From Restaurant 96, close to the hotel
From Restaurant 96, close to the hotel

Fabulous hotel, great staff, perfect location in downtown Hanoi

Vietnam presents a conundrum for the western traveler, especially for those from the United States. For American’s, Visa restrictions and a ban on driving rental cars limits travel planning and choices.

Visas and Drivers Licenses limit your choices

Tourist visas are restricted to 30-day travel. This means you must enter the country no earlier than and depart the country no later than the entry and exit dates specified on your tourist visa. Because of this rigidity, it’s best to apply for a tourist visa outside Vietnam and get it ahead of time before you travel. This way, you’ll know the precise dates for your entry and exit and you can plan accordingly.

Tourist visa
Tourist visa

Vietnam does not accept the AAA international drivers license. Therefore, many visitors are not allowed to rent cars. If you like to rove the world as we do this can be a big downer. We love snagging that car cam video everywhere we go. And we’d like to control our schedule so we can stop and snap those photos and videos whenever we want wherever we are.

The only way around this driving ban restriction is to get an ASEAN drivers license. So, for example, if you have a Thai drivers license, it will be accepted in Vietnam as a legal form of identification for getting a rental car or registering at a hotel. More on that in a separate story.

With an understanding of these restrictions in mind, picking a good hotel with a competent travel concierge staff becomes important. These are the folks you sit down with after check-in to get help planning tours throughout the country.

To be sure, you can set up tours by yourself online before arrival. We didn’t do so because we weren’t sure we were going to travel to Vietnam after our visit to Laos. Since ours was a last-minute visit, we had to improvise.

Use Trip Advisor to find a good hotel

Trip Advisor was a great aid to us in this case. The Hanoi Tirant Hotel enjoys high ratings and is located smack-dab in downtown Hanoi.

After setting up our reservation online, hotel travel coordinator Bella Nyugen sent us an email. The first good piece of advice she gave us was to avoid the well-known taxicab scams at the international airport. She suggested we take a private car from the airport to the hotel — a service they offer. On arrival, we saw our driver waiting for us holding a placard. An hour later we were at the hotel — for $23. A good deal. The traffic was heavy, it was late at night, amidst a heavy rain on the drive in to town.

The lobby of the hotel is gorgeous, adorned with masses of fresh cut flowers. The staff present themselves without fault.

Hotel flowers
Hotel flowers

From check-in, to room service, to concierge service, every member of the staff of this hotel is customer centric, warm, friendly, and helpful. We can't say enough “good things” about this place.

After check-in, you may be hungry. Eat at the 96 restaurant next door — you'll be glad you did. It's one of the best restaurants in Hanoi.

Restaurant 96, Hanoi
Restaurant 96, Hanoi

From the rooftop of the hotel, you can snag a panoramic view of the city. Night and daytime views are worth a trip upstairs.

Hanoi, rooftop shot at night
Hanoi, rooftop shot at night

Take a walk through the old quarter and around the lake

When you step outside, you’re in the old quarter of Hanoi. Shopkeepers are busy, pedestrians and motorbikes crisscross the walkways and streets, pickpockets are on alert carefully following you around, and scam artists check throughout to see if they can trick you into stepping on glue so you can’t pick your foot up. While you’re focusing on your foot, a pickpocket makes off with your wallet.

Yes, you have to pay attention in Vietnam. The dense population, the relative economic hardship of many, and the opportunity to exploit foreigners, is just a reality as it is in many major cities around the world.

But you'll also find the people warm, helpful, polite, and genuinely curious about westerners. A few blocks from the hotel, you’ll see the north end of a huge lake. It’s an area surrounded by parks and walkways and the popular getaway site for residents. Here you can bask in the gorgeous flowers carefully cultivated by the caretakers, watch groups play badminton, or just enjoy a walk and talk in the park.

Lake, Downtown Hanoi, at nightAt the opposite end of this lake, perhaps a mile and a half away, lies the old Hanoi Hilton — the prison where American prisoners of war were held during the American-Vietnamese war. It took us half a day to walk there from the hotel. Neither the distance nor the weather nor the walkways slowed us down. We were stopped by groups of people who just wanted to meet, talk and ask us questions! It was a charming and heartfelt experience.

Here, you gain a sense the people are isolated from the western world and longing for contact with those who are different. During our walk to the Hanoi Hilton, a little girl walked up to me and said “Welcome to Vietnam. I hope you like our country”. This led to a 30-minute conversation with her father, an engineer, and her siblings. The father is teaching his kids English!

Go shopping

If you forget to bring camera gear with you, visit Digiworld. They carry Canon, Fujifilm, Sony and GoPro gear. It’s not far from the Hanoi Hilton across from an upscale shopping mall selling Louis Vuitton and similar lines of personal clothing.

Yes, capitalism has arrived in Vietnam — on the surface. You can buy many brand name western goods in this country.

In Asia, the prices for photo gear and other western goods are the same as in the west. But you can save on taxes by getting VAT refunds on departure from the country. Just ask the vendor for a VAT form at the time of purchase. You’ll need to show your passport. And you’ll need patience as it will take store workers a while to fill out all the paperwork.

Setup tours for the rest of the country

Hanoi is delightful. A quick visit will make you wish to explore more of the country.

Bella Nguyen, the travel coordinator at the Hanoi Tirant took on the mission of setting us up with tours. She's an absolute delight, professional, and thorough. She arranged hotels, private cars, and tours for us in Hoi An, Hue, Nha Trang, Saigon, and the Mekong Delta. The total cost? About $2,200.

Our first tour was to Halong Bay. We’ll post a separate story about that.
Just know for now if you decide on a cruise at Halong Bay, pick the highest level of service (minimum 4-5 stars) you can afford. And book as soon as you can. They sell out fast and can be hard to get depending on when you try to reserve a slot. We took a 4-star cruise because all of the 5 star cruises were sold out. We're glad we did. When you get to Halong Bay, you'll see some seedier cruise boats and be glad you didn't try to save some money by selecting a cheaper line.

Thinking about a visit to Hanoi? Consider this hotel. If you end up booking, send a message to Bella Nyugen. Her contact data and that for the hotel is below.

Hanoi Tirant Hotel
36-38-40 Gia Ngu Street
Hoan Kiem
Hanoi, Vietnam
Phone: +84462698899

Bella Nguyen
Phone: 0977.304.273

See also:

Review: Halong Bay: A “Must See” Destination If You Visit North Vietnam

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