''Sleeping'', a series of paintings by Pham Nogoc Duong, is featured at the popular Suzanne Lecht's Art Vietnam gallery.
"Sleeping," a series of paintings by Pham Nogoc Duong, is featured at the popular Suzanne Lecht's Art Vietnam gallery.

Photograph by Justin Guariglia
 
48 Hours Hanoi—The Best of a City in Two Days

By Nelson Mui

Well Hello, Hanoi

From French colonial architecture to tasty street food and chic boutiques, Vietnam's capital will surprise you.

Few Asian cities seduce visitors the way Hanoi does. With its romantic blend of "old" Asia and French heritage, Hanoi doesn't disappoint. Whereas Ho Chi Minh City's newer, flashier sprawl brings to mind Los Angeles, Hanoi's compact neighborhoods of narrow "tubehouses" and French villas hemmed in by a river and lake recall the old-world charm of San Francisco. "To understand Hanoi, you need to feel it with all your senses," says Alan Duong, a Hanoi native and owner of the home furnishings boutique Mosaique. "Run your hand on the weather-beaten banyan tree trunks. Breathe in the incense wafting from ancient temples, and listen to the cacophonous sounds of street life."

Taking a walk through Hanoi is like reading a pop-up history book, where Vietnam and her people leap out at every corner. "Hanoi's special because everything happens in the street—the talking, the eating, the bargaining," says Valentina Bottari, owner of the stylish interiors shop La Casa in the Cathedral area, and Hanoi resident. Its specialness is in the proud faces of white-gloved young women on motorbikes. It's in the diverse architectural tapestry—reflecting various foreign influences, from Sino-Vietnamese temples to French beaux-arts edifices. Still, Hanoi's not just living in the past. Over the last decade, the city's become a whirl of activity. Boutiques have sprouted. Cafés and bars are filled with trendy young Vietnamese dressed in Western fashions, and Internet cafés are everywhere.

FAST FACTS

Located in the far north of Vietnam, Hanoi lies in a bend of the Red River. With its tree-lined streets, Hanoi is also referred to as the "Green City." For a calendar of events, pick up a copy of the English-language The Guide, which is available in restaurants and hotels.

DON'T MISS

The Old Quarter, with its labyrinth of narrow streets, food stalls, and rich, frenetic street life, remains the soul of Hanoi. Starting from Hoan Kiem Lake, stroll around the water's edge and view the 18th-century pagoda Thap Rua at the center of the lake. If you're out early in the morning, you'll see locals moving rhythmically through their tai chi chuan exercises. On a tiny islet is Den Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain Temple), which is accessible by a red pedestrian bridge that, framed by tropical flora, resembles an Asian version of Monet's Giverny. Visitors to the ornate gilt temple are treated to the legend of a magical tortoise.

From there, meander through the lanes of the Old Quarter, whose 36 streets date to medieval times. Each street was originally named after, and linked to, an artisanal trade that flourished over six centuries ago. Today, one can still find straw mats on Hang Chieu, or "mat street," but Hang Bong, or "cotton street," no longer sells cotton. Within the quarter, you'll see the distinctive tubehouses, which are extremely narrow but deep, with storefronts in the front and living quarters in the rear. Savor the city's atmosphere while sipping a draft beer, delivered fresh daily from one of three major breweries, at one of the bia hoi street cafés.

In the western part of Hanoi, walk along Dien Bien Phu Street, leading to views of the Chua Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda) and the impressive Presidential Palace. Nearby, the Bao Tang My Thuat (Fine Arts Museum) houses a collection of folk art paintings, Cham statues, and wooden Buddhas. Across the street, the 11th-century Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), and an adjoining university that was Vietnam's first (destroyed by French bombs in 1947), were dedicated to Confucius and learning. Designed with connecting courtyards and pools, the temple is a must-see for its sheer scale and well-preserved character.

SHOPPING

Hanoi has been spared the global fashion rollout that's littered the world's shopping streets with Prada and Gucci. Still, it's not just a Third World backwater full of cheap crafts. In the Old Quarter there are countless shops that offer good-value Vietnamese ceramics, silks, lacquerware, and linens. "The area around Nha Tho [Saint Joseph's Cathedral] is becoming the Hanoi equivalent of Paris's Marais," says Christina Yu, founder of Ipa-Nima, a boutique specializing in colorful handbags, adorned with mother-of-pearl, buffalo horn, or beads. Set around historic landmarks with updated storefronts, Nha Tho is the ideal area to shop, snack, and watch the street scenes of old Hanoi. One of Yu's favorite home interiors stores is the Red Door. "The shop is a mix of old and new furnishings—antique leather trunks to velvet quilted salon sofas," says Yu. For the more custom-minded and bargain-conscious, Yu recommends checking out the fabric markets of Cho Hom and Cho Dong Xuan. Tailors along Hang Gai Street (where Catherine Deneuve shopped during the filming of Indochine) can make anything to order from a traditional tabard-style ao dai silk tunic and pants to Western-style men's suits.

WHERE THE LOCALS EAT

"We Vietnamese eat on the street a lot," says Alan Duong. Throughout Hanoi, a common scene is that of people crouched on a sidewalk enjoying some bun cha (grilled pork). "The most famous eating street is Tong Duy Tan," says Duong. Indulge in the classic pho (rice noodle soup with beef or chicken) and mi xao (crispy noodles sautèed with meat, seafood, and vegetables). Over on Cha Ca Street, Cha Ca La Vong serves the most locally celebrated version of the North Vietnamese dish cha ca (fried fish and dill patties served over rice noodles). Apart from street food, Hanoi boasts numerous restaurants and Cafés that serve regional Vietnamese cuisines. Local artists prefer hanging out at the restaurants on the water in the West Lake district. Here you can feast on snails boiled in rice water with lemon leaves and ginger, chicken glazed with honey, and sticky rice, all washed down with rice wine. A favorite restaurant is Phuong Nguyen, located in a wooden house overlooking the lake.

For more upscale dining, Wild Rice offers southern Vietnamese cuisine in an haute-Indochine-style setting with live bamboo. Emperor features regional Vietnamese entrèes, served in a manner as stylish as the dècor (the nem, or spring rolls, come speared to a pineapple). Although prices are modest by Western standards—$5 for an entrèe—both restaurants attract wealthy Vietnamese and resident expats. Look for the "Hue" specialties listed separately on the menu. Try the steamed rice dumplings—a Vietnamese version of dim sum—the crispy soft-shell crabs, and sweet-and-sour canh, a clear soup made with fish and pineapple. And, as the locals do, dump your rice in the broth. For traditional Vietnamese coffee (intense and dark, with thick condensed milk) served in a cup set in a bowl of hot water to keep it warm, java drinkers should make a trip to Trieu Viet Vuong, known as "coffee street." Locals swear the best can be had at Au Lac Café behind the Metropole hotel.

NIGHTLIFE

Nightlife in Hanoi is less about hitting a loud disco than taking in many of life's simpler pursuits: walking around Hoan Kiem or West Lake, chatting over a long meal of blackened barramundi fish served on a bed of banana blossoms at Bobby Chinn's or, in the grand tradition of city nightlife throughout Asia, sipping drinks in a hotel bar (for instance, the Metropole's Bamboo Bar). "When I'm not at my place, I go to Minh's Jazz Club," says restaurant owner Bobby Chinn, a cultural ambassador for Hanoi who regales diners with stories and recommendations. "Minh's has the best jazz and is somewhat of a local legend here."

Must-sees include Thang Long Water Puppet Theater's nightly shows accompanied by traditional Vietnamese music, and an orchestral performance at the beaux-arts-style Hanoi Opera House (Municipal Theater) that is architecturally similar to the Opèra Garnier in Paris.

LODGINGS OF NOTE

The five-star, colonial-style Metropole hotel remains the most storied and beloved of Hanoi institutions. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, the hotel boasts a guest list that is an endless parade of notables from Charlie Chaplin and Graham Greene (while writing the Quiet American during his war correspondent days) to Jane Fonda. A charming alternative is the De Syloia, a bijou hotel that's been renovated from a former colonial villa. Moderately priced suites come with colonial flair—French-style shutters, black wood floors, and a lobby restaurant (Cau Cay) that consistently ranks as one of Hanoi's best southern Vietnamese restaurants.

TRAVELWISE

Sightseeing, Culture, & Shopping

Bao Tang My Thuat (Fine Arts Museum): 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc; +84 4 846 5081.
Cho Dong Xuan fabric market: Xuan St.
Cho Hom fabric market: Hue St.
Hanoi Opera House (Municipal Theater): 1 Trang Tien; +84 4 933 0113.
Ipa-Nima: 59G Hai Ba Trung; +84 4 9421872.
La Casa: 12 Nha Tho St.; +84 4 828 9616.
Mosaique: 22 Nha Tho St.; +84 4 928 6181.
Presidential Palace: Duong Hung Vuong St.
Red Door: 15 Nha Tho St.; +84 4 824 5194.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater: 57B Dinh Tien Hoang; +84 4 824 5117.

Restaurants, Cafés, and Bars

Au Lac Café: 57 Ly Thai Tho; +84 4 825 7807.
Bamboo Bar: 15 Ngo Quyen St.; +84 4 826 6919.
Bobby Chinn: 1 Ba Trieu; +84 4 934 8578.
Cay Cau: 17A Tran Hung Dao; +84 4 824 5346.
Cha Ca La Vong: 14 Cha Ca St.; +84 4 825 3929.
Church Street Bar & Restaurant: 13 Nha Tho St.; +84 4 928 6697.
Emperor Restaurant: 18B Le Thanh Tong St.; +84 4 826 8801.
Minh's Jazz Club: 31 Loung Van Can St.; +84 4 828 7890.
Phuong Nguyen: 51 To Ngoc Van St., Quang Ba; +84 4 823 9948.
Wild Rice: 6 Ngo Thi Nham; +84 4 943 8896.

Lodgings

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi: 15 Ngo Quyen St.; +84 4 826 6919;
sofitel-hanoi-vietnam.com/metropole. $115-200 U.S.
De Syloia: 17A Tran Hung Dao, +84 4 824 5346; www.desyloia.com. $65-105 U.S.

 

 


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