Destination of the Week: Hanoi, Vietnam
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A city rich in culture and heritage that has been around for thousands of years, this destination is the second largest city in Vietnam, and the country’s capital. It’s bounded by the banks of the Red River, and is considered to be more a traditional and authentic experience than its bustling and urban counterpart to the south, Ho Chi Minh City. For today’s Destination of the Week, we’re paying a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.
WHAT TO DO
The city of Hanoi has a long history that dates back to 3,000 BC. These days, the Vietnamese capital can be an overwhelming urban sprawl, though it does have some lovely green spaces to escape the smog, as well as many lakes, rivers and mountains nearby if you need to leave the busy city for some down time.
A visit to Hanoi is not complete without visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a large memorial where Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh – the man responsible for founding modern Vietnam and taking on first the French and then US forces in the Vietnam war – is laid to rest. The monument is situated in imposing Ba Dinh Square, and was formally inaugurated on August 29, 1975. The surrounding gardens showcase 250 different species of plants and flowers, all from various regions of Vietnam. Make sure to remember the strict rules and dress codes before entering – no tank tops or flip flops, and no putting your hands in your pockets. Finally, make sure to check if the Mausoleum is open during your visit as it is closed for about two months each year while the embalmed remains of the Vietnamese leader go to Russia for routine maintenance.
After the Mausoleum, look around for the gold former Presidential Palace, also located in Ba Dinh Sqaure. You can’t actually visit it, but you can view it from the outside. It is also interesting to see the juxtaposition of the palace with the Ho Chi Minh House on Stilts, which is a small, simple house where according to Communist Party lore, Ho lived and worked during part of the war. It’s a bucolic little spot and many of the items the leader supposedly used daily are still on display.
One essential thing on your list should be to stroll through the Old Quarter, or the “36 Streets,” as the district is informally known. As its name suggests, this is the old, traditional part of Hanoi, and the hodgepodge streets here are named for the objects once sold in the shops that line them, such as jewelry, fans, copper, chickens, herbs and more. Today, there are still merchants selling goods along these streets, and you will find tailors, blacksmiths and more in the lanes, which remain busy well into the night thanks to pop-up street food stalls and carts that start sizzling after dark.
If you need a little green after a crowded day of touring, stop over at Hoan Kiem Lake. The name in English means “Lake of the Restored Sword” thanks to an ancient legend that tells of a king who used a divine sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam before it was reclaimed by a giant golden turtle swimming the lake. Throughout the day and evening, you’ll see couples and crowds strolling along its banks enjoying a bit of open space in the heart of the city. Make sure to see the Ngoc Son temple on an island connected to the shore by the famous Huc Bridge, which is a beautiful bright scarlet color. Inside the little temple you can ogle the curio case containing a taxidermied 250kg lake turtle.
The other major leisure area is about 20 minutes to the west of here around the large body of water known as West Lake (Ho Tay in Vietnamese). Many of the city’s toniest neighborhoods and hotels line its shores, and visitors can walk around it or even rent a boat to paddle its waters. There is also a smaller neighboring lake called Ho Truc Bach where then Navy pilot John McCain was shot down in October 1967 and rescued by Hanoi residents before being interned in a POW camp called Hoa Lo (the Hanoi Hilton in common slang of the time), which you can also visit – though its history actually dates back to the 19th century when the French colonists built it to house political prisoners.
There are over 600 temples and pagodas in Hanoi. You probably won’t have time to see all of them, but make sure to see the bucolic Temple of Literature. This religious and historical compound is truly magnificent and the surrounding courtyards are too. The temple dates back to 1076 and was one of Asia’s most prestigious spots for higher education – students and graduates still come here to have their school photos taken on weekends. It’s even featured on the back of the 100,000Vietnamese banknote. During public hours, you can see live traditional folk music and dancing demonstrations here as well.
The One Pillar Pagoda is also worth a visit. This architectural wonder was created in 1049 after the emperor Ly Thai Tong dreamed of a temple in the shape of a lotus blossom – a symbol of purity in Buddhism – and is built out of wood standing on a single stone platform.
As far as museums go, you should definitely visit the The Ho Chi Minh Museum, which opened in 1990. It documents the life of the Vietnamese leader. Another museum to visit is the the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which focuses on the 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam.
Finally pay a visit to the Hanoi Night Market. The area from Hang Dao Street to Dong Xuan Market is a busy place to meander through in the evening and is a mishmash of street stalls, ad hoc sidewalk beer bars, souvenir shops and more. Taste some Vietnamese “banh beo” steamed rice cakes filled with flavorful condiments like dried shrimp; tangy “nem chua” fermented sausages, or “hai phong” bread. Next to Dong Xuan market, there is a stand with “lau,” grilled food, and “banh khuc,” steamed rice buns filled with green beans and pork.
Other street food not to be missed: bun bo nam bo grilled beef with fresh herbs and peanuts over rice noodles; banh cuon rice crepes filled with minced pork and mushrooms and bun cha, pork patties served with crispy crab spring rolls and fresh herbs.
For a more traditional dining experience, try La Badiane, where French chef Benjamin Rascalou serves up Indochine cuisine on a peaceful patio. Set in a French colonial house in the Old Quarter, Ly Club is an elegant dining experience that showcases delicious Vietnamese cuisine at its best. Meanwhile, locals and visitors alike flock to Quan an Ngon just west of the Old Quarter to try a panoply of Vietnamese specialties from all over the country from a variety of mini-kitchens within the restaurant. It can feel a bit touristy, but the food is tasty and cheap, and it makes a nice break from the hectic bustle of eating on the street.
Most visitors to Hanoi take an overnight (or multi-day) visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, about a 4-hour ride away. It is a stunning archipelago of over 2,000 islands and rock formations that dramatically punctuate the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Many tour operators operate day, 2-day or 3-day cruises through the bay and include kayaking and other activities.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Hanoi’s airport is Noi Bai International Airport (HAN), about 28 miles (45 km) from the city center. Several international airlines operate from Hanoi Noi Bai Airport: the national carrier (and SkyTeam member) Vietnam Airlines, as well as AirAsia, Cathay Pacific, Dragon Air, EVA, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Thai Airways, and more. Unfortunately, there are no nonstop flights from any cities in US to Hanoi, but you can easily fly via Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok or Tokyo from the US.
Once you arrive, you can get a taxi to take you to the city center, which takes about 30-45 minutes. The price should be about $15-30.
WHERE TO STAY
Hilton Opera: This hotel, located right in the middle of Hanoi’s French Quarter, is about 45 minutes from the Hanoi airport. It’s been voted ‘Vietnam’s Leading Hotel’ for five years in a row at the World Travel Awards. All guestrooms are a minimum of 387 square feet and offer daily newspapers, a bathrobe, a work desk and chair, fresh flowers, and complimentary WiFi. The Hilton Opera also offers a fitness center, business center, outdoor pool, beauty salon, and florist. You can sample Vietnamese food at restaurant Ba Mien. or international cuisine at Chez Manon. JJ’s Sports Bar offers drinks and snacks. This Category 5 hotel will cost 2,425,580 VD per night ($115) or 40,000 HHonors points for an award night in late January.
Another Hilton option is the Hilton Garden Inn in Hanoi.
Intercontinental Westlake: Situated right on Ho Tay and close to the 800-year-old Golden Lotus Pagoda, this hotel is about 40 minutes from the Hanoi airport and 20 minutes from the Old Quarter. All rooms feature satellite TV, work desk with lamp, tea-maker, and scale. WiFi is free for all IHG Rewards Club members. The Westlake has an outdoor pool, fully equipped fitness center, fitness classes such as Tai Chi and Yoga, a business center and a spa. Eat at the Cafe du Lac for French cuisine, Saigon for traditional Vietnamese fare, or Milan for Italian food. Later enjoy a drink at the Sunset Bar or Diplomat Lounge. Room rates start at 2,277,936 VD ($108) or 25,000 IHG Reward points for an award night in late January. Check out TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen’s review of the Intercontinental Westlake during his stay here a few months ago in Hanoi.
Three other IHG options you have to stay in Hanoi are the Intercontintiental Landmark (this hotel was scheduled to open at the end of 2013 but as it seems reservations are still not available), Crowne Plaza West Hanoi and the Crowne Plaza West Hanoi Residences.
JW Marriott Hanoi: This 5-star hotel is located in the new central business district, just next to the National Convention Center in West Hanoi. There are 394 guestrooms and 56 suites here, and each has an alarm clock, work desk with chair, L’Occitaine bath amenities, iPod dock, and WiFi for a fee. The JW Marriott Hanoi has a fitness center, indoor pool and spa. Dining options include the Chinese Palace, the Lounge, Antidote, the French Grill and the JW Cafe. This is Rewards Category 4 hotel with room rates starting at 2,800,000 VD ($133) or 20,000 Marriott Reward points for an award night in early January.
Sheraton Hanoi: This hotel is located on the shores of West Lake, just a short drive away from the city center. All rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of West Lake and the Red River, the Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Bed, Shine for Sheraton bath amenities, and a 32-inch LCD flatscreen TV. WiFi is available for a fee. You can take a dip in the outdoor pool, enjoy a game of tennis on the tennis courts, or visit the Lily Relaxation Center for spa treatments. Dining options include Chime Bar, Oven D’Or, Lobby Lounge and Hemisphere Steak and Seafood Grill. Room rates start at 2,215,500 VD ($105) or 3,000 Starwood points for an award night in late January.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a program exclusively for American Express Platinum Card cardholders, who are eligible for extra benefits such as room upgrades, free continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more.
Sofitel Legend: Located next to the Opera House in Hanoi, this hotel has 364 rooms including 22 suites. Guestrooms start at 344 square feet and offer free WiFi, Sofitel MyBeds, and flatscreen TV with DVD player. Treat yourself to some relaxation in the Le Spa du Metropole or swim in the outdoor heated pool. You can also stop into the hair salon or browse the boutique and gift shop. Eat at the Spices Garden Restaurant, Le Beaulieu, or the Angelina Restaurant and Lounge, or enjoy cocktails at the Bamboo Bar, Le Club, or La Terrasse du Metropole. Room rates start at 5042197.20 VD ($237) for a night in late January.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, Ink Plus, British Airways Visa Signature Card, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
The Intercontinental Westlake is a Visa Signature Hotel in Hanoi.