Carol Pucci takes a ride on a motorbike in Hanoi.

November 8, 2007

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THOMAS AUCIELLO / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Carol Pucci takes a ride on a motorbike in Hanoi.

CAROL PUCCI / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The start of rush hour in old Hanoi. Five years ago, the main way of getting around was by bicycle. Now it’s motorbikes.

CAROL PUCCI / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The Green Tangerine restaurant occupies a restored French villa in Hanoi’s old quarter.

CAROL PUCCI / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Vietnamese eat curbside from a vendor dishing out bowls of noodle soup called pho.

CAROL PUCCI / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Woven handbags sell for a few dollars at stalls in the old quarter of Hanoi.

A bargain destination

Hanoi: The city is a bargain destination for American travelers, but figuring out how much a U. S. dollar buys in Vietnamese dong can be a challenge. The exchange rate is $1 to 15,760 dong. Bring a calculator, or print out a cheat seat on www.oanda.com.

Many merchants quote prices in dollars as well as dong, and it’s often possible to pay in U.S. dollars. ATMs dispense dongs. Many hotels, restaurants and shops accept credit cards.

Here’s what some things cost:

Double room with breakfast: Golden Lotus Hotel, $50

Vietnamese ice coffee: Cafe Pho Co, 75 cents

Entrance fee to Temple of Literature: 30 cents

Beer: $1

Internet, one hour: 35 cents

Airport limo: $10

Water puppet performance: Thang Long Theatre, $2.40

Dinner for two: Highway 4 North Vietnamese restaurant, $12 with drinks.

Hand-painted silk scarves at Craftlink: a nonprofit organization helping ethnic minorities, $8.50

Baguette: 35 cents

Scooting around Hanoi

By Carol Pucci
Seattle Times travel writer

HANOI — “Madam, motorbike?” he asked, patting the seat of his beat-up Honda.

His glasses, graying hair and mustache reminded me of my father. Perfect. When it comes to getting around Hanoi the way everyone does — on a motorbike, experience trumps a fancy bike.

We agreed on a price for the short ride back to my hotel. I hopped on, hugged his waist and off we went, honking our way around a few cars and buses, but mostly other bikes.

It was mid-afternoon, and traffic was light. I wouldn’t do this at rush hour, or in the rain when the streets are a sea of colored plastic ponchos, but for a short ride with a good driver, it actually felt safer than crossing a busy intersection on foot. It certainly was easier.

“Five or six years ago, all you could see in the streets were bicycles,” says Cuong Nguyen, 29, a guide for a local travel agency.

If the trend continues, Hanoi’s streets will be clogged with cars in another five or six years, just like Bangkok and Beijing.

For now, however, the back of an xe om — motorcycle taxi or moto for short — is an efficient way of getting from one place to another quickly.

It’s also cheap thrills. My ride cost 60 cents.

Hanoi is a fantastic bargain for shopping, eating and sightseeing.

The best eating is done squatting curbside on a plastic stool while a woman dishes out bowls of pho (noodle soup) spiked with lime, slices of chili pepper and handfuls of fresh herbs.

Sidewalks aside, there are tons of atmospheric restaurants hidden in converted 19th-century shophouses along the old quarter’s back streets. Two can eat well for $10-$12 with beer or fruit shakes.

We had our best meal so far at Green Tangerine in a restored French villa, where the upstairs dining room overlooks a garden courtyard.

The chef turns out traditional French food, but a restaurant like this is a good opportunity to sample well-prepared traditional Vietnamese dishes several cuts above what’s available on the street or in small cafes.

The pho with spring onions was more delicate than anything we had tasted so far. With the fans spinning overhead, the shutters open and French jazz almost drowning out the traffic noise, the Tangerine is a splurge by Hanoi standards, but like most everything here, a bargain by ours. The bill was $21 each with drinks.

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