Considering the number of sights worth seeing in Hanoi and the complex street system, guided tours of the main city sights make good sense, as they allow visitors to optimize their time by slotting in to a predetermined schedule. They are very easy to arrange (just about every hotel and guest house can make arrangements, even if they don’t organize the tour themselves) and very competitively priced as there are so many tour companies in town.
For anyone who is averse to joining big groups of sightseers and prefers to discover places for themselves, it is quite possible to plan a self-guided tour, as long as you take a decent map with you and have a reasonable sense of direction.
Highlights of Hanoi
A typical tour of Hanoi takes in monuments like the Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda, as well as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Ho Chi Minh’s House in the morning.
Then, after a break for lunch, this Hanoi city tour transports visitors to the Museum of Ethnography, Ngoc Son Temple and Hoan Kiem Lake, ending up with a cyclo ride all around the atmospheric Old Quarter.
Such a tour costs in the region of US$30-40 per person, and includes all admission fees, transport and food. In an interesting development to offset pollution caused by ever-increasing amounts of traffic, some tour companies are starting to offer tours by electric car.
Self-guided tours of Hanoi
More independently-minded travelers are likely to prefer a self-guided tour over one in which their every movement is decided for them. Fortunately, despite Hanoi’s sprawling size and chaotic traffic, some city districts are ideal for exploration by foot.
These include Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter, the French Quarter and the Ho Chi Minh Complex, though the last is distant from most hotels so requires a taxi, motorbike or cyclo ride to get there. Don’t miss the renovated house at 87 Ma May, which is open to the public and gives a clear idea of how one of these houses looked and functioned a century ago.
Some of the most interesting streets to include on a walking tour of the Old Quarter are Hang Bac, Hang Buom and Ma May, where there are plenty of traditional merchant’s houses. These are often referred to as ‘tube’ houses, due to the narrow frontages but deep interiors, which came about because merchants’ taxes were once determined by the frontage that their business occupied.
Other areas for easy, self-guided walks are around Hoan Kiem Lake, around Bay Mau Lake in Lenin Park and around the French Quarter. For the lake walks, the instructions are easy – walk clockwise or anti-clockwise around the lake’s perimeter until you arrive back where you started.
To perambulate the French Quarter is not much more difficult, as the broad, shady boulevards are laid out in grid format. Start at the Opera House and stroll south and west to admire some of the city’s finest residences.