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Volunteering in Hanoi, Vietnam

For over one thousand years, the city of Hanoi has remained a culturally and politically important center of Vietnam. These days, it is also a major tourist destination thanks to its diverse range of attractions. From Buddhist temples to Communist museums, there is certainly plenty to do and see. Surround all of this by bustling markets and aromatic noodle stalls and it is obvious why so many people flock to see the streets of Hanoi each year.

Hanoi, Vietnam

A Brief History

The city of Hanoi has long been an important focus for Vietnam. In 1010, it was announced as the country’s capital city. In those days, it was known as Thang Long (translated as Rising Dragon). In 1397, Thang Long lost its status as capital. After this, the city was occupied by both the Vietnamese and Chinese at several stages, undergoing numerous name changes. In 1831, it was finally given its present-day name, Hanoi. In 1887, the French colonized Vietnam and made Hanoi the capital of Indochina. From 1940 to 1945, Japanese soldiers occupied the city until Ho Chi Minh declared independence and made Hanoi his seat of power. This period was brief as the French took control of the city again in 1946. Fighting between the Vietnamese and the French lasted until 1954 when Hanoi was made the capital of North Vietnam. Following the Vietnam War, the country was finally unified again with Hanoi retaining its status of capital.

Quick Facts about Hanoi

Hanoi is the second largest city in Vietnam. It occupies an area of about 72 square miles (186 square kilometers) and contains approximately 2.6 million people.

Teaching in Vietnam

The vast majority of Hanoi’s population are Vietnamese (98%). The other 2% consists of numerous ethnic groups, the most common of which are Tay, Muong, Thai and Nung. Vietnamese is the most common language spoken here. English and Chinese speakers can also be found, especially in tourist areas.

Things to Do in Hanoi

Since Hanoi has been the capital of Vietnam for over 1,000 years, there are plenty of attractions for the average tourist. Some of the highlights include:

  • The Old Quarter: Dotted with markets, shopfronts and food stalls, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a vibrant, exciting location. Consisting of 36 streets, this area made up the bulk of Hanoi at the beginning of the 20th century. There is also a night market here on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.
  • Colonial Hanoi: French occupation of Hanoi led to numerous examples of colonial architecture being constructed around the city. Many of these remain today including the Grand Opera House, the Presidential Palace, the State Bank of Vietnam, Saint Joseph Cathedral and the Hotel Metropole.
  • Hoan Kiem Park: As the focal point of Hanoi, visitors can find plenty to do in this local leisure spot from watching tai chi practitioners in the morning to taking a stroll in the evening. The name, Hoan Kiem, means returned sword referring to a legend in which a Vietnamese emperor was given a magical sword to defeat the Chinese.
  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: The final resting place of Chairman Ho Chi Minh, this mausoleum is located in Ba Dinh Square where the country was officially established in 1945. Open daily from 9am to midday, visitors can see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. There are also extensive gardens surrounding the mausoleum.
  • Ho Chi Minh Museum: Found next to the Mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum is filled with displays recounting the virtues and accomplishments of Chairman Ho Chi Minh. The viewpoint is skewed but this is still an interesting look into the Communist mindset as it partials to previous struggles against the French and Americans.
  • Vietnam Museum of Revolution: Found in an old, colonial building, the Vietnam Museum of Revolution provides a great deal of information on the Vietnamese people’s fight against France and later the US for control of the country.
  • Temple of Literature: As Vietnam’s first university, this complex was built in 1070 in dedication to Confucius. It contains numerous pavilions, halls, courtyards and statues which were used for study, examinations and other ceremonies. Visitors will find a tranquil location that offers insight into the ancient history of Hanoi.

Food and Drink in Hanoi

Lunch at Volunteer House - Vietnam

Travelers in Hanoi should not miss out on the city’s diverse cuisine either. Some of the country’s national dishes are thought to have originated from here. The follow lists some of the highlights that should not be skipped when touring the city:

  • Pho: The national Vietnamese dish, Pho is a rice noodle soup containing beef, pork, chicken or seafood as well as various vegetables, herbs and spices. It is sold by both roadside vendors and in local restaurants. Vietnam’s first Pho restaurant opened up in 1920 within Hanoi.
  • Cha Ca: Another original from Hanoi, Cha Ca consists of fried fish cooked with turmeric, dill, coriander and lime. Different fish, such as carp, catfish or Red River fish, can be used to make this dish. It is often served with accompanying sauces made from pineapple or dried shrimp.
  • Banh Cuon: In Banh Cuon, a rice noodle sheet is wrapped around ground pork, mushrooms and shallots. This dish can also come with Vietnamese sausage, sliced cucumber and shallots depending on the restaurant. Since Banh Cuon is light, it is often eaten for breakfast.
  • Com: Com is green rice which can be eaten alone or with coconut. To make this dish, immature kernels are roasted and then pounded until they are flat. A green rice cake called Banh Com is also sold. This contains a mung bean filling.

Hanoi also has its fair share of delights when it comes to drinking. The national favorite, Bia Hoi, can be found quite easily. This is draught beer, brewed daily, which is sent straight to the vendor where it is served fresh and ready to drink. This is by far the cheapest option for alcohol in Hanoi.

Other popular beverages include iced tea and fruit shakes. Coffee is also common and is served in the traditional Vietnamese way by filtering it through a fabric bag and adding condensed milk.

Getting to Hanoi

NGO - Vietnam Volunteer Project

Most travelers arriving in Hanoi will first disembark at the Noi Bai International Airport. This airport is relatively small, especially considering it is located in the country’s capital. Despite this, it is still serviced by a range of airlines. From within the Mekong Region, tourists can fly from the following cities into Hanoi:

  • Bangkok, Thailand
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • Vientiane, Laos
  • Yangon, Myanmar

There is also a train line extending north from Hanoi. Here, passengers can arrive from the city of Nanning in China. These sleeper trains arrive at the Gia Lam Station. There are also several bus companies offering trips to Hanoi from Vientiane and Savannakhet in Laos. This journey is quite lengthy and care must be taken to avoid inflated prices.

Those traveling within Vietnam can get to Hanoi by bus, train and air from a number of local destinations including Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Mui Ne, Hue, Lao Cai and Ho Chi Minh City.

Traveling around Hanoi

Vietnam Volunteer

Taxis are the best way to travel long distances in Hanoi although you must be careful that the driver uses their meter. Some will attempt to negotiate a flat fare prior to departure. This price may be too high so it is safer to avoid these individuals. Taxi fares within Hanoi have not been regulated, and the rates will differ from company to company.

For shorter distances, a motorbike taxi may be faster and more convenient. Here, the fare must be negotiated prior to setting off. Also remember to ask for a helmet for safety and legal reasons. Traffic can be rather hectic plus the passenger will be fined if stopped by the police.

Cyclos (three-wheeled pedicabs) are also found in Hanoi. Here, it is necessary to negotiate the price before getting in the vehicle. Remember to check and double check the agreed-to rate prior to departure to avoid trouble later on.

Hanoi also has a very comfortable bus system. With 60 routes crisscrossing the city, this can be a bit confusing at first. Travelers can find maps of the bus network at Trang Tien Street. Assistance can also be gained from the bus conductors who can point out where passengers should get off.

Climate of Hanoi

Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Daily highs (°C) 19 20 23 27 32 33 33 32 31 29 25 22
Nightly lows (°C) 14 15 18 21 24 26 26 26 25 22 19 15
Precipitation (mm) 19 26 44 90 189 240 288 318 265 131 43 23

The climate is tropical, with wet and hot weather much of the year. But due to the city’s latitude, temperatures drop drastically in the wintertime and the wind chill and dampness means winter weather can feel cold. If possible, avoid the summer months of mid May – mid Sep, as the city turns into a sweltering sauna with little to no wind.

Summer lasts from May to September. During this time, it is normally hot with heavy rain. Temperatures range from 75°F (24°C) to 91°F (33°C). Most of the city’s annual rainfall of 66.1 inches (1,680 mm) falls at this time. Winter lasts from November to March bringing cool, dry weather. During these months, temperatures range from 56°F (13°C) to 73°F (22°C). Throughout the year, humidity ranges from 74% to 83%.

Keep track of Hanoi Weather

The best website for weather forecasts as well as historical data (great for travel planning) is the Weather Underground site for Hanoi. They also have free iOS, Android and Kindle weather apps.

Map of Hanoi

There is now a great map of Hanoi, presented in the same informative way as the Nancy Chandler Maps in Thailand. This is chock full of great information and very colorful and useful to read. The Nancy Chandler’s Map of Hanoi by Julie & Isabelle. Available in bookstores throughout Thailand as well as, of course Hanoi.