Soak up culture while sipping on coffee in charming Hanoi

The “Hanoi vs. Ho Chi Minh” debate is not new, but here’s why Hanoi should be your top priority. Source: Shutterstock.

CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, the capital of Vietnam is not Ho Chi Minh (more commonly known as Saigon).

It’s Hanoi, a metropolis located in northern region of the country.

The “Hanoi vs. Ho Chi Minh” debate is not new, but if you’re hankering for a holiday destination with history (Hanoi’s stretches back 4,000 years while Ho Chi Minh City is at just 300 years), coffee, culture, and charm, then Hanoi should be your top priority.

Known for its centuries-old architecture and a rich culture with Southeast Asian, Chinese, and French influences, Hanoi’s tourism has been gaining traction as of late. This is in large part due to the rise of low-cost carriers such as AirAsia, Scoot, and VietJet, making the charming destination easier to reach from just about anywhere in the world.

It’s also the second cheapest Asian country to travel around, according to Skyscanner, which makes a Hanoi vacation a bang for the buck.

In fact, VIETNAMNET Bridge reported that Hanoi served more than 13 million tourists in the first five months of 2018, a year-on-year rise of 10 percent.

What draws people to Hanoi?

Plenty of things.

The main names that will turn up in search results when you Google “tourist attractions in Hanoi” include (but not limited to) the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, water puppet theatre, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, The Perfume Pagoda, Ngoc Son temple, Dong Suan market, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi Opera House, Ba Vi National Park, and the Temple of Literature.

The Temple of Literature entrance decorated with flags and lanterns for the mid-autumn festival in Hanoi. Source: Shutterstock.

Let’s not forget the heart of Hanoi, the chaotic but endearing Old Quarter, where Hoan Kiem Lake (Turtle Lake) is.

The fascination never ends as you walk along the narrow streets of the Old Quarter that are dotted with well-preserved colonial buildings. Scooters and bikes may whizz past you carelessly as you explore the town. Just take deep breaths and stay on your path because the area is best explored on foot.

The streets are arranged by trade, which makes shopping a breeze. Sidewalk food stalls selling pho (rice noodles with herbs and meat in broth) and bahn mi (baguette sandwich various savory ingredients) are a dime a dozen, and you can fill your tummy with satisfyingly delicious Vietnamese food for pennies.

Heads up though, the kiddy-sized low stools and tables will take some getting used to. But nothing an adventurous traveller can’t handle, for sure.

Stuff your bahn mi any number of protein options, from sweet minced pork to sardines and even pate. Source: Shutterstock.

Be sure to wash it all down with a generous serving of Vietnamese ca phe (coffee), famed for the way it’s made – with a small metal drip filter. For those who are particularly bold, the yummy ca phe sua chua (yogurt coffee) is a must-try.

Don’t forget to take a leisurely stroll at Hoan Kiem Lake, a central feature in Hanoi.

Legend has it that Hoan Kiem Lake is where the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) lives. In reality, the lake is home to large soft-shell turtles. If you’re planning to visit, don’t forget to walk across the striking red Huc Bridge to get to Ngoc Son Temple on the small island in the center.

By day, Hoan Kiem Lake bursts with activities, as it’s a popular place for joggers, couples on a date, the elderly practicing tai chi, locals line dancing, and families enjoying themselves.

Hoan Kiem Lake at night with the striking red Huc Bridge. Source: Shutterstock.

After sunset, however, the lake becomes beautifully illuminated, giving it a romantic atmosphere.

What else is there to do?

Its prime location makes Ha Long Bay, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist site in the north of Vietnam, very accessible. The bay is only about 170km east of Hanoi.

“Ha Long” means “Bay of Descending Dragons”, but it’s likely that no actual dragons were spotted there. It’s more famous for its scenic views, as it boasts hundreds (1969, to be exact) of limestone islets in different shapes and sizes rising up from the water.

Hạ Long Bay is known for its emerald waters and hundreds of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests. Source: Shutterstock.

To really experience Ha Long Bay, stay on board a cruise for a night. It’ll give you ample time to explore the bay on a smaller bamboo boat, visit hidden caves and floating villages, kayak or even swim if you’d like, before retiring and falling asleep beneath the stars on the top deck of your cruise.

How to get there?

There are no direct flights to Ha Long Bay but getting there is fairly simple and straightforward.

The most popular and inexpensive way is to get on a local coach. The journey should take you about four to five hours long. Prices are anywhere between US$3.50 to US$7. Get your ticket to your ride here.

Alternatively, you can hire a private car and have yourself a little road trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. Prices depend on car and day (can be higher on weekends and holidays) but you should expect to splurge about US$25 to US$65 per day. Go to this website for more information.

There are a number of ways to get to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi. Source: Shutterstock.

Finally, the easiest and most fuss-free option of making your way to Ha Long Bay is to book a cruise package here or here.

Most packages include a roundtrip transfer in which a shuttle will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel’s doorstep.

Meanwhile, Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district launched its own tourism website to promote its tourism potential and attract more tourists to the area.

The Hanoi Department of Tourism has also been working with CNN to give its promotional efforts more mileage via CNN’s “Destination Hanoi” programme.

This year, Hanoi expects to serve more than 25.4 million holidaymakers, including 5.5 million foreigners, which will bring in some VND75.78 trillion (US$3.33 billion) in revenue.