Exploring Hanoi on Foot

When you’re visiting a city, one of the considerations you need to make when planning your trip is how you’re planning to get around when you are there. This is especially important when you have only limited amount of time to spend in one city (as often the case with those who can only take short time for vacation and need to make the most from their time off). Reading guide books, especially those with city-specific information is really helpful in determining the best mode of transportation. There are some cities Los Angeles, CA, or Dallas, TX, where everything is so spread out and there is not really any convenient public transportation to take you anywhere, in which case the best way to get around is to rent a car. On the other hand, you have places like New York City or Boston, MA, where there is good public transportation in the city and in fact it’s actually inconvenient and very expensive to drive, in that case the combination of using public transportation (like a subway train or bus) and walking would be your best bet. Then there are places like Washington, DC, that’s somewhat in between; if you happen to be in the city center, you can use public transportation and walking, but if you need to go to the suburbs, you would need to drive as the public transportation is not as extensive. The key is to now your destinations and plan out how to get from place to place ahead of time.

Before visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, I read about the city, particularly the area where we were going to spend most of our time there, the Old Quarter. What I learned was that the place was quite compact and with its narrow streets, the best way to get around especially for the short distance is on foot. The locals ride scooters; perhaps something to try by intrepid travelers but may not be recommended especially if you’re not used to riding in a somewhat chaotic environment. There are taxis around that you can take if you’re too tired to walk or the distance is a bit far away. But from our experience riding taxis several times in Hanoi, unfortunately I didn’t really have much good things to say about the experience.

Another important thing to do when planning a visit to a city with limited time is to map out the route you will take to go from place to place when you’re in the city. This way you can determine the most efficient route to take so you don’t end up spending more time getting from place to the other than the actual visit to the places. One thing I found helpful was to use Google Map to find places on the city map, and then get a general sense of how far or close the places are. Surprisingly Google Map today can be used to find landmarks in many places around the world, including Hanoi. So prior to our visit, I already had a high-level picture in my mind about the route we will take when we’re in Hanoi.

Once you get to the destination city, another helpful source to consult is your hotel’s concierge or front desk. You can get them to confirm that the route you would take for the day is indeed a good way to go, or else recommend different route or way to get to the places you want to visit. When we were in Bangkok, Hanoi, and Singapore, the hotels where we stayed at also had complimentary city maps that you can request. The maps that we were given by our hotels were quite helpful as they specifically had mark on the map where the hotel was located, so you can use that as the starting and ending points of your travel.

The photo below was taken as we walked in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. You could see here how narrow the streets were, and how pedestrians, motorcycles, and cars had to share the narrow street to navigate. In this case, you could see someone with a BMW SUV (in itself it was interested to note in Hanoi — it must be the sign of prosperity coming to this country) trying to navigate the streets of Old Quarter Hanoi. I’m not sure I would do that myself.

Street in the Old Quarter

Getting Around Angkor

One consideration you need to make when planning a visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is how you will get around the area during your visit. With around 400 square kilometres with many points of interests to visit, you need to plan out your transportation option ahead of time to make the best use of your time there.

Since there is no lodging option available within the Park, most visitors stay in one of the lodging options in the city of Siem Reap (about six kilometres south of Angkor Wat). You can find transportation options quite easily in the city. Travelers typically visit the temples either by buses for large tour groups, or by vans, cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, or bicycles for independent travelers. What you need to consider is the distance of your travel/route, the cost, the time you have, and the weather conditions. If you’re going to one of the remote temples, you may want to make sure that you have a way to get back or go to your next destination (i.e., it may not be easy to get public transportation from there). Also, depending on the time of the day or the season of the year when you’re traveling, it might be very hot during the middle of the day or it might be raining. And negotiating transportation for the whole day may be cheaper than getting transportation from point to point.

For our visit to Siem Reap, we had a tour company arrange our transportation, so we had a driver with air-conditioned van and a tour guide ready for our day trips there. Even then, we had to make plan adjustment on the first day. Initially, we were thinking of ‘going healthy’ and spend our first afternoon touring the area in bicycles. Sounded like a good idea, until we found out the reality that afternoon that a) we were pretty tired after our trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in the morning, and b) it was hot and humid outside. Our tour guide suggested that we went by air-conditioned van instead, though if we still insisted to go by bicycle, he was ready for that too. We followed his advice, and that turned out to be the right thing to do. We were able to spend more time at Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng that afternoon, and reserved our energy for a longer day trip the following day. Our driver also had a cooler full of cold bottled water, which was very nice to have especially as we walked around the temple area in the heat of the day.

The photo below was taken from our van on our second day as we’re about to enter Angkor Thom. You can see some modes of transportation that others took: by tuk-tuk, on foot, by bicycle, and — in some areas — on an elephant.

Angkor transportation

Transportation to Siem Reap

After visiting Phnom Penh, the next destination in our Southeast Asia trip was Siem Reap, another area in Cambodia where Angkor Wat and other temples are located. To travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we considered several transportation options. The first option was to fly. This would be the fastest way to get there, but it’s also the most expensive, and there wasn’t much to experience on the way there. The second option was to take a boat. This was an intriguing option to consider, as it would definitely be a new experience for us. You could also see some village life on the river banks along the way. The cost was much cheaper than the airfare. However, some people who had traveled this route said being on the boat for four hours could get boring after a while, and the boats were not necessarily the most comfortable environment to be for that long of period. That brought us to consider the third option, traveling by land. This was the typical option taken by locals as it’s the cheapest and there were many options of operators to consider. Some travelers recommended this option because it also allows the travelers to mingle with locals, and you get to see countryside scenery along the way. There was also a stop in the middle so you could stretch and rest for a little bit before continuing the journey. It took around four hours to drive to Siem Reap, so time-wise it’s roughly the same as taking a boat.

Once we decided to travel overland to Siem Reap, then we had to decide which travel operator to use. We could either hire a private car, ride a passenger van, or ride a bus. The private car option was obviously the most expensive, and you get the whole car for yourself. It’s nice, but we wouldn’t get to mingle with locals as much. So we initially thought we would go by bus, as some of them had pretty extensive schedule, and supposedly they had restrooms on board, and even attendants. In the end, we ended up going with a passenger van as recommended by our tour company. They said the cost of going by bus was roughly the same as going by passenger van. The difference was that passenger vans typically end up traveling faster because they are smaller and nimbler than the buses.

The photo below was taken during our van ride to Siem Reap. You can see in front of us another van / minibus going the same direction — that particular one had full cargo that included two motorbikes.

Travel to Siem Reap