Self-drive isn't possible in Vietnam, possibly a relief when you see the heart-stopping Hanoi traffic. A car with driver can be arranged, allowing for stops along the way, if you are planning an epic odyssey south.
Noi Bai International Airport (www.hanoiairportonline.com) serves Hanoi and is about 45 kilometres from the downtown area. There are direct international flights from Asian capitals and a few cities in Australia and Europe. Domestic flights connect Hanoi with most Vietnamese cities.
Hanoi is home to the Reunification Express (www.vr.com.vn) connecting the country's north and south. Nightly sleeper berths are available to and from Hué, Danang and all points south. There are also luxurious night trains to Lao Cai, gateway to the popular northern hill station of Sapa.
Country code for Vietnam: +84; Hanoi (0)4.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh offers a poignant insight into the Vietnam conflict from the northern perspective. Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden is legendary war photographer Tim Page's account of his return to Vietnam to establish a memorial to fallen correspondents on all sides.
Do go / Don't Go
Hanoi is prone to wet, chilly winters, so you might want to avoid November to February, although this is considered the best time to travel in the south, where it's warm and dry. The summer monsoon brings hot, humid weather, leaving us with spring and autumn as the ideal times to visit (aim for April, May and October). A lot of businesses shut up shop during Tet (Vietnamese New Year), which falls somewhere in January or February depending on the lunar calendar.
Vietnam is one of Asia's finest culinary experiences. Delicate flavours, subtle aromas and fresh ingredients combine to make a journey across the nation a gastronomic delight. There are more than 500 regional dishes to sample along the way, and Hanoi is home to northern cuisine. Pho, the noodle soup that built a nation, is a popular snack at any time of day. Bun cha is a delicious dish of rice noodle vermicelli, grilled pork and a forest of herbs adored by northerners and southerners alike.
There are lots of taxi firms in Hanoi, but ensure you hire one with a meter. There are still cyclos (three-wheeled pedicabs) and xe oms (motorbike taxis) roaming the streets, but overcharging is the norm.
Tipping is a relatively new phenomenon in Vietnam thanks to the arrival of mass tourism. A 10 per cent tip is appropriate, unless service is already added to the bill.
Vietnamese dong (VND or d) or US dollar (US$).
Mr Smith, don't bring the pith helmet - you may be mistaken for an old colonial, but it gets worse. The pith helmet is universally known as the Ho Chi Minh hat here and can be picked up for just a few dollars, so you'll feel a chump if you've carted a designer one from home. Mrs Smith, don't pack much, as then you'll have the perfect excuse to raid the designer boutiques of Nha Tho Street and the Old Quarter.
Two kilometres west of the lake, the Temple of Literature, established in 1070, is one of the best-preserved historic buildings in Hanoi and home to the oldest university in Vietnam. Fans of Confucian architecture (rather than the confusion architecture that reigns in some parts of the city) will appreciate the harmonious gardens and peaceful pavilions.
No trip to Hanoi is complete without a pilgrimage to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Humble Ho was embalmed against his dying wishes for a simple cremation and lies in a glass sarcophagus in the heart of this foreboding marble structure (he takes a holiday in Russia around October or November for essential maintenance). This is the holiest of holies for many Vietnamese so no talking or giggling, and absolutely no photographs.
Hanoi is a headline act when it comes to shopping. Popular items include silk clothing, embroidered lace, ethnic handicrafts and old propaganda posters. Craft Link (www.craftlink.com.vn; 41-43 Van Mieu) is a fair-trade shop specialising in ethnic minority handicrafts and textiles. Khaisilk (96 Hang Gai Street) is Vietnam's best-known fashion house offering dressy designer pieces. Hillary Clinton picked up some threads at Ha Dong Silk (102 Hang Gai Street). We're not sure that's an endorsement, but we like the collection.
An early-morning stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake will have you charmed. Dawn is exercise hour for early-rising Hanoians and you can witness the hypnotic moves of mass t'ai chi as folk gather to practise this ancient art. Finish with a lakeside cuppa at Hapro Coffee, at the south-western tip of Hoan Kiem, or explore pretty Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the north-eastern corner of the lake, reached by ancient red bridge the Huc (Rising Sun).
Pay your respects at the restored One Pillar Pagoda, set in a pretty park behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Originally built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong in the 11th century, it is an elegant design said to represent a blossoming lotus rising from a sea of sorrow. The French weren't so impressed and wantonly destroyed it before quitting Hanoi in 1954.
January/February Tet, as Vietnamese New Year is called, means much of the country is on holiday. April The slithery traditions of snake catching and breeding are celebrated at the Le Mat Snake Festival. Processions, music and food are highlights. 30 April Liberation Day celebrates the fall of Saigon to the north in 1975. It's popular with Hanoians, as it marks them getting one over the southern oiks. 1 May International Workers' Day falls today, so it's very much 'up the revolution' at this time.