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The city of Hanoi is amazing. For a capital city, it is surprisingly authentic and has somehow managed to retain its neighborhood charm throughout the yeaTravellers often forward to walking the famed streets of the Old Quarter when visiting. Everywhere you turn, there is a shop owner calling out prices for their goods, local children playing on the roadside, and tempting wafts of freshly cooked street snacks just ahead. It is full of life! If this is your first time to Vietnam and you’re wondering where to start, come to Hanoi. On that note, being a new environment, there may be one or two unexpected surprises along the way. To help you be mentally prepared, here are five useful tips for first-timers visiting this vibrant capital city.
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Having been to other parts of Southeast Asia, I can still say that the traffic in Hanoi tops the chart when it comes to motorbike mayhem, beating major cities in Thailand and India hands down. In 2017 the number of motorcycles within Hanoi alone went up to 5 million, and it just keeps increasing. Many first-timers find the simple act of crossing roads highly stressful, spending a lot of time waiting on the side for a safe moment to cross - even after the traffic lights turn red. So when the traffic lights turn red in Hanoi, go ahead and cross the street but always stay alert for renegade bikers who still try to sneak across at the last second. Once you decide to cross, try to be committed and walk fast. This will give oncoming bikers the chance to calculate their distance and know how to avoid you even with their law-breaking impatience. Hopefully. Try to keep a consistent walking pace and don’t freeze or panic in the middle of the road.
Mad traffic and now scams??? Don’t worry, I promise it’ll get better after this. Tourist scams are a worldwide thing and there's no point staying home in fear of being scammed. The idea is to be one step ahead of the scammers!
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In Hanoi it is very common to encounter persistent peddlers of all ages as you’re taking a stroll along the street. I suppose the good thing is that they’re not just begging for money, but there’s a potentially valuable exchange being offered. However, you still need to be prepared. Know how much you’re willing to spend on a certain item, be reasonable, check its quality, and then don’t budge. Haggling is common. After your first purchase, you’ll probably be approached by another child or adult trying to sell you almost the same thing and they rarely take no for an answer. Many local peddlers have also learned to take time befriending you before pushing sales of their handicraft or street food. If you’re not comfortable making a purchase, don’t feel obliged. Firmly but politely decline and move on. You’ll realise it is sometimes just an emotional game after seeing how quickly they move on to the next tourist behind you. Harsh but true.
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Taxi scams are also common. A few ways to avoid this especially from the airport is to refer to the rate board and get the taxi driver to agree on that rate or make sure the meter in their vehicle works. Also get them to agree that toll and parking charges are already included. Get into a habit of showing them the actual address of your destination so there’s no room for them to make mistakes. Upon arrival, don’t pay any extra than what was agreed on - unless you genuinely want to tip for good service. I would simply avoid all of this hassle by hailing a Grab ride from my smartphone. Set up your auto debit or credit card payment within the Grab app to avoid situations where the driver may not have change for your cash payment. Fees are set by Grab and monitored through the app system. Easy!
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If you haven’t already heard, Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee, exporting up to US$3.5 billion worth of coffee in 2018 alone. It goes without saying that they take their coffee seriously. Back on homeland, the locals have perfected a very unique way of brewing their coffee over the years, partially inspired by the French way of doing drip coffee yet significantly distinguishable from all other methods. Coffee is served individually with boiled water in a filter cup that is placed on top of the actual drinking up. It is left to drip even after being served, sometimes with condensed milk on the side or even whipped egg for a creamy finish. Giang Cafe in Hanoi is well-known for egg coffee and if you want a cafe with a little bit more history, get your cuppa at Cafe Lam, the oldest cafe in Hanoi.
It isn’t that hard to have access to Vietnamese food from anywhere in the world these days. You’ve probably already dined at a Vietnamese restaurant with “Vietnamese food” on the menu and then expect to see the exact same items available in any part of Vietnam you travel to. Well, the good news is, Vietnam is more exciting than that! There are so many different types of local dishes, each unique to a different region in the country.
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When in Hanoi, don’t just go looking for pho, bun cha and banh mi, instead look for dishes that only Hanoi does best. Some notable ones are: cha ca - sizzling white fish seasoned with tumeric and dill served in many restaurants along Cha Ca Street (yes you read that right) or at Cha Ca Thang Long restaurant in Duong Thanh Street.
Lau is a hotpot meal that is perfect for sharing with your travelling companions during the colder months and there are various kinds of hotpots to be found all over Hanoi: crab vermicelli hotpot (at 66 Pho Duc Chinh), duck hotpot (at 172 Tran Binh), frog hotpot ( at Hot Pot Ha My), snail hotpot (at Bún Ốc Bà Lương), and of course chicken or mushroom hotpot which are the most common.
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Banh cuon is made of steamed rice rolls stuffed with minced pork or chicken, mushrooms, and bean sprouts. It is like the Vietnamese version of chee cheong fun if you’re already familiar with Chinese dim sum dishes. You can find this tasty light snack at Gia Truyen in the Old Quarter or at 14 Hang Ga.
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If you’re a seasoned traveller you probably already do this out of habit whenever you visit a new city. Hanoi should not be an exception. There are a few major attractions just beyond the city that you can squeeze into your itinerary to make the most of your trip. Just 2 hours and 40 minutes east of Hanoi by bus is Halong Bay where you can stay a night or two on a cruise and kayak to the pearl farm during the day. It is a very relaxing way to end your holiday in Hanoi.
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On the contrary, a trekking adventure with stunning green views awaits you further up north in the hills of Sapa. Sapa is a little further away but you can spend the 8-hour journey sleeping on the overnight Vietnam Railway train from Hanoi to Lao Cai train station. You can catch the 9:35 PM SP1 train or the 10:00 PM SP2 train from Hanoi and choose from a range of different classes - four to six sleeper berths - with various prices for each (about RM20 - RM70). From Lao Cai station, it is another 1.5 hour journey by bus or hired van to Sapa which should only cost about RM20 per person.
These external trips are also available as tour packages that can be bought all over Hanoi. However, it can take quite a lot of effort to filter through each just to find a trustable value-for-money deal. I say skip the hassle and book your tour with Mayflower before you travel. If you think this article has given you enough to start planning an independent trip, go for it and purchase your flight to Hanoi right here.