For a Chinese visa: The opening time is 8.30, not the stated 8.00. You need photocopies of your Vietnam visa as well as the photo page of your passport. If you don't have them, it's not obvious where to get them and there are lowlifes outside that will rip you off just to show you the alley where the shop with the Xerox is; get it done first.
Visas take 4 days. If you want the express service of one or two days, it's only given with 'supporting documents', which turns out to be a confirmed ticket into China.
Remember, second visa extensions aren't given out here, so get your timing right.
The common street scene in Hanoi is utter chaos with motorcyles and other vehicles travelling in haphazard way unknown to the rest of the world. Therefore, be careful when crossing streets. You may feel overwhelmed at first but if you wait for the traffic to clear, you may never make it across the street.
Just take cautious and careful steps. The motorcyles will simply navigate around you - accidents are not so common and generally not serious in any way. However, do not make abrupt change in your direction or pace. Don't make sudden retreats as they would be caught off guard.
Amazingly, i experienced culture shock when I left Hanoi. Here's a verbatim copy of an e-mail I sent right after arriving in Bangkok:
"Aloha all -
I'm back in the world today, having just gotten out of Nam.
As anachronistic as that introductory sentence sounds today, it still has a ring of truth. Arriving at Bangkok airport this afternoon was a bit of a culture shock. Wow! The people are beautiful here! Not just the women, whose attention to personal beauty ran from hair to skin to stylish clothes and jewelry, but also the men who wore fine suits, golden watches and fresh visages. People were clean! They had teeth! The cars, buildings and airport concessions sparkled and vibrated with life! The contrast was amazing, startling and unexpected. A week in Vietnam and I had forgotten what I used to take for granted (and this is Bangkok, not San Francisco, D.C. or Paris).
Maybe if I had spent more time in Saigon, I wouldn't have been so startled. But Hanoi's small storefronts hawking the same small set of wares, its narrow, dust-covered streets, it's worn-off paint and its beat-up cars had become my new standard. The Vietnamese people smiled and were friendly, but dressed drabbly compared to their first-world (and that's a stretch for Thailand) counterparts. My Vietnamese hosts wore the same knock-off clothes the entire trip outside of Hanoi. They had bedhead and greasy hair on most mornings. Except for Mr. Choi, they lacked a worldliness that most of us come to expect as normal.
The Thais don't give me a second look, but in Vietnam we were a curiosity -- especially in provincial Qui Nhon. There, a guy in the elevator actually grabbed Mike's arm and started stroking it -- it was white, hairy, big and attached to a 300-pound man, so I guess it needed to be felt! When we walked through a park full of cruising 20-sometings resting their scooters, we got lots of stares and hellos from the people we passed. And then there was the guy in the country who blatantly stared at us from his bike with a look we would reserve for a UFO sighting.
That being said, the Vietnamese are proud, aware of the distance they need to travel in order to be "developed", as the locals would often say. They desperately are trying to integrate the world's best practices into their country, though they seem to look for governmental best practices in te Russian and Chinese models rather than ours. In 20 years, I expect Vietnam to be ahead of Thailand and the Philippines on the development list. They are the next South Korea or Taiwan. Already, they are starting to lose U.N. family planning grants as their per capita GNP threatens to surpass $1000 a year. The culture shock phenomenon won't last for long, so enjoy it!"
The Vietnamese unit of currency is the Dong, and when I was in Hanoi it traded for about 13000 to the US dollar. Since food and merchandise were generally very cheap, I didn't worry too much about the rate, and even if I did, inflation was undermining it at about a 20% annual clip. The lack of confidence in the dong was manifest the menus at high-end restaurants -- prices were quoted in dollars.
All of this leads to the most important fact about the dong -- it's hard to trade it back into your home currency once you leave Vietnam. So try to spend most or all of your cash before you leave -- you may be stuck with it. I have about 80000 dong in my wallet which is pretty useless in Hawaii. Well, accept it's always a great conversation opener: "Would you like to see my dong?"
Why do I cross the road in Hanoi? Can it be the adrenaleine rush? I actually got pretty good at this fear-inducing endeavor and, by the end of my vist, found it to be intoxicating, as if I were Moses getting multiple chances to part the Red Sea! In Hanoi, there is no greater adventure than crossing the road! But watch out! People do get injured!
Traffic in Hanoi is a chaotic multi-dimensional experience, with buses, scooters, cars and bicycles all weaving in and out of each other on the pavement. Often, strands of the oncoming lanes traffic ends up in coming at you and, not in frequently, our cab drivers would choose the wrong side of the road as the best path. Mostly, this seems to work, much in the way water meanders around rocks in a stream bed. If our driver wants to turn left, he just slowly noses into the oncoming traffic and it magically bends around him like poetry. In all the times he did this today, only once was there contact -- the driver stopped in a surprisingly sudden manner and I looked behind us to see a dazed scooter driver, eyes lowered, back away from our bumper after a loud thud -- and life went on.
Of course, it's one thing to be driven through this and another to be risking your life crossing two lanes of chaos. The rule is to walk in a straight line at a constant speed and make no sudden movements. Face down the scooter drivers but keep moving -- they'll buzz around you as long as they can predict where you'll be. This requires a level of trust in your fellow Vietnamese humans, but it does work. Cars will also try to avoid you but I never advanced to the cross-in-front-of-the-bus stage -- that might take a few mionths in Hanoi to manage.
Of course, there are stories of visitors who have been hit by traffic. So do be careful!
Avoid APT guesthouse and APT travel, The arrangement was to pick me up from my current hotel, go for a day trip and then get dropped off at APT guesthouse.
Upon completion of the trip at 1830hrs, I was informed that the room i had earlier booked was not available. So I had to walk around with all my luggage to look for alternate accommodations. Fortunately I had a plan B but walking the streets of old quarter with a big rucksack is definitely a magnet for hotel touts. not recommended.
Mopeds are everywhere in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. We saw several accidents while we were there and sometimes one moped can be carrying the whole family on it!!! To cross the road, you just have to be brave and cross confidently. DO NOT STOP while crossing as this is more likely to cause an accident - believe me, the bikes will avoid you, although it is daunting the first few times you do it!!!
One of the biggest dangers around Hanoi comes in the form of two wheels. It doesn't matter whether they are bicycles, scooters or mopeds, there's thousands of them! The roads in Hanoi can be anything from wide to narrow but they always seem to manage to get a least 2 lanes of traffic on each side.
There are very, very few traffic lights or pedestrian crossings so to get anywhere you simply have to grin, bear it and walk like a local - I'm walking here, this is my road and I own it.
Step out with logic and confidence (not directly in front of a moving vehicle) and simply walk! Two-wheeled vehicles will work their way around you or simply slow up so long as you walk with confidence!
I would like to warn Hanoi travellers about SINH CAFE located at 100 Ma May Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi. This tour agency is managed by Hang or Nang and Oanh, two very cunning and scheming vietnamese women who will con you and make all kinds of promises which they cannot deliver! I booked a 2-nite hotel stay with them at HUE SPORTS HOTEL in Hue and paid US$38 up front. I was promised and continuously reassured that I will have a room available at 8:00 in the morning, upon arrival in Hue Airport. When I tried to check into the hotel, I was told by the hotel staff that check in time is 2 PM. I was so tired from the trip since I took the 6 AM flight from Hanoi to Hue and went to the airport at 6 AM, to arrive in Hue at 7 AM. When I insisted with the HUE SPORTS HOTEL staff that I was assured of the room, they told me NO, i have to wait till 2 PM. THey told me to join their city tour first which they wanted me to pay US$10 for when the same actually costs only US$8. I told them I wanted to rest first and demanded a room. WHen they didnt want to give me a room, I told them I want to cancel the booking and asked for a refund. THey REFUSED to give me a refund and I ended up staying at a guesthouse which had a room for US$8. When i got back to Hanoi, I went back to SInh Cafe, told them what happened and asked for a refund. THEY REFUSED! I had to go to the Hanoi Police to report the crime and the police were of no help. THey said it was not their duty to help. I was assisted by a Vietnamese friend in reporting to the police.
SO, PLEASE BEWARE of this SINH CAFE travel agency. They are no good and make travelling in Hanoi a truly terrible experience!
APT Travel of Hanoi.
I read with interest the unhappy experience Stuart & Robin had with APT Travel of Hanoi. I had a very bad experience with them 6 months ago. The delapidated minibus (A FAR CRY FROM THE FOTO IN THEIR OFFICE!!) broke down en route to Tam Coc. After an hour in the heat, the guide, whose English was limited at best, flagged down another company's bus, and we were made to pay a few dollars more to get there. Some of us had to stand, and there was no a/c and few windows that would open. We continued the tour in some discomfort. Because of our delay, we got no lunch and had to buy our own. When we returned to Hanoi, we not only got no apology but no refund. Some of us had also booked for the PERFUME PAGODA and Halong Bay Tours, and we attempted to cancel in protest, we were told we could get back only 50%.
Avoid APT. Be certain to tell whomever you buy your tours from that you wish to have no dealings with APT.
We booked through this company for one day City tour (at Old Quarters) just to avoid all the hassles of doing it by ourselves and paid $20 for it (with lunch, transport, entrance fee) and tour should last from 8AM - 5PM. What we got instead was a guide going to our hotel with no transportation and telling us that we need to take taxi around city for the tour (eventhough the agency said day before they have van for tour). So we took taxi to the 2nd hotel to pick up another customer then went to another hotel via another taxi to pick up two more guests. At that point there were already 6 of us total and guide wanted to conserve taxi fare by always waiting for taxi van to arrive at our area. It was pointless to join tour if you will just take taxi around as can do that ourselves! What's more, the guide speaks very little English so really hard to understand him and gave very little information about the sites we visited. Funny thing was that it started raining and he had us put the guest comment sheets in my girlfriend's bag as it will just get wet! He even borrowed cellphone of one of the guys who joined tour just to try and call taxi company! What a waste of time! Ended at 1Pm and didn't even follow the itenery anymore so missed a couple of places therein because at that point I would assume guide doesn't want to spend anymore for taxi fares!
Imagine a couple hundred of motorcycles trying to cross a T-junction at from 4 different directions at 1 time. That's the daily life in Hanoi. The traffic jam here is horrible and you really have to be a dare devil to even road the streets. Look left, right and then left again before you cross...
Be careful when you cross the street in Hanoi. There are lots of motorbikes and they seem to be continually coming at you. The trick is the go for it. Cross the street at a constant pace and the motorbike will drive around you. Don't stop walking.
The danger in Hanoi is not to make bad photographs like the one above; it has been taken just when a guy tried to open my back pack and I turned back. . . . .
I was walking in the market area and noticed a young lady two or three times not far from me when turning left, right, stopping, going in shops. . . I knew something would happen, and when I was concentrated making a photograph, all senses alert, I felt somebody opening the pack on my back; the guy was on ground few milliseconds later, gesturing (Like hands up!) “I did nothing.!” My foot on his chest, I checked my back pack, he had no time to open it in fact, and looked around and glimpsed the girl disappearing in the crowd. . . .I let the guy go.
Well, happy end, but I am rather tall, the guy was quite short and had a very stupid idea trying to open my pack which I wear high on my back, very high for him.
No real danger, I had this experience only on my first day here, and there are very few pick pockets apparently in Hanoi, but do not facilitate their “job”. Wear your belongings under the shirt or inside pants , and if you wear a back pack, I may suggest to do following: tie the zippers together with a metallic wire, tightly turned; I did this after, when going in crowded places, it may be a bit unpractical if you need to open it every 5 mn, but . . . . well, look where your priorities are! And as usual, no “provocation”! Wearing watches or jewellery worth a year local individual income can easily attract the swift hands of the pick pockets.
Yes, traffic can be dangerous in Hanoi, you may see lots of cars and bicycles in the pictures of this page; drivers are usually very careful, but they act as if you were a local, knowing the (unknown to Western people) hidden and not written rules of traffic here; even in small streets were you do not expect any vehicle, there may suddenly appear a crowd of bicycles, and best is to give way; like in many places the foot goer is the one who is the least considered! Best thing to do is to try to apply western rules very carefully (ah, right hand driving here, so look left first when crossing a street), and be wise; a good thing is to follow closely a local who knows the tricks to get across a traffic jam. Another way to avoid lots of traffic dangers is to go from one place to another by motorbike-taxi or regular taxi, but you will miss a lot of the hectic city life!