Lay of the Land
“I had seen the flowers on her dress beside the canals in the north, she was indigenous like an herb, and I never wanted to go home.”~Graham Greene
Hanoi is a sprawling metropolis, but transportation is easy and inexpensive, whether you choose to hire a guide and driver, or try to navigate on your own by cyclo, taxi or on foot. Many sights are located around Hoan Kiem Lake, the watery heart of the city; the Old Quarter wraps around the northern and western edges of the lake.
For a bustling Asian metropolis, Hanoi has surprisingly few traffic lights, and even on the drive in from the airport, you may spot people weaving their way through six lanes of whizzing traffic. The more than 2 million motorbikes in the city make up 90 percent of the traffic, and on average 30 people a day are killed in accidents. That said, once you get the hang of crossing the street, it is an easy and fun city to explore on foot. It sounds counterintuitive, but the key is walking slowly and determinedly into the street so the cars can predict where you are going and slow down. As one expat explains, “The Vietnamese way of crossing the street is unique—walking diagonally, facing away from the traffic, thus making it clear that it is they who have to avoid you, not vice versa…Never go backwards or dash forward.” If you are taking taxis, be sure to bring a card from the hotel with the address as few drivers speak English.
When to Go
Compared with steamy Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi has a pleasant climate, though it is increasingly marred by smog. February through April and mid-October through December are the best times to visit to avoid the heat and the rainy season (monsoon season runs from May through September). The most important holiday in Vietnam is Tet, the lunar calendar’s New Year celebration, which takes place in late January or the first half of February. If you plan a trip then, be sure to book everything (hotels, restaurants, drivers) far in advance.
Need to Know: Visa
Please note that Vietnam requires a Visa that may take between two weeks to a month to acquire the appropriate paperwork, so booking your trip in advance is advisable.