Hanoi is one of two cities most visited by tourists in Vietnam, the other being Ho Chi Minh City better known to the rest of the world as Saigon.
It has to be said that most tourists go to Vietnam to shop and visit iconic spots on the side.
If your main purpose in visiting Vietnam is to do lots of shopping for cheap knock-off or factory overruns of designer clothing and accessories, and see remnants of the Vietnam-American war then go to Saigon. But if you are interested in learning about the ancient history and culture of Vietnam mixed with shopping for silks, embroidery, coffee, and more, Hanoi is the place for you.
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam. It is where the seat of government is located. The city is full of French-inspired architecture and is considered the cultural heart of Vietnam. In some parts of the old quarter, if not for the Vietnamese characters on the stores’ signages, you would think you were in the Opera or Grand Boulevard district of Paris.
A day tour of the cultural sites around the Old Quarter costs around USD 25 to 30 per person. This includes pickup and drop-off from your hotel, an air-conditioned shared coach for a maximum of 12 passengers, a set menu lunch (excluding drinks), and an English-speaking tour guide.
The eight-hour tour will take you to see the very ancient Temple of Knowledge, the Old Quarter including a visit to St. Joseph Cathedral, the Catholic Cathedral of Hanoi, the birth and burial place of their national hero, Ho Chi Minh, a lacquerware factory, silk and embroidery house, and even Dong Xuan market.
Just remember that if you want to see more sites, you have to spend less time at each stop. Additionally, you have to take into consideration that your van will be running at probably just 40 kilometers per hour as they strictly follow this speed limit all over the city.
If you prefer to visit the sites at your own pace, it might turn out cheaper if you use Uber instead of taking a taxi. In the old quarter, you can walk from one site to the next while shopping for bits and pieces that catch your eye.
Vietnamese embroidered products are especially nice and not very expensive. Silk products are also pretty cheap yet well made. If you’re into semi-precious stones and crystals, stop at the many small galleries that feature these items. A rose quartz the size of a chicken egg costs only around USD 25 here, a third of what you would pay for it in a gem factory in Singapore.
If you plan to visit Dong Xuan market, you can buy products cheaper by the dozen, but not as cheap as Ben Thanh market in Saigon. And just like in Ben Thanh, be prepared to sweat it out. The place is not air-conditioned and packed to the hilt with merchandise for sale. If you don’t want to dive into the innards of the market, I still recommend you drop by, for at the entrance of the market are food vendors who sell peanuts, pistachios, and coffee by the kilo. The dark brown Vietnamese peanuts are super delicious, it’s like eating peanut butter; and the pistachios have a milky flavor that is very intriguing, and I don’t have to describe how great French Roast Vietnamese coffee tastes like. Hanoi is famous for its lacquerware. Ask your guide to take you to one of the better galleries. At the front of the store, you will see how the craftsmen and women create these works of art. You will see how it is done step-by-step. Then they will invite you into the display area where you can buy a wide array of lacquerware made with fine eggshells, oyster mother-of-pearl, etc. The items range from around USD 15 for a small box to a few hundred dollars for large frames.
Another Hanoi specialty are silk and embroidered products. There is one particular street in the Old Quarter that is filled with shops that sell embroidered goods like napkins, placemats, table cloths, cotton and linen clothing, bags, etc. Many of these shops also sell silk products including souvenir items such as travel pouches, coin purses, and silk sleeping bags, and robes.
If you book early enough, airline tickets to Hanoi from Manila costs less than PHP 10,000 roundtrip via Cebu Pacific, and that’s including travel tax. What’s even better is that it’s a straight flight of only four hours, instead of 8-12 hours if you take another airline that stops in Bangkok, Singapore, or Saigon.
If you go on a trip for three days two nights, I suggest you take the day tour on the first day just to familiarize yourself with the city, then go around on your own the following day to do your shopping. It is better to stay near the Old Quarter so you can easily walk around.
Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE May 2017 issue
Words and photos by Presy Alba