Image credit: Starwood Hotels

Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is bustling but beautiful, writes Ben Lerwill

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One important fact about Hanoi: if you’re looking for a city that’s serene and reserved, you may as well stop reading now. Vietnam’s enjoyably manic capital may still have plenty in the way of lakeside walks and graceful French colonial buildings, but it’s not ageing quietly.

Motorbikes swarm the streets. Cooking steams and sizzles from noisy alleys. Fruit-bearing vendors turn the pavements into an ever-rolling marketplace. It gets called Asia’s most Asian city and, crucially for visitors, it’s also well placed for further exploration of the country.

There’s plenty happening in terms of air access. Vietnam Airlines, having shifted its UK base from Gatwick to Heathrow in March, takes delivery of Dreamliner aircraft in July. The planes will fly direct into Hanoi’s new international air terminal three times a week (the airline also has non-stop services to Vietnam’s other major hub, Ho Chi Minh City).

International tourist numbers to Vietnam have risen almost fourfold in the past 15 years, and interest in the destination is growing.

What to Do

Hanoi has several stand-out attractions. Hoan Kiem Lake is the city’s main landmark, and its tree-ringed perimeter is an enjoyable place to walk, particularly in the early mornings, when it becomes a communal space for locals to practise tai chi.

Nearby, the Old Quarter is Hanoi’s throbbing heart and the best place to sample the city’s much-lauded street food. Inside Vietnam Tours offers a three-hour small-group tour of the most authentic food spots with a local expert. Prices start at £55, including plenty to eat and drink.

Also popular are the regular performances at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, which is located almost adjacent to the lake. There are seven shows daily and tickets cost from £1.80.

Elsewhere in the city, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (pictured below – free entry, closed Mondays and from September to November) offers the chance to see the country’s still-revered father figure lying under glass – it’s less ghoulish than it sounds. The mausoleum is close to the city’s other large body of water, West Lake, which these days is home to various high-end clubs and hotels.

Other cultural picks include the millennium-old Temple of Literature (65p, daily), the excellent Vietnamese Women’s Museum (90p, daily), and the Museum of Ethnology (£1.30, closed Mon), which is of particular interest if clients are continuing on to ethnically diverse spots such as Sapa, Mai Chau or Ha Giang (see ‘Moving On’).

Insider Journeys has a private Early Bird Bike Tour – a guided cycle ride beginning at 4.30am – for anyone keen to see the city in a way few other tourists do. It takes in the city’s flower market and costs from £39.

On a more general note, Premier Holidays offers a full-day city tour from £53, incorporating the mausoleum, Temple of Literature and a tour of the Old Quarter on a traditional cyclo.

Hanoi Mausoleum Image credit: Starwood Hotels
Image credit: Starwood Hotels

Where to Stay

Hanoi has a wide range of accommodation these days, with a choice of big-name international chains and an increasing number of quality boutique properties. Many of the more popular hotels are located in or around Hoan Kiem and the Old Quarter, although West Lake is also a focal point.

The best-known option remains the Sofitel Legend Metropole, a fixture in the city since 1901. Built in a neo-classical style during French colonial rule, the 364-room property is still an opulent choice.

Just a stone’s throw from Hoan Kiem Lake, the hotel features a spa, three high-end restaurants and a fleet of vintage Citroën cars. A night’s B&B with Travel 2 starts at £62 a person.

Not far away, the four-star Silk Path Hotel is a 106-room option sitting in the western part of the Old Quarter. It’s a modern, well-run establishment with comfortable rooms, free Wi-Fi and a gym. Inside Vietnam Tours offers rooms for £84 a night, including breakfast.

Two boutique properties have opened in the Old Quarter since last year: the Oriental Central Hotel and Oriental Suites Hotel. Stylish rooms range from £25 to £56 at the Oriental Central and from £25 to £88 at the Oriental Suites.

To the south of town, about a 10-minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake, the Sunway Hotel is a popular four-star hotel with 145 rooms. It’s away from the sensory melee of the city centre, which is a selling point for some. Kuoni has rooms from £31 a person a night, including breakfast.

Across town on the shores of West Lake, meanwhile, the classy Sheraton Hanoi has 299 rooms, all of which offer lake views. Features include a tennis court, four restaurants, outdoor pool, spa and club lounge.

The hotel is Gold Medal’s best-selling property in Hanoi. A night’s B&B in a deluxe room starts at £54 a person.

Hanoi West Lake Tran Quoc Pagoda - Image credit: Starwood Hotels
Image credit: Starwood Hotels

Moving On

The most obvious add-on to any Hanoi trip is a visit to Unesco World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay, which is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive. A photogenic spread of 3,000 limestone outcrops spearing out of the sea, it’s become one of Vietnam’s stand-out tourist draws.

G Adventures has a four-day Hanoi & Halong Bay Experience package, including an overnight cruise on a junk boat, from £239 a person.

For those who want to experience Ha Long Bay in real style, Insider Journeys has a two-day Paradise Peak Cruise. Prices start at £590, including private touring, an overnight sailing on a luxury vessel, a cooking demonstration and a morning tai chi session.

Another popular trip from Hanoi is to the highland town of Sapa, a one-time French hill station famed for its glorious spread of rice terraces, hiking trails and colourful minority tribes.

The town is about six hours from Hanoi by road, and many tourists opt to catch an overnight train to nearby Lao Cai. The best time to catch Sapa’s rice terraces at their most verdant is between July and September.

The town itself is well set up for tourists, particularly since the opening of the swish 57-room U Sapa, partly run by the local Hmong people, last August (rooms from £41.50).

For those interested in exploring further, Intrepid Travel offers a five-day Sapa Adventure, beginning and ending in Hanoi, which gives customers the chance to trek the hills and stay with a local family. Prices start at £370.

Another spot easily reached from Hanoi is the scenic area of Mai Chau. It’s about four hours from the capital, and is characterised by traditional stilt-houses, farming villages and rice paddies. Various countryside treks and homestay options, some of them very comfortable, are available.

All the above are well frequented by tourists, but those looking to get slightly more off the beaten track should consider Ha Giang. About 180 miles north of Hanoi, it has an impressive mountainous setting and a market popular with local minority groups.

Insider Journeys offers a four-night private Ha Giang & Beyond tour from £565 a person. And if clients are really keen to get under the skin of the region, Inside Vietnam has a 16-night Northern Vietnam Adventure, taking in Ha Giang, Mai Chau, Dien Bien Phu, Sapa and a range of lesser-visited areas, priced at £2,350 excluding international flights.

Sapa, Vietnam