

The Museum of Fine Arts
Located at 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, the museum holds a comprehensive display of architecture, sculptures, drawings, paintings, and ethnic minority artwork. Works of art displayed here date from the Stone and Bronze Ages. The cost of entrance is 10,000 dong (70 cents).

Temple of Literature
The temple was originally built in
A.D. 1070 as a shrine to Confucius and his disciples. Later it became Vietnam's first university. Now tourists can go there to enjoy poetry readings, concerts, and to see the accomplishments of past students. Cost for visitors is 12,000 dong (85 cents) and 20,000 dong ($1.40) for an English-speaking guide.

Mua Roi Nuoc (Vietnamese Water Puppets)
In ancient times, ponds and rice fields were the stages for impromptu puppet shows. The Thang Long Puppet Troupe is the best known group in Hanoi and performs at Kim Dong Theater just north of Hoan Kiem Lake every night at 6:30, 8, and 9. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra plays alongside the show while singers tell the puppets' stories. Show themes refer to traditional folklore and tell of daily life in rural Vietnam. If you like opera, puppets, comedy, or any kind of performance, the water puppet show is entertaining.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay contains nearly 3,000 islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in northeastern Vietnam. Viewed from above, it's a spectacular scene of grottoes and caves. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, which has increased its tourist traffic. There are tours leaving daily from travel agencies or tourist cafés in Hanoi.

Cuc Phuong
Located 90 miles (140 kilometers) from Hanoi, Cuc Phuong is a national park that preserves 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) of primary tropical forest and is home to a variety of plant and animal life, including 320 species of birds. This is a great place to hike, although you may have to rent your own vehicle to get to the park.

Sa Pa
Tourists flock to this hill town, located in the remote northwest at an altitude of 5,400 feet (1,650 meters), for the cool temperatures and the Saturday market where hill tribes come to sell their crafts. Check out the hand-woven wool sweaters and ornate blankets. Six miles (10 kilometers) from Sa Pa is Fan Si Pan, Vietnam's highest mountain, with an altitude of 10,312 feet (3,142 meters). You will need a guide and equipment (including a raincoat) if you want to brave the mountain. To get to Sa Pa, take a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and from there a local bus the remaining 20 miles (30 kilometers).

Chua Huong (Perfume Pagoda)
The Perfume Pagoda is the largest of a cluster of shrines built into the limestone of the Huong Thich mountains about 40 miles (60 kilometers) south of Hanoi. In late spring the trails are clogged with people making pilgrimages to honor Quan Am, the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion. Day trips leave from Hanoi travel agencies or tourist cafés. The bus will take you to the Perfume River, where you can catch a boat and ride the three miles (five kilometers) down the river to the base of the mountain and then hike one mile (two kilometers) to the cavern where a statue of Quan Am sits.

Related Links
This site provides a complete list of recommended immunizations and other important health information for people planning to travel in Southeast Asia.
Download a visa application for travel to Vietnam, and get useful step-by-step instructions for filling it out.
You can get an official and up-to-date consular information sheet at this site, which contains details on crime, medical facilities, entry and exit requirements, traffic safety, and other useful information.
Learn more about travel in Vietnam including a country overview, map of the country, and more ideas about how to spend your time.


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