This beautiful city is a veritable feast of stunning contrasts; a fusion of French and Asian influenced architecture intermingling in a graceful and harmonious symmetry, peaceful lakes and manicured parks abut noisy congested roads, wide tree-lined boulevards sit beside cluttered, narrow alleyways and everywhere you go, the incessant roar of motor bikes and blaring horns.
The all-pervading sights, smells and sounds will leave an indelible memory of a place that’s never far from its colourful and tumultuous past and of a people who embrace their history, even though it’s peppered with dramatic events – multiple invasion by the Chinese, domination by the French and war with America and its allies – and eagerly anticipate their bright future.
The heart of the city is its Old Quarter; a chaotic maze of tangled, narrow streets and shop fronts spreading out and around Hoan Kiem Lake, the city’s soul. Like yin and yang, they balance each other – one a noisy place of commerce with a pulsating energy you can almost feel, the other an oasis of calm serenity where Hanoi’s citizens come to do morning tai chi, lovers stroll hand in hand, old people sit in silent contemplation of their life and others come to pay their respects at Ngoc Son Temple, sited on a small island at the northern end of the lake and accessed by an ornate red bridge.
Related article: Honeymooning Hanoi
This timeless area is shopping heaven with over 70 streets offering everything from tailor and ready-made clothing, shoes, bags, silk, embroidery, homewares, art and crafts – in fact everything you can possibly think of including funeral flags! There’s also dozens of small and large hotels, restaurants, food stalls, markets, cafes and pubs where expats and visitors like to hang out – two favourites being The Kangaroo Cafe on Bao Khanh Street for a home-made burger and Le Pub on Hang Be Street for a cold beer.
After the chaos of the Old Quarter it’s quite amazing to see the direction the city is heading in when you visit the West Lake district not too far away. Luxurious, five-star hotels and modern condominiums have replaced the ancient palaces and temples that graced the banks of this lovely lake in centuries past and new buildings to house Hanoi’s emerging, successful entrepreneurs are springing up everywhere around the parks and waterway.
It’s clear that the people in charge of town planning are moving ahead to make Hanoi a modern, Asian metropolis that lives up to its awarded name, City of Peace, bestowed by UNESCO for fostering a culture of peace through education, promoting sustainable economic and social development and international peace and security.
Here’s our couple’s guide to help you enjoy the best of a few days in Hanoi:
For a special occasion the Ba Mien Restaurant at the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel is the place to be. Authentic Vietnamese dishes served by attentive staff in the most gorgeous, luxe surroundings will make this dinner the most memorable of your stay. Le Thanh Tong Street Hoan kiem District.
One of the best places for a lunch you can linger over is Brother’s Cafe which is housed in a 100 year old renovated building that simply oozes class. The authentic Vietnamese food is served buffet style and you can choose from over 40 dishes prepared on the spot 26 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street.
The Green Papaya restaurant near to the West Lake district where several five-star hotels such as Sofitel, Sheraton and InterContinental are located also offers a superb dinner option of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine with the added benefit of being close to the bars and entertainment of the nearby hotels. 30 Ngoc Van, Tay Ho.
For a romantic dinner try the Green Mango Restaurant located amidst the noise and bustle of the Old Quarter. Food and wine is good and the romantic ambience is quite simply superb so make a night of it! 18 Hang Quat Street.
If you’re in Hanoi for a few days try to soak up a bit of history by visiting a few of the city’s interesting temples, museums and monuments.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: Highly revered Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the independence movement that finally ousted the French and the man who united the country into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam died in 1969 but you can still see his embalmed body which lies in a bier inside a glass case at the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square.
The Temple of Literature: Founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in 1070 as a Confucian University, this is an oasis of peace in the crowded, noisy city. Built around a lovely complex of courtyards, gardens and temples, the site preserves vestiges of the past including a very large statue of Confucius, it’s always pretty crowded with locals and overseas visitors but is certainly worthy of a look.
The Hanoi Opera House: Built in 1875 as a small scale version of the Paris Opera this is an exquisite architectural treasure but is usually closed unless there is a show on so check with your hotel concierge and if there’s a performance on while you’re there make an effort to attend.
It’s easy to find what you’re looking for in the Old Quarter as many of the streets specialise in just one or two things! Hang Gai is full of silk shops and art galleries, Hang Hom has homewares and lacquerware, Lan Ong is medicine street, Hang Bac is silver street, Hang Quat is for flags and banners and Hang Quai for Buddhist statuary just to name a few. Get a map from your hotel and you’ll have no problem navigating your way around. Crossing the streets which are choked with vehicles is downright scary as there is a complete absence of crossings and even if the traffic light turns red the bikes don’t all stop. They also go the wrong way down one way streets and drive on the footpath so being a pedestrian can be a hazard to your health! My tip is find other people crossing and stick with them.
A ride around the Old Quarter in a cyclo; the traditional spectacle of a water puppet show; a cooking class at the famous Metropole Hotel. There will also be some great festivals throughout every province and city happening in 2010 including an International Puppet Festival and a Film Festival in September; International trekking tours to Mount Fransipan in October and dancing, cycling and football events throughout the year.
GET OUT OF TOWN
Take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (US$35) and then an hour’s bus trip to Sapa and enter a virtual Garden of Eden. Visit the villages of ethnic minorities, enjoy the spectacle at the many markets selling local handicrafts and walk through the glorious countryside. You can even trek up the highest mountain in Vietnam if you’re fit enough!
Hanoi has a humid tropical climate, characterised by monsoons. Summers, between May and September are very hot with plenty of rain while winters from November to March are cold and relatively dry. The hottest month of the year is June. January is the coolest month, usually beset with a cold north-easterly wind.
Hanoi has a wide range of hotels from budget to five-star. We stayed at the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel and recommend it to any traveller looking for a bit of luxury in a great position. Another good five-star hotel handy to everything is the Hotel Melia Hanoi.
Organising a trip to Vietnam needs the expert help of a local tour company and we used Pham Cong Tuoc from HG Travel who was an excellent guide with a great sense of humour and a vast knowledge of every area and province.