There's A LOT OF traffic in Hanoi! Try to find some locals and cross with them. The motorbikes will try to avoid you, even though they look like they're coming right at you. There's no other way to do it -- be nimble and watch out!
Guesthouses in Hanoi have a standard practice of giving up your reservation if they are reaching capacity and a walk-in comes looking for a room. If this happens they will book you at another guesthouse so you won’t be left out in the cold. The practice is normal, I think, because they would rather ensure they are booked to capacity than rely on flaky tourists to show up, so don’t take offense if you fall victim. It’s not a scam. BUT I will warn you that sometimes the guesthouse they find as an alternative won’t be what you’re looking for so don’t feel obligated to take the replacement room if you are unsatisfied. Just hit the streets and find something else, if you have the time. Unfortunately when this happened to us it was too late in the evening so we were stuck for the night but we found a suitable guesthouse the next morning.
Make sure you check the price on the menu when buying meals from the train. They will often overcharge you and tell you the extra cost is for the bowls/containers or whatever. Don't give them any more than what the menu says. You can usually find a menu posted on the wall. If not, then ask. The two vendors on our train were doing this and when we called them on it they didn't overcharge for the rest of the meals. If you get overcharged, complain like hell and demand your money back.
If you're not a stunt man in any of the Jackie Chan's movies, my advise is look at every direction before you cross the road.
If you think you're on a collision course , just walk in the direction you're heading, and the biker will "automatically" avoid you. These people are "highly skilled" in avoiding that. :-)
Of course the safest bet is to follow the locals when they cross the road. ;-)
Watch out for cheats when you take one of those small little green taxis.
We took two of them (they work hand in hand) and the trip from Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to Museum of Enthnology costs us VND 70,000 per car, instead of VND35,000.
On the steering, beside the signal indicator, there is a hidden button that the driver manually triggers every few seconds. Whenever he clicks it, the meter jumps.
So if you guys notice any clicking sound and that affects the meter, get that bugger to stop the car immediately and get off!.
Flag down white color metered taxis. They're from big companies and usually more honest (I never had problems whenever I took these). One driver even took us the shortest way possible while we were on our way back to hotel. I tipped him well.
I got cheated by Threeland Travel (http://www.threeland.com)
1) the itinerary turned out to be a complete lie (we went to Thien Cung and Dau Go caves, Van Gia floating village and stopped at Catba Island for pick up and drop off, instead of Sung Sot cave, Titov island, Luon cave and Bai Tu Long Bay as stated in the itinerary).
2) the boat is different from photos shown (I was told that it'll either be a Haiau or An Duong boat, but I boarded a 2 star tourist boat called Yen Ngoc 2, the ugliest boat in HB).
3) I had to kayak to Luon Cave (I was told that we would be rowed there in a small bamboo boat). Even then, we only kayaked around the cave. We didnt go anywhere near it.
When I saw the van we’re in picking up guests from hotels bearing the fake Sinh Café open tour signs, I knew it was a mistake. But I didnt expect it to be that bad.
I complained to my tour guide from South Pacific Travel (the actual company behind the tour). I showed him the itinerary. He was as surprised as I was because he said ‘we don’t go to all these places’. He said agencies and hotels send people to them and sometimes itineraries are cooked up to promote the tours (except that mine was cooked with totally different ingredients!).
It turns out that Threeland specializes in private tours. They don't organize their own group tours, but instead send people to join other agencies. Hence, the itinerary and quality of their group tours are highly questionable.
Note: Both Threeland Travel and Sinh Café open tour (the fake one) uses South Pacific Travel. So beware of all these 3 companies.
TIPS: Try asking the tour operators:
i) whether it is their own tour or is it an open tour (open tour = joint tour ie the agencies are not responsible for the itinerary and quality (as in the above case))
ii) whether they can provide guarantee as to the itinerary, group size and service (ODC Travel provides such money-back guarantee - I regret not choosing them)
iii) what is the boat's star rating (every boat is rated, just like hotels)
NEVER EVER book budget accomodation online for places in Vietnam! The photos on the net are usually bogus, the hotels run under many different names because of bad rep! Just show up and book when you get there and after you have seen the room! There are always more hotel rooms than tourists! Places $15US and over are usually safe, but make sure you do not pay the asking price! You can always knock it down a few dollars!
The roads in Hanoi are incredibly full of bicycles and mopeds. At first there seems to be no way to cross, the traffic is relentless. Having watched the locals this is what you do:
Walk at a steady speed across the road. Don't speed up, stop or jump out of the way. All the traffic will flow around you like water around a rock in the river. It takes a lot of nerve the first time, but gets easier with practice.
Don't try this at home.
Because of the local culture and food, sometimes what you see and experience in Hanoi may not be pleasant for the eyes and taste. For example, you may see the locals selling dog meat in their markets or eat snake meat or turtle meat where they will kill the animal in front of you to show that you are getting the real stuff. For the snake, they will ask you to drink the blood so you need to be mentally prepared for the Vietnamese experience while you are in Hanoi or other parts of the country.
While at Hanoi, try to drink mineral water as the local water may not be suitable for tourists. One of the attractions in Hanoi is to try the many variety and delicious local street food, but do take note that the hygiene standard is not too high and bring some medication just in case. As for me, I managed to survive the local food without much problems, in fact I enjoyed them as they are delicious and cheap :)
I purchased a tour prior to entering the county via a Vietnamese tourist agency (Dragon Travel) based in Hanoi. Dragon Travel advised me that it was not necessary to have a visa prior to entry into Vietnam. They provided my with a entry letter and indicated that an employee of their agency would meet me at the airport and assist in obtaining a Visa. The employee was one hour late. The Vietnamese Immigration officials took the letter and my passport. Without further instruction I was simply made to wait. When I respectfully attempted to inquire as to what was taking place, the officials took a stern and moderately aggresive approach to me indicating that I should stand in an secluded area of the airport that was roped off. I complied, but I was scared. Eventually (one hour later) an official returned with the passport. I gave them $25USD entry tax, and they sent me on my way. Hence, obtain your visa prior to entering Vietnam...it will save you an hour.
There are plenty of travel agencies in Hanoi, both government-run and privately owned, which can book tours, provide cars and guides, issue air tickets and arrange visa extensions.
Several budget agencies also double as restaurants-cafes, which offer cheap eats, rooms for rent and internet access. The mighty alliance between Ho Chi Minh City's (HCMC) Sinh Cafe and state-run Hanoi Toserco captures a large share of the local 'fast food' tourist market, in particular the dirt-cheap 'open tours', which shuttle travellers in buses along Highway 1 between Hanoi and HCMC. The proliferation, however, of 'fake' Sinh Cafes in Hanoi has confused more than a few travellers. It's not only fake Sinh Cafes but several of the other leading agents have been cloned over the years. Check the address and website carefully to make sure you are buying the authentic product.
Luckily my wife and I did not encounter pickpockets and photo touts while at Hanoi, perhaps because both of us somewhat look like Vietnamese (some locals spoke to us in Vietnamese language). Although Hanoi is relatively safe as compared to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, it is important to take precautions, especially in the busy Old Quarter area which is really crowded. Always put precious items in front of you and somewhere safe. If you are in a group, always keep a lookout for each other and things will be OK. Another problem which I saw happening (luckily not to us) was photo touts which ask you to wear their hats, hold some of their items to take photos and then ask for money. This usually happened to Westerners so do take note.
Before I went to Hanoi, I have read from other VT members about the chaotic traffic and many many motorcycles on the roads. All these are really true but there is still a way to cross the roads. As pointed out by other VT members, the trick is to look for a suitable time with slightly less traffic (you will never encounter no traffic, so forget about this), then start walking slowly across the road and the motorcycles will avoid you by going around. Try not to be unpredictable e.g. suddenly stopping, turn and walk back, sudden change of pace etc. If you are not sure, watch how other people do it and follow. It will be difficult at first but you will soon become an expert. This experience gets harder at night as due to lower visibility. However, not all roads in Hanoi are without traffic lights. The above problem is mainly in the Old Quarter area and the northern portion of Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of Restored Sword). Once you are at the French Quarter area south of this lake, there are traffic lights on the road and the motorcycles do stop at these traffic lights.
If you want to take a taxi from the airport to any destination in Hanoi there is a flat rate of 10 US dollars or 160,000 VND. Now the danger part. The taxi drive brought me to the right hotel, but pulled up to the side exit (being that it was the first time at the hotel I didn't realize this right away. I tried to pay him in US dollars and he told me "no", "only dong". I protested and told we agreed on dollars and that's what he was going to get. He then pulled out a card which told me that he only took VND and that the fee was 800,000. I'm sure there some people who can't do the 16,000 to one dollar math in their head, but I knew this was *** as soon as told me he wouldn't take US dollars. Long story short, I sent my girlfriend into the hotel to call the police and informed the driver that we would settle this with the police and as soon as she went in he got scared and took the 10 dollars.
TIP- don't get ripped off by the airport taxi.