Hanoi is a walkable city.
You would never know this with all the traffic overflowing in the streets. Of course the locals will prefer to ride their scooters. It’s actually dangerous to cross the streets when you are overwhelmed by bicycle motorcycle, automobiles and bus traffic coming from all directions, with traffic signals and traffic lines ignored most of the time.
But the scale, the tree-lined streets, and the distance between landmarks do lend itself to a leisurely stroll. Deep down inside you know Hanoi is in fact a very walkable city, it just forgotten it for a while. Recovering this aspect will be something that will be key to making more tourist friendly and a more of an attractive destination.
Here’s one of my favorite walks, if you have a half day to spare:
1. Opera. Start preferably after lunch at the Highlands Cafe next to the Opera. Nothing like a good coffee to start the tour. My personal favorite from their menu is Mango Mania. The Opera was built at the turn of the 20th century by the French colonists modeled on Garnier’s Opera in Paris. Crossing the road is a real challenge for the first time visitor. Just remember to walk slowly and predictably (whatever you do, do not run) so that the traffic can be aware of your presence in the street. Once you cross the road, walk down Trang Tien street towards the Hoan Kiem lake. This historic street has many bookstores that have good materials in English and maps of Hanoi and Vietnam.
2. Hoan Kiem Lake. The undisputed spiritual heart of Hanoi. The name means the The Lake of the Returned Sword and legend has it that emperor Le Loi was handed a magic sword by a tortoise here that brought him victory against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The walk around its periphery is one the more calm experiences in Hanoi if you can mentally block out the noise. Once you make the a 3/4 circle, cut back up Hang Trong and then down Nha Tho to face the cathedral.
3. St. Joseph’s Cathedral. A scale-down replica of the Notre Dame in Paris completed in 1886. The streets around the cathedral have attractive boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes and is one of the more gentrified, tourist friendly parts of town. If you already feeling tired, drop by the Moca Cafe. For those seeking exotic home furnishings, Mosaique Boutique provides interesting buys. When you are ready to move on, take the alley to the right of the cathedral and make you way down Phu Doan towards Hoa Lo Prison/Hanoi Towers.
4. Hoa Lo Prison. AKA The Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War (or the American War as the call in here) incarcerated downed fighter and bomber pilots and crew. It was famous for being the POW home of Senator John McCain, and Pete Peterson who later became the first US ambassador to Vietnam since the US resumed diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1997.
5. Hanoi Towers. A large part of the Hoa Lo Prison was demolished to make way for the Hanoi Towers. At 25 stories, it was the tallest building in Hanoi when it was completed in the late 90’s. You can stop the tour here, and finish at another Highlands Cafe for some refreshments. You can also go to the 4th Floor of the residential tower to a restaurant called “Jaspa’s” and order their famous Bun Cha.
6. Quan An Ngon. What’s a walking tour without a dining destination to motivate you. This one is well worth the walk. Housed in a spacious French-style Villa, which I was told used to be owned by a wealthy Vietnamese doctor, now is the venue for a very reasonably priced restaurant that serves glorified “street food”. A favorite for both Vietnamese and visitors alike, you should try to go beyond the familiar spring rolls. It will be a rewarding experience.