This guide to getting about in Hanoi provides advice for traveling in Hanoi, including traffic, transportation, dress, crime, shopping, and so much more.

Layout of downtown Hanoi
Hanoi traffic and transportation
Shopping in Hanoi
Hanoi's People
Dress in Hanoi
Crime in Hanoi
Mail in Hanoi

Layout of Downtown Hanoi

Hanoi lies along the west bank of the Red River. The city consists of a core downtown section which stretches south along the river from West Lake down to the area surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. Newer sections of the city, and outlying districts beyond them, radiate south and west from the city center. Noi Bai International Airport lies north of Hanoi, about 30 minutes by car from town.

The city center can be roughly divided into two parts. The administrative, business, and tourist heart of Hanoi is in the neighborhoods stretching from northwest to south in a roughly one-mile radius around Hoan Kiem Lake. Most of the city's major hotels, best restaurants, and good shopping are found here, along with the seat of government and most foreign embassies.

Just north of Hoan Kiem Lake is the city's old quarter, also known as the 36 Streets. This is the area which carries the most original architectural and lifestyle flavor of Hanoi and should not be missed. Many of Hanoi's original trades are still represented in the streets bearing their names, and several large markets give a good feel for shopping Hanoi-style. North of the Old Quarter lies West Lake and the northern limit of the city proper.

Hanoi Traffic and Transportation

Traffic on Hanoi streets is extremely chaotic. Traffic on a typical thoroughfare includes buses, heavy trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos, pedestrians (often pulling handcarts), and even the occasional pony cart, all jockeying for the same pavement. Motorbikes are by far the most common vehicles, followed closely by bicycles. Average speeds are quite slow because of bicycle and pedestrian traffic, but speeding and darting motorbikes are becoming more common, with negative consequences.

Rules of the road commonly accepted in the west do not apply. Traffic lights are a relatively new introduction and not widely obeyed. Lane markings, including pedestrian crosswalks, exist but are completely disregarded. It is common for bikes and motorbikes to drive the wrong way down streets, against traffic. Vehicles stopped in traffic do not pull over. Vendors selling produce from their laden bicycles typically set up in the street near intersections, looking for the greatest volume of potential customers and creating crowds around them of stopped vehicles. Friends on bikes and motorbikes like to ride abreast and catch up on conversations in traffic, often holding hands in a chain effect.

There are three main modes of public transportation:

-- Taxis now abound in Hanoi. They are metered, inexpensive, and reasonably safe. Most drivers are quite honest; a few would rather bargain for the price of a ride (and keep the fare themselves) than turn on the meter. Taxi drivers frequently do not have small change and often hope that foreign passengers will simply forego getting change for their big bills. Carry small change or stay in the taxi until the driver procures change.

-- Xe om (seh ohm), or motorcycle taxis, are even more abundant than taxis. They can be identified by the green pith helmets their drivers almost invariably wear. Riders must bargain with drivers for the price of the ride before getting on the back of the bike. Xe om drivers often drive carelessly and frequently spend their time between fares drinking at local beer stands. Riders are not provided with helmets and are in the traffic segment most vulnerable to accidents.

-- Cyclos (seek-loh), bicycle-powered taxis, are used on the streets of Hanoi for everything from carrying passengers to moving entire contents of houses. The front "cab" of a cyclo is designed for two passengers but it is not unusual to see a driver straining to pedal a cab loaded down with four or five. Cyclo fares must also be negotiated up front. Cyclos are the slowest and least maneuverable vehicles on Hanoi streets, although they tend to stay along the edges of traffic and are not as vulnerable to higher-speed accidents.

Shopping in Hanoi

In Hanoi, Hang Gai is the main shopping street where every variety of tourist item, from silk clothing to embroidered pictures to lacquerware to "antiques" (buyer beware) and ethnic handicrafts, can be found. Hang Gai is part of the 36-streets section of town north of Hoan Kiem Lake. It is on every tourist map, and any taxi driver can find it.

For ethnic handicrafts, another shop well worth considering is Craft Link, located on Van Mieu just across the street from the Temple of Literature. This store is bursting with beautiful goods, and is run by an organization which is devoted to improving the livelihoods of the artisans who make the items for sale.

For art lovers, galleries abound in the area around Hoan Kiem Lake. Painting prices range from the sublime to the ridiculous and quality also varies widely. There is a style of Vietnamese modernist painting which is quite colorful and striking.

For practical needs, small grocery stores, or "mini-marts," are springing up all over Hanoi. Hotel front desks should know the locations of the closest mini-marts. The range of western goods available increases every month.

The following baby items are widely available in Hanoi: disposable diapers in a broad range of sizes, mostly European brands. Perfectly acceptable quality. Wet wipes. Formula, including milk- and soy-based, with and without iron. Nestle predominates but other brands are available. Instant infant cereal, and instant rice porridge (called "chao"), a familiar choice for an older baby. Some western shops have small selections of jarred food. Infant shampoo, lotion, baby powder. Bottles, cups, pacifiers. Infant and children's clothing and shoes.

For travellers: all toiletries, including hygiene products, in a representative variety. Your brand might not be available but something close should be. Popular sodas, including Diet Coke. Instant coffee. Canned soups and instant noodles. Large varieties of crackers and cookies. Western-type snacks are somewhat limited. Virtually no frozen convenience or microwaveable food (for those getting temporary apartments). Very limited practical clothing in western sizes; somewhat better selection of shoes. No western books or magazines to speak of.

Hanoi's People

There was a long period in the northern part of the country of relative isolation from the west. Thus Vietnamese in Hanoi and its surrounding areas tend to be quite curious about westerners. Travellers should expect to be watched and commented on, and to be asked questions considered somewhat intrusive by western standards (how old are you, are you married, how much money do you make, why do you have those children, etc.). None of this is meant to cause offense; it is simple curiosity. Vietnamese live much more "out" in their neighborhoods than do typical westerners, who live and work in closed-up buildings and travel everywhere by car, and are avid observers of (and commentators on) life around them.

Hanoians are overwhelmingly honest and good-natured people. There is no animosity toward Americans left over from the war. People tend to be forward-looking and prefer not to dwell on the past; they are pragmatic, down-to-earth, and extremely hard-working, particularly women. Adults almost universally dote on children. Travellers can expect to have their babies taken away to be held, and their children of all ages entertained in shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Merchants and peddlers do see western travellers as great sources of income and relatively easy marks. They bargain aggressively and overcharge without mercy (but will scrupulously count change when the bargain is struck).

Dress in Hanoi

Dress is casual for most occasions. Older adults, both men and women, dress very conservatively, women mostly in pants and long-sleeved blouses, regardless of the weather. Younger people wear a wider variety of clothing and western styles are becoming popular. Women wear both skirts and pants. Shorts are not common for adults, but are perfectly acceptable for most settings. Moderate modesty is appropriate. Vietnamese wear hats in all weather, notably the ubiquitous conical hat. Plastic shoes and sandals are the order of the day year-round. Shoes are not worn inside homes.

A word to the wise: Vietnamese dress their children very warmly by western standards. Parents should expect to receive well-meaning advice, perhaps even scolding, on their children's clothing from perfect strangers.

Crime in Hanoi

Hanoi is a very safe city. There is low-level street theft of the pick-pocket variety, but threats to physical safety are rare. There have been some incidents of distraction tactics used to snatch purses and wallets. Pedestrians should try to stay away from motorbikes to the extent possible to avoid "drive-by snatchings." Anything left unattended is at considerable risk.

Mail in Hanoi

The main post office in Hanoi is on Dinh Tien Hoang on the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake. This post office has the full range of postal and telecommunications services, including express mail. Smaller branch offices are throughout the city. Mail coming into and leaving Vietnam is subject to inspection.

Catherine Coleman is a Foreign Service Officer who has served with the U.S. Department of State for 15 years. She currently works in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam. Catherine has three children: Christopher, born in 1990; and Susannah, born in 1995 and adopted in 1997 in Guangxi, China through Holt International. She recently adopted a third child from Vietnam, also through Holt.