Twenty minutes from the Old Quarter (traffic allowing, of course), and separated by a vast body of water, West Lake has a sense of space and openness that doesn’t exist in the center of Hanoi. Villages like Nghi Tam and Yen Phu were once separate from the city, but urban sprawl has subsumed them, and now they are quiet suburban neighborhoods. Many modern villa-style houses are for rent here, equipped with all modern conveniences.
As Western expats have gravitated here, restaurants, schools, boutiques and specialized food shops catering to Western tastes have popped up, so for day-to-day needs there’s no need to venture into the city center.
Hanoi is generally not a pedestrian-friendly city, and even the main streets of West Lake are no exception. However, the small alleys between villas are quiet and tree-lined, and a road along the lake edge is perfect for walking, jogging and bicycling.
International Schools—The residential neighborhoods of West Lake are close to UNIS, the United Nations International School. West Lake is home to the Morningstar International Kindergarten (English language).
Supermarkets—In addition to many bakeries and specialized food shops, there’s a Fivimart supermarket in the Frasier Suites building just north of the Sheraton Hotel.
Restaurants—West Lake has Hanoi’s best selection of Western-style restaurants, including Italian, French and Indian cuisine, as well as many European cafes and bakeries.
Cinema—There are a number of DVD shops in West Lake, but no movie theaters—you have to head into the city center for cinemas.
Sport Facilities—A number of the high-end hotels in West Lake (The Sheraton, The Intercontinental) have pools and weight rooms to which you can buy yearly memberships. In addition the recently opened Elite Fitness Spa and Wellness Center draws many with attractive facilities and trainers. There are yoga, pilates and aerobics studios, plus the best jogging and bicycling roads in Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem District
Hoan Kiem District includes the Old Quarter and surrounding area. This is the place for art galleries, live music, bars and clubs, open-air markets (the whole Old Quarter is one big commercial district), and the most concentrated experience of local life. It’s exciting, intense, noisy and polluted—here you are in the thick of EVERYTHING, both good and bad, so a serviced apartment at least four floors above street level is a safer bet for serenity. However, despite appearances, there are plenty of alleyways off of some of even the loudest streets in which you can find a quiet ground level space tucked away. Finding sensible housing in Hoan Kiem is certainly possible, if you are willing to look.
Hoan Kiem Lake, the historic heart of Hanoi, is surrounded by open-air cafes and ice cream shops, and at night the path around the lake is full with locals—especially young lovers—strolling beneath the trees or sitting on the many stone benches that line the bank.
One drawback of Hoan Kiem is that, in addition to being the center of local life, it is the center of Hanoi’s tourist industry—it can be hard to escape the touts and vendors, who may sometimes make you feel like a walking dollar sign.
International Schools—Hanoi’s international schools are located in suburban areas such as West Lake and Ba Dinh, anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes from Hoan Kiem District.
Supermarkets—One of the best supermarkets in Hanoi is in Vincom Towers, five minutes south of Hoan Kiem Lake as well as Intimex located right along the western side of the lake. In general though shops here are smaller and more specialized.
Restaurants— Hoan Kiem is a restaurant mecca, with everything from street stalls to high-end Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, cafes, travelers’ restaurants, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Cinema—Megastar Cinema is five minutes south of Hoan Kiem Lake in Vincom Towers, and Hanoi’s art house cinema, Cinematheque, is right next to the lake.
Sport Facilities—Most fitness facilities are outside the center of Hanoi. Your best bet for exercise in Hoan Kiem is a walk around the lake and a swim in the pool at the Army Hotel.
Ciputra is an expensive gated community removed from the congestion and chaos of central Hanoi. Naturally it’s also removed from cultural events and local life, and if you stay here you may not feel that you are living in Hanoi at all. However, many expats choose to live here because it’s quiet, safe, has lots of space for children, and UNIS, the United Nations International School, is here. Saving their children a long bus ride to and from school every day is a major factor for many Westerners who choose to live here.
What you gain in space and security in Ciputra you lose in convenience. It’s a long haul from here to the center of town, so a movie, concert or even a shopping trip becomes a major excursion. Ciputra may be best described as a sanctuary from Hanoi rather than an integrated part of it.
International Schools—UNIS and KinderWorld (an English-language kindergarten) are located in Ciputra.
Supermarkets—Ciputra has several mini-marts, including L’s Place, which specializes in Western food products.
Restaurants— There’s only one restaurant in Ciputra, which receives lukewarm reviews. From Ciputra the plethora of restaurants in West Lake is 10 – 20 minutes by car.
Cinema—You’ll have to make the trek into town to watch a film in a theater!
Sport Facilities—Ciputra has a tennis court and swimming pool (but there’s a fee for access), and the many fitness studios of West Lake are a short drive away.