Once the Paris of Asia, Hanoi seduces travellers with iressistible charm, impressive eats, and affordable prices
With its vibrant street culture, easy-going people, and affordability, there’s little wonder Hanoi ranked fourth in TripAdvisor’s World’s Best Destinations last year. Bearing a French accent and a 1,000-year-old heart, it’s a city bristling with energy and culture yet more attractive than sprawling Saigon in the south. Regionally, it’s unique among Asian capitals in the way the cityscape of charming lakes and narrow lanes has managed to retain character and dignity despite topping PWC’s projected list of the world’s fastest growing cities for the period 2008 to 2025.
In 2010 the city celebrated a millennium of continuous history. After centuries of Chinese rule, when Hanoi was known as Long Do (Dragon Belly), followed by Vietnam’s golden age of Thang Long (Soaring Dragon), the city came under French control in 1888. As capital of French Indochina, the city’s 19th and 20th century architecture was moulded to French tastes, lending an important aesthetic to an already-rich stylistic heritage.
The triumph of the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1975 introduced a Soviet-bloc aesthetic which combined with everything that came before it to produce a uniquely modern Vietnamese lifestyle. More recently, an influx of returning Vietnamese entrepreneurs, international expats, and a creative digital-savvy local population has quickened the city’s pulse.
For most visitors, the city’s focal point is Hoan Kiem, a large lake enclosed by a tree-lined promenade filled with tai chi practitioners and joggers every morning and evening. Radiating out from the lake’s southern shore, wide French Quarter boulevards are flanked by stately ex-colonial buildings, including the Grand Opera House, State Bank of Vietnam (formerly The Bank of Indochina), Presidential Palace (formerly the Palace of the Governor-General of French Indochina), St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and the historic Hotel Metropole, once a temporary home for such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda.
To the north of Hoan Kiem, the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter bear the legacy of 13th-century guildsmen who divided the city’s main mercantile centre into 36 trade specialties, called hang. A street named Hang Ma is dedicated to shops selling paper votive offerings to be burned on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, while Hang Dong offers copper bells and gongs and Hang Cot is filled with tall bunches of cut bamboo used to make furniture and scaffolding. Strolling through the Old Quarter, dodging overloaded scooters and weaving amongst vendors purveying their wares on the sidewalks, is a never-ending source of entertainment.
Then there’s the true heart of Old Quarter life: Hanoi street food. Bangkok has nothing on Hanoi when it comes to the variety and sheer quantity of spots where one can squat on diminutive plastic stools while cooks fling shiny noodles, foliage, and bits of meat into steaming curbside pots. It’s virtually impossible to walk more than 50 metres in any direction without stumbling on a collection of sidewalk stools and mobile kitchens.
The Vietnamese say “In food, as in death, we feel the essential brotherhood of man,” and sitting elbow to elbow with the mass of sidewalk diners, you will feel it, too. A classic local favourite is bun cha, a bowl of thin rice noodles, charcoal-grilled pork slices, pork patties, and pork broth generously garnished with basil, mint, cilantro, shaved celery, and greenleaf lettuce. It’s not ready for the spoon and chopsticks, though, until you’ve added spoonfuls of garlic-spiked vinegar and fresh chilli slices.
Banh mi, Vietnam’s famed baguette sandwiches, take a different form in Hanoi. Whereas in the south the emphasis is on thick layers of pate topped with a dominant sweet chilli sauce, in Hanoi there’s more variety of ingredients, and an overall less sweet flavour profile. Hanoi vendors sometimes grill the sandwich between two iron slabs, almost like Italian panini. For Hanoi banh mi trung ngai cuu, eggs are scrambled with a handful of mugwort leaves, and then folded into a crisp baguette with a minimum of sauce.
Hanoi streets are also famous for bun rieu cua thit nuong, a delicious crab dumpling and noodle soup topped with smoky slices of barbecued pork.
More than anywhere else in Vietnam, Hanoi is well-known for bia hoi, no-frills streetside joints that serve cheap, fresh-brewed beer along with roasted peanuts, fermented sausage, and other savoury snacks. Bia hoi spots begin serving in the afternoon and continue until sold out, since the preservative-free beer can’t be served the next day. Bia Hoi Corner, at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets in the Old Quarter, is a good place to meet locals from all walks of life, as well as fellow travellers.
Clear the bia hoi haze the next morning with a cup or three of caphe nau, potent Vietnamese Robusta coffee mixed with condensed milk, available at streetside cafes that are almost as ubiquitous as noodle vendors. Hanoi’s own Cong Caphe is a small chain of coffee shops decorated in Vietnamese communist chic where you can sample better-quality brews, including bac xiu, an irresistible blend of hot coffee and coconut milk.
Hanoi is also known for caphe trung, which blends coffee powder with whipped egg yolk and sugar to create a unique concoction that goes down like liquid tiramisu. The best place to sample egg coffee is Cafe Giang, at the corner of Hang Gai and Hang Dao, where the drink originated in the 1950s.
If you’re serious about digging deep into Hanoi cuisine, consider signing up with Hanoi Street Food Tours, founded by Van Cong Tu, author of the blog Vietnamese God and an expert on the city’s backstreet food secrets.
Vietnam’s capital can’t boast the large-scale nightlife scene of Bangkok or even Singapore, but if intimate bars and bistros are your thing, you’ll be very happy in Hanoi. Tadioto, a favourite among Hanoi writers, artists, and other creative types, offers vintage bar furnishings in a minimally renovated colonial space near the Hotel Metropole and Grand Opera House.
For live music fans, CAMA ATK, on a quiet street in the Hai Ba Trung District, hosts local and international touring musicians and DJs in a rustic setting. In the posh West Lake District, Madake offers two different performance spaces, a white-brick upstairs bar, and a dungeon-like hall downstairs, for musical artists of flexible genres. Hanoi Rock City, in the same neighbourhood, boasts a larger music hall with a good sound system.
For high cuisine and live music all in one go, legendary Don’s Tay Ho in West Lake is the best choice. Internationally acclaimed Canadian chef Donald Berger, along with award-winning Vietnamese chef Nguyen Van Tu, offers a huge menu that spans everything from contemporary Vietnamese cuisine to wood-fired pizza, fresh oysters, and grilled steak. Bands perform at the open-air rooftop oyster bar. Don’s wine list is unparalleled in Vietnam, and the restaurant also offers an intimate Cuban cigar lounge.
As fine a place as any to stay is Cinnamon Cathedral Hotel (US$55 per night), which overlooks St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Old Quarter. Opened in late 2015, the hotel features quiet, well-maintained rooms and a warm, friendly staff.
Cinnamon Cathedral Hotel
38 Autrieu, Hoan Kiem | Tel +84439386761 | cinnamonhotel.net
Don’s Tay Ho
No 16 Quang An Road, Tay Ho | Tel +84437192828 | dons-bistro.com
Hanoi Street Food
24B Tong Dan Street | Tel +84466809124
73A Mai Hac De | Tel +84913524658
Xuan Dieu, Quang An, Tay Ho | Tel +84462766665
Hanoi Rock City
27/52 To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho | Tel +84943571984