Hanoi, which literally means "the city in a bend of the river," spreads across the plains along the west bank of the Red River. The centerpiece of the historic citya hub of commerce and politics for nearly 1,000 yearsis tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake. To the north of the lake within the Hoan Kiem District are the narrow lanes of the teeming Old Quarter. Originally inhabited by three dozen trade and craftsmen guilds, each with its own street, the quarter is now a favored haunt of bargain hunters and backpackers. South and east of the lake stands the French Quarter, where the broad boulevards are lined with gracious, colonial-era municipal buildings and villas. The bulk of the museums and embassies are found in the quieter Ba Dinh District west of the lake, just beyond the retail bustle of the up-and-coming Church Quarter surrounding St. Joseph Cathedral. One mile northwest of Hoan Kiem is Ho Tay, or West Lake, considered the city's poshest residential address.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit is during the autumn months, when northern Vietnam is generally warm, sunny, and dry, although typhoons can threaten coastal areas in September and October. Cold winter weather arrives in January; the mercury dips into the 50s in Hanoi and drops even further in the mountains along the Chinese border. Summer temperatures hover in the high 80s in Hanoi, when the humidity and rains are most intense.
HOW TO GET THERE
Hanoi's gateway is Noi Bai International Airport (HAN), approximately 20 miles north of downtown. Taxis are available and generally charge from $10 to $12 for the 45-minute drive, but the chaotic airport can be disorienting and clogged with touts. If possible, arrange to be picked up by your hotel's shuttle service, which usually costs between $20 and $25. Vietnam Airlines (84-4-873-2732; www.vietnamairlines.com.vn) operates daily nonstop flights from Ho Chi Minh City and other major domestic cities, such as Danang and Nha Trang. A half-dozen daily Vietnam Railways trains make the 1,070-mile journey from Ho Chi Minh City and points in between; SE-class trains have air-conditioned cars with "soft sleeper" berths (www.vr.com.vn).
Vietnam's bus network is impenetrable if you don't speak the language. You're better off hiring taxis, which are clean and inexpensive. Hail them on the street, outside one of Hanoi's hotels, or at major tourist attractions. Make sure the cabbie turns on the meter. At night, beware that some taxis will try to run "fast meters" that overcharge for short trips. Ask your hotel for guidance about what most trips will cost. You can also hire a car with a driver for about $33 a day (ask at your hotel or at the Hanoi Tourism office). Cyclos are two-seated carts powered by a man on a bicycle. Flag these pedicabs down the same way you would a taxi. This isn't the most comfortable way to get around, but you should try it at least onceperhaps to tour the wide, tree-lined avenues of the French Quarter.
A decade ago, nearly everyone but the Communist party elite got by with bicycles. Now all but the poorest peasant has a motorbike, though no one seems to have studied the rules of the road. First-time visitors to Hanoi are often baffled about how to cross the heavily trafficked streets. Watch locals and you'll see that the trick is to walk slowly and steadily into the road. Cars, motorcycles, and the rare bicycle will swerve to avoid you (albeit at the last second). Still intimidated? Shadow these intrepid pedestrians much as a football running back follows his blockers.
Visit the Vietnam Tourism office for free tourism information (80 Quan Su St.; www.vietnamtourism.com). You can also try the travelers' cafés, which run useful notice boards, or ask at one of the big hotels in the city center. The most informative of the free Hanoi guides is Vietnam Pathfinder, a monthly roundup of activities and commercial listings geared toward expats and tourists (www.pathfinder.com.vn). The New Hanoian Web site contains customer reviews of restaurants, bars, and clubs (www.newhanoian.com).View Vietnam Factsheet