After years of war, this spirited city is revelling in its freedom. Talia David discovers sensational street food, unmissable culture and lakeside parties in Vietnam’s capital
Why go? Strong coffee and bustling night markets animate this buzzing metropolis, which is the beating heart of northern Vietnam. Currently one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, an economic boom may have seen rise to a shiny new skyline but it retains much of its pleasing colonial architecture. Red plastic stools line the Old Quarter’s tangled web of alleyways and pedestrians grab front-row seats to witness entire families balancing on single motorbikes. Follow the scent of fresh coriander and aromatic spices and you’ll discover some of the country’s most delicious street food.
What to do Begin with a morning stroll through the boulevards of the French Quarter to Hoa Lò Prison Museum 00 844 3824 6358, hanoitoursvietnam.com where you’ll learn about the residents’ struggle for independence from French colonists as well as the building’s many fascinating uses throughout the civil war. A walking tour 00 8491 225 4045, hiddenhanoi.com.vn will unearth chic boutiques, bookshops and cafés dotted around shady plazas. Landmarks such as the Opera House 00 844 3933 0113, hanoioperahouse.org.vn line the streets and will have you reaching for your camera. By lunchtime a cold pomegranate juice is the perfect way to combat the humidity; try Cafe Pho Co 00 844 3828 8106 in the atmospheric Old Quarter. Losing your bearings in these streets is a blessing in disguise as bizarre bargaining antics between raucous vendors are hugely entertaining. Hang Ma, selling paper goods, is the most colourful, while Han Gai Street is the best choice for tailoring and silver. Don’t miss the Temple of Literature 00 844 3511 4855, the country’s first national museum, now dedicated to literary scholars. The ornate red and gold woodwork surrounding the pond allows for a moment of solitude before heading back to the vibrant chaos of the city.
Where to stay With its elegant white facade and green shutters, the Sofitel Legend Metropole 00 844 3826 6919, sofitel.com is one of south-east Asia’s grand dames. Joan Baez wrote her famous ballad Where Are You Now, My Son? from her room there during an air raid, and both Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham penned works there during extended stays. Brand new Apricot Hotel 00 844 3828 9595, apricothotels.com is within walking distance of Hoàn Kiem Lake and the iconic red Huc Bridge. This boutique hideaway is making a name for itself thanks to the doting service and radiant white interiors. The Silk Path Boutique Hotel 00 844 3938 5555, silkpathhotel.com is tucked away in the Old Quarter, its chandeliers and chaises longues creating an atmosphere of French elegance. Just steps from the night market, staff at Hanoi Boutique Hotel 00 844 3933 2288, hanoiboutiquehotel.vn greet their guests in traditional Vietnamese dress.
Where to eat and drink World-renowned street food and rich coffee fuel the city. Giang Café giangcafehanoi.com serves the best egg coffee in Hanoi. Invented during the war when milk was scarce, this drink combines yolk and condensed milk with coffee powder, resulting in an addictively smooth serve. A short walk along the Red River, Pots n’ Pans 00 844 394 40204, potsnpans.vn delivers refined Asian fusion dishes. Spiced teriyaki salmon with taro chips is a delicious introduction to regional cuisine, particularly when paired with an ice-cold Saigon hops. As the sun sets over West Lake, Hanoi’s beautiful people congregate on Don’s rooftop 00 844 3719 2828, dons-bistro.com to enjoy live music, oysters and bubbly that flows until sunrise. The Weekend Night Market (open 7-11pm Friday to Sunday) in the Old Quarter is the city’s hotspot for fiery flavour. Look out for local delicacies such as pho (noodle soup with fresh coriander) and delicious banh mi (crusty baguettes loaded with succulent sliced meat).
Time running out? The floating pagoda (Tran Quoc) on West Lake is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi. Leave food and fragrant incense in return for good luck and prosperity.
Trip tip Restaurant exteriors rarely reflect the quality of the food. Local joints such as Com Pho Co 00 844 2216 4028 on Nguyen Sieu serve delicious, authentic cuisine.
Currency is the Vietnamese dong. Time is six hours ahead of GMT. Flight time is approximately 9 hours from Dubai.
Vietnam Online provides transport information, trip itineraries and inside tips for exploring the city. vietnamonline.com
Dispatches by journalist Michael Herr (Pan Macmillan, $13.25) is an incredibly atmospheric, albeit semi-fictional, account of his time as a correspondent during the civil war.