Hanoi has stood for more thousand years- through more than a few invasions, occupations, restorations, and name changes. Once the medieval capital of “the Soaring Dragon,”it later became the center of French Indochina. Today, because of this eccentric mix of faded colonial avenues and traditional Vietnamese architecture, as well as a recent explosion of designer boutiques and hip restaurants, Hanoi is a city where the medieval and modern co-exist and evolve into something entirely different; a concoction of “Parisian grace and Asian pace.”
Despite the relentless noise as a population of over six million zips by on motorbikes, Hanoi has an intimate (if urban) feel. Students who study abroad in Hanoi will discover the perfect city to sit back, sip coffee and watch life (and plenty of tourists) rush by.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake, or Sword Lake, is the historical and cultural center of Hanoi (and is linked to the legend of a magic sword!). The Old Quarter sits on its banks, showing off the original streets and architecture of old Hanoi. Although the area is popular with backpackers and peppered with cheap hotels, artisan workshops, cheap beer and souvenirs, the area still retains its Hanoian inhabitants. The area doesn’t suffer from the frequent floods that plague other districts, so the population of the Old Quarter can boast that their families have lived in the same spot for generations. The best shops, tourist sites (such as The Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 with stone tablets listing centuries of graduates mounted on the back of a tortoises; One Pillar Pagoda and Flag Tower of Hanoi) and many traditional restaurants are located here.
The neighborhood of Tay Ho is mostly home to wealthy Vietnamese and expats, and it’s in this upscale area that you’ll find the better restaurants, big villas, the largest mall in Vietnam and coffee that’s approximately seven times more expensive than the rest of the city. It’s generally a quieter neighborhood, but it still attracts young, hip couples.
Ba Dinh is the political center of the city and is also home to the French quarter. Stroll along tree-lined boulevards and admire the many examples of mixed French and traditional Vietnamese architectural styles, such as the National Museum of Vietnamese Historyand the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts. Here you’ll also find the dignified Grand Opera House, State Bank of Vietnam, Presidential Palace, Saint Joseph Cathedral, and the historic Hotel Metropole.
Even with two-tier pricing system – one price for locals and another for foreigners- Vietnam is a budget traveler’s dream.
A bowl of noodle soup goes for as little as 30,000 dong ($under 1 USD). Market food stalls also offer an assortment of other snacks: fruit portions, sausages, donuts, and other eats for 10,000 to 20,000 dong ($0.5-1 USD).
Pockets of expensive shops, eateries, and housing are popping up all over the city as well, catering to the newly affluent population, but they tend to run a little more expensive.
Culture Shock and Support
Hanoi is a dangerous city, both by Asian and Western standards. Pickpockets are impressively well-organized, aggressive hawkers grab tourists by the arm, hotel staff members will try to pick padlocks on travelers bags, thieves on motorbikes snatch bags from cafe tables, fake mechanics throw nails at tourists on motorbikes to cause flat tires--and the police, have been known to steal from people (both locals and tourists) and ask for a bribe to get the items back.
But don’t stress too much. The US embassy has branches in every district in the city if you need some help. And sure, you’ll come across some not-so-pleasant folks while studying abroad (and there is rampant stereotyping that “wealthy Americans” have cash to spare), but there will be many, many more normal individuals who are genuinely curious about you as a foreigner. Keep your eyes open and your wallet close and remember while petty theft may be common, the violent crime rate in Hanoi is near nil.
Motorcycle accidents, however, are another story entirely. Locals have a lifetime of practice on the free-for-all that is Hanoi traffic, and they are experts at navigating the insanity. For newbies to the game, the key is to move SLOW. Don't stop suddenly or speed up as you are crossing; just walk at an even pace. This way the drivers are aware of you, and can take you into account (along with all of the other motorbikes). It may look, and indeed is, somewhat chaotic, but be patient and pay attention when you're crossing any street and you should be fine.
The resilient spirit of Hanoi had kept the city standing. Today, student who study abroad in Hanoi will discover the incredible wealth the city has to offer. It's gonna be a change of pace- Hanoi ricochets between a relaxed-to-the-point-of-motionless to frenetic-to-the-point-of-manic. But the unpredictable vibe is half the fun! So get lost in the twisting streets of the Old City, sip a cafe au lait on the grand boulevards and admire the spectacular history and tradition of this remarkable place.
Guide contributed by Julia Brady
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