My favorite way to experience the charm of Hanoi is to be on my feet walking the thousand-year-old streets. Every corner of every alley whispers something about Hanoi’s complicated history, the buildings stand as pillars to its past that stretches millenniums deep. Have you ever tried to navigate the city to Tran Quoc Pagoda, one of the oldest pagodas of the capital built when the national religion was still Buddhism? Have you ever tried to imagine that this human-dense city was once totally emptied as part of the Tran Dynasty’s genius strategy to defeat Mongolian invaders– the same invaders that had defeated the whole of China, part of India, and even part of Europe? Do you have an interest in visiting B52 Victory Museum, a museum that illuminates how this old city dreadfully collapsed, then recovered after the terrifying battle in 1972? Hanoi represents all these tumultuous times; the streets that I love to walk are records of all those ups and downs of dynastic reign and ultimate triumph over destruction.
Getting around this city, paying a visit not only to historical areas but also to today’s modern structures, is the best way to experience this urban metropolis. However, it may seem daunting to navigate this incredibly crowded, motorbike-dense, and traffic-jammed city. In this article, I suggest the best means of transportation to travel around main avenues in the city: the airport, the Old Quarter, and West Lake.
From the airport (Noi Bai International) to the Old Quarter
From Noi Bai airport, it is easy to call yourself a Grab car (remember you need to pay them the 2-way gate fare of 30,000 VND ~ $1.5 USD). This will save you money and the headache of getting a taxi. Make sure you have the Grab app downloaded to your phone. You can do this before your travels or by using the airport wifi once you arrive. Choose a proper pickup and drop-off point to avoid communication issues. If you decide to use Grab, you won’t have to exchange money at the airport since you can pay by credit card.
If you do not want to resort to modern technology and would like to partake in some traditional alternatives, just hail a taxi. There will be a taxi lineup the moment you walk out of the airport. Notable and reliable brands are:
- Taxi Mai Linh (phone no. 024 38 222 666): the remarkably green cab with its name “Mai Linh” on both sides.
- Taxi Van Xuan (phone no. 024 38 535353): the grey cab with a blue and a red line along both sides. This one offers quite a low price compared to Mai Linh because the car is usually in worse condition.
- Taxi Airport (phone no. 024 3200 2566): the half white and half dark pink cab with its phone number on the front door.
- If you want to choose the type of taxi and be totally in control of the price, you can always access this page to book your cab prior to arrival here.
The average price of a cab from the airport to the Old Quarter should be around 250,000 – 300,000 VND ($11-14 USD). This includes airport gate fare. Do not pay more than this and if you are quoted a higher price, you are most likely being scammed.
If your luggage is not too big and you want more leisurely transportation, look for the 86 Bus Line at Terminal 2. The approximate time of transportation is an hour, with a 30,000 VND ($1.4 USD) ticket fee and bilingual instruction. The earliest time you can catch the bus is 5:10 AM and the bus departs at 10:30 PM. One small drawback is that the bus contains only 25 seats, while its capacity is 80 people. Perhaps prepare yourself to stand during the 60-minute drive.
If airports are the bane of your existence, here is a thorough article about Noi Bai Domestic and International Airport, and means of transport to the city.
Getting around in the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is the oldest business town of the capital city, having come into existence about a thousand years ago. There are over a hundred tree-lined streets in the quarter, however, it is widely known as the town of 36 tree-lined streets. No one knows exactly when these 36 streets were established. But they have been around at least since the 19th century when the main form of transportation was still one’s feet. This explains why most of the streets are narrow, while the population is dense.
If your accommodation is not near to the attractions of the Old Quarter, there are ways to get there. You can catch the bus lines below. I recommend avoiding peak hours (6:30AM – 9AM and 5PM – 7:30PM):
- To Hoan Kiem Lake: 04, 14, or 36
- To O Quan Chuong Gate: 03, 11, 14, 22, 18, 34, 40
- To Dong Xuan Market: 31
The usual bus ticket fee is 7,000 – 8,000 VND. To prevent a miscommunication with the bus driver, you should write your destination on your phone. This way you can show him once you get on the bus. You also should be careful whenever you get on and off the bus because it pulls away quickly.
If you do not wish to ride the bus, grab a car or motorbike. The most fun and authentic option would be to get on the back of a Grab bike. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or Vietnamese, in this case. The bike is essential for a local experience. Once you make it to the Old Quarter, in order to get from one place to another, there are various options too!
My favorite way to experience the Old Quarter is to get up at 5 AM and walk from O Quan Chuong Gate to Hoan Kiem Lake, across Hang Chieu street, and Ta Hien street. The old town at this time is still half asleep, and the rare silence is peaceful. The oldest houses in Hanoi have been standing since the 18th century and they are at their finest in the early morning light. Locals also begin waking up during this hour. You will see many stalls being set up and small street-side restaurants opening their doors. Smoke from huge hotpots will warm your morning chill. Make sure to bring your camera along – you will be able to capture beautiful photos before the streets get congested with traffic.
Hoan Kiem Lake is worth a visit. In the morning, a fresh breeze and calm views will welcome you. On the bank, you will witness the Vietnamese people getting their morning exercises on. Around the lake is also a great area to jog. If you carry on to the left, you will reach the gate leading to Ngoc Son Temple. Under the shadow of one huge Banyan tree standing beside the gate, ladies conduct their sacred early morning prayers. At 7 AM, in the park nearby, there is a crowd of middle-aged locals practicing dance together. This is a typical Hanoi morning.
By walking in the Old Quarter, you could drop by a typical coffee stall of Hanoi, order a cup of ice tea and enjoy the capital’s morning charm in a really local way. If you want to make it an authentically interesting experience, let’s visit one of these oldest and most interesting cafes of the city.
Getting a cab
Getting a cab around the Old Quarter is a little tricky, especially during peak hours. It feels as though you are sitting inside a box, navigating a matrix of roads only double that of your box, looking at the stream of people like fish on either side of you.
If you really have to take a taxi in this area, we suggest you call to the switchboard to book it. First, booking a well-known brand protects yourself from taxi scams. Second, you can control the time by booking in advance rather than waiting to grab a non-occupied taxi in the Old Quarter. You may want to consider trustable brands such as Mai Linh Taxi and Van Xuan Taxi. If you do not have taxi contacts, then resort to Grab. This way you’re totally in control of the cost and the route, and it’s safe. However, one huge issue you may have to face is that cab drivers may ignore your order during peak times due to crazy traffic jams.
This is the best way to get around town if you don’t enjoy walking! Calling a Grab Bike has never been easier! Bikes can easily zigzag their way through traffic so you don’t have to worry about being stuck in the congested streets behind lines of cars. The price might go up a bit during peak time though. However, it shall not be a big deal, as it is still going to be cheaper than catching a cab.
You could also try renting a bike to travel around. Automatic or Semi-automatic bikes (with the average price ranging from $7 to $10 per day) are a great option (believe me you don’t want to get a Honda FTR and see your high-geared motor trapped among the crowded streets of the capital). If you are a foreigner first getting to know Hanoi, you should check this rental service out – this highly recommended service is wholly run by expats.
By far the most unique way to get around the old town is the cyclo, or three-wheeled bicycle. These first appeared in Vietnam during the French colonial period. You will have front row seats to the charms of Hanoi as you as your peddler peddles you leisurely around the Old Quarter, witnessing the daily life of the locals. Make sure you give the cyclo a chance as these vehicles are a dying breed. However, watch out since many cyclo peddlers are not honest about pricing and scamming. If you decide to take a cyclo, make sure you pay between 100,000 – 150,000 VND per hour ($4.6 – $6.9USD) riding around the Old Quarter.
I recommend booking cyclo tours with your hotel or with a trustable party. Check these tours out: Sans Souci (the oldest and most well-known cyclo brand in Hanoi), TNK Travel, and Hanoi Cyclo Tour.
From the Old Quarter to the West Lake
West Lake is an enjoyable part of the city. This 500-hectare freshwater lake in the Northwest center of Hanoi was created from a curved part of Red River. Over the past 4,000 years, West Lake has witnessed thousands of changes in the city. Around its banks are remarkable relics that whisper much about the history of the Vietnam Dynasties.
Several words cannot capture the whole picture of this 4-millennium-year-old lake, but I want to share with you a few places I recommend! Drop by West Lake and visit Quan Thanh Temple, one of the Four Sacred Temples of Hanoi. Don’t miss Thanh Nien street, the current name of the old Co Ngu street, that separates West Lake to form another lake named Truc Bach. Then take a round trip to Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest pagoda of the city. Thien Nien Pagoda will also be worth your time, it honors the founder of the weaving occupation in Vietnam.
How to get there surely depends on your starting place in the Old Quarter and how much time you have. Personally, I recommend that you book a Grab car. Try to avoid peak hours though because the price will be higher and it is harder to catch one. Uber/ Grab motorbike is the fastest and most exciting option during peak hours.
In my most recent visit to Hanoi, I actually walked from one place to the other. We started from O Quan Chuong, threw ourselves into the road matrix of the Old Quarter, visited Dong Xuan Market in the evening, crossed Long Bien Station, passed Hang Dau Water Tower, and then finally walked all the way along Quan Thanh street to Truc Bach Lake and West Lake. This route is perfect as it includes only about an hour of leisure walking with many sights on the way. You can also get some snacks or a meal at Dong Xuan Market. Did I tell you that Hanoian food is absolutely delicious? My friend particularly liked porridge with gristle and sparerib in the market. You should try this too!
Around West Lake
West Lake is really big; its perimeter is 18km long! It is truly too far a distance to walk. Just pick a few landmarks to see around the perimeter of the lake. There are many must-see attractions around the lake that reveal a lot about the culture of the city. These include Tran Quoc Pagoda, Kim Nguu Temple, Kim Lien Pagoda, the Lotus Lake, the Water Park, Vong Thi Village, etc. If you surely want to take the trip on your own, cycling around West Lake is the best option. Check out the above-mentioned Rent A Bike VN for a private scooter/ bicycle.
If you do not know much about this area prior to your visit, booking a tour is a reasonable choice. Check out Day Tours Hanoi to book your cycling trip. There are electric car tours around the lake with instructions from guides too! The service is provided by TLC Ho Tay Company (you should ask for help from your Vietnamese host to book since the site is in Vietnamese). The tour spans 2.5 hours, starting from 8:30 AM and includes must-see venues in the area.
There is never enough time to discover this thousand-year-old city which is why smart transportation can lessen travel time and increase your enjoyment. It will save you hours of getting stuck in traffic or even grant you a good time traveling leisurely around the city. Above are just several suggestions from me – a local – to you because I want you to enjoy the city as much as I do. I hope you find your best choice and have a meaningful trip in town! Let us know how it goes!
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