A Hanoi Primer

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Photo by Joyce RoqueBy Joyce Roque

HANOI, Nov. 6 – The first thing you will remember on your drive out of Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport might also be the last thing you see as you leave the city – the motorcycles. The undulating wave of motorcycles that zip and turn to no apparent whim but its own. It is a scary experience at first but after a few hesitant tries and close calls of being inches away from a whizzing motorcycle, you will learn that the best way to work around it is to allow the motorcycles to react to you and not the other way around.

Despite Hanoi’s surrounding chaos, the city is thick with bohemian charm and atmosphere with its sprawling French-colonial architecture and vibrant art scene. The buildings are masked with whitewashed facades tinged with age and wooden shutters that let you imagine the days when colonialism was still considered romantic.

Surely as Hanoi ranks as one of the most distinct cities in Asia it is also a place where one can mix business with pleasure. Today the city is the capital for one of the region’s vibrant economies. The Hanoi scene is an interesting mix of businessmen, educators, NGOs and artists that sets it apart from its rival in the south, Ho Chi Minh City. Below are suggestions of places to go for business, sightseeing and shopping. Feel free to add your own favorites to the list.

Photo by Joyce RoqueFor literally a taste of the local life don’t be shy to squat on a plastic chair and dig in at one of the many local food stands at any of the Old Quarter’s street corners and makeshift restaurants. Do not be daunted by the language barrier, bring pen and paper if you can and sign language counts for a lot. These places may be rank low in terms of ambiance and cleanliness but a taste of genuine pho bo (beef noodle soup) and pho ga (chicken noodle soup) will be totally worth it. Try classic Vietnamese dishes like the nem cua be, banh cuon, mien xao lun and banh goi. Hanoi is also famous for northern dishes like bun cha, cha ca la vong and banh cuon. For local ice cream, try Kem Trang Tien for their com and dau xanh flavors. Be forewarned that the Vietnamese take their coffee strong and bitter. As a nod to its colonial past, there are also French Vietnamese restaurants around the city that serve classic French dishes at affordable prices.

A dose of history is in order with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum, both imposing structures that serve as a testament for all things Uncle Ho. Even on regular days the place is busy with local visitors. There is a stall that sells postcards and stamps on the grounds for a quick note back home.

The Hoa Lo Prison is also an interesting stop. The prison was first used by French colonizers to suppress Vietnamese rebels but was later used during World War II and the Vietnam War. There is a picture of a placid John McCain, former U.S. presidential candidate and ex-Hoa Lo prisoner, lying on a hospital bed while attended by Vietnamese medical staff.

Photo by Joyce RoqueAnother must do for culture fans is a night to the Hanoi Opera House which has shows playing regularly. While the opera house itself may be smaller than average it is a quaint reminder of the city’s French heritage.

Vietnam is famous for its silk, lacquer, embroidery, handicrafts and coffee. Hanoi has all these plus a teeming art scene. There are many art shops, galleries and exhibitions displaying local works for sale. Prices range from the very affordable to the expensive. Lacquer paintings are unique to Vietnam and will make a beautiful addition to a home. Vietnamese coffee beans  also make great gifts and there are many shops that specialize in it. For English books on Vietnam visit Trang Tien street.

Since Hanoi is the seat of government  many companies choose to station their headquarters here to be abreast with the latest regulations which are continually being modified by authorities. Consider arranging a visit to foreign business organizations AmCham Vietnam and EuroCham Vietnam for tips and specific information. There is also the Vietnam Development Information Center across the Hanoi Opera House that serves as a library for the latest statistical and economic data in the country. The center is managed by The World Bank and is an invaluable source for investors wanting information on esoteric topics such as a comparison between international accounting standards to Vietnam accounting standards.

Photo by Joyce RoqueThe Regus Business Center is also in the area and walking distance from the famous Metropole Hotel. Built in 1901, the hotel is elegant and worthy of its old world reputation. There is a fine dining restaurant on the first floor called the Le Beaulieu. A visit to the hotel’s watering hole Angelina is a good way to meet Hanoi’s corporate expats and locals.

Foreign investment in the country is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Planning and Investment. Under this, the ministry has the Foreign Investment Agency (FIA) office which advises on the procedures of investing in the country. Nguyen Nguyen Dzung, an official in the Investment Promotion Division under the FIA told Vietnam Briefing that the country wants to attract more foreign investment in investing in Vietnam specifically infrastructure, energy, education and new technology to name a few.

The Old Hanoi area is fairly walkable and easy to navigate around if you’re not afraid to brave the traffic on your own. For longer distances, taxis are convenient and charge VND10,500 per kilometer with most taxi companies now using a meter. Upon request they can also issue a receipt. If you are more adventurous you can also try riding on a motorbike or a cyclos. The cyclo can be a pleasant way to navigate around the Old Quarters and Hoan Kiem Lake.

When traveling to Vietnam if possible bring U.S. dollars because of the higher exchange rate and it is readily accepted in local gift shops and in some restaurants frequented by tourists.

For more information on doing business in Vietnam email Dezan Shira Country Manager for Vietnam, Hoang Thu Huyen at huyen@dezshira.com.