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Vietnam’s capital is a small city of broad tree-lined boulevards, lakes, parks, weathered colonial buildings, elegant squares and some of the newest office blocks and hotels in Southeast Asia. It lies nearly 100 km from the sea on a bend in the Red River and from this geographical feature the city derives its name – Hanoi means ‘within a river bend’. The history of the city must be the most confusing of any oriental capital: established as a defensive citadel in the eighth century it has had at least seven names since then and has served a country of fluctuating borders.
In an age of urban sprawl, Hanoi remains compact, historic and charming. Hanoians may be dour and xenophobic and their leaders austere but the large diplomatic community brings a cosmopolitan feel. And a younger generation has proved willing to engage with the outside world. Consequently the feel of Hanoi is very different – and pleasantly so – from what it was just 15 years ago.Read more
Hanoi has a wealth of historical sights lying as it does at the heart of a region rich in history and landscapes. The scenery around the city is some of the most attractive in the land. Excursions to the Perfume Pagoda and the temples and caves at Tam Coc are particularly worthwhile.
Hanoi also has stylish shops and plentiful market stalls and increasingly diverse restaurants from French haute cuisine to Vietnamese street food. Much of its charm, though, lies not so much in the official 'sights' but in the unofficial and informal: the traffic zooming around the broad streets or the cyclos taking a mellow pedal through the Old Quarter, small shops packed with traders' goods or stacks of silk for visitors, skewered poultry on pavement stalls, mobile flower stalls piled on the backs of bikes, the bustle of pedestrians, the ubiquitous tinkle of the ice cream man's bicycle, and the political posters, now raised to an art form, dotted around the city. Like China when it was ‘opening-up’ to Western tourists in the late 1970s, the primary interest lies in the novelty of exploring a city which, until recently, has opted for a firmly socialist road to development and has been insulated from the West.