Hanoi is noisy, busy and motorbike-clogged but it’s still a joy to experience the serene views, street-food scene and culture – and to explore even more on one of the city’s numerous walking tours.
DAY ONE: THE OLD QUARTER
Hanoi, founded over 1,000 years ago inside a crook of the tea-coloured Red river, was the seat of Vietnam’s imperial power until the late 18th century. Its Old Quarter is the immersion point for most travellers, with its labyrinth of ancient streets, which were once inhabited by traders serving the nearby imperial citadel.
The best way to explore the “36 Streets” of the Old Quarter is to weave through Medicine, Headstone, Tin and Silk Street on foot. It’s noisy, busy, entangled in power cables and motorbike-clogged, but it’s quintessential Hanoi. Wander on your own, or take a guided walking tour with Hidden Hanoi (two hours, minimum two people £16pp).
Take a break with Hanoians on low-slung plastic stools on the pavement at a tea stall watching the daily maelstrom, or head to “Coffee Street” for classic ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) at Cong Caphe, a multi-storey cafe clad in communist memorabilia. Silk Street (Hang Gai), and the lanes around St Joseph’s Cathedral, provide rich pickings for shoppers. Browse at boutique Metiseko for ethereal silk prints, Hanoi Moment (No 101) for lacquer and delicate ceramics, and concept store Tan My for designer fashions (including those by the popularMinh Hanh) and irresistible homeware such as Catherine Denoual’s exquisitely embroidered silks.
Hanoi’s famous white fish fillets immersed in dill, turmeric and herbs, cooked in a charcoal burner and placed on a plump bowl of rice noodles (around £3.50) is best eaten at a place devoted to this aromatic meal. Avoid well-known Cha Ca La Vong, and lunch at Cha Ca Thang Long. Or, follow your nose to the pavement-hugging stools of a street stall selling bun cha (grilled pork, a huge pile of rice vermicelli, herbs and a dipping sauce); try No 1 Hang Manh (from £1.70).
Hanoi bloomed as the on-off capital of French Indochina until 1954. With their tree-lined boulevards, the French colonial villas and civic architecture landmarks south of the Old Quarter are particularly beautiful. Take in the beaux-arts Opera House, the extravagant Indochinese History Museum (admission £1.20), and drink coffee on the alfresco terrace of the 1901 Sofitel Legend Metropole, the epitome of Indochine elegance.
Hire a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) to head west across town to Hỏa Lò prison known colloquially as the Hanoi Hilton, a place that incarcerated American PoWs, including US senator John McCain (1 Hoa Lo, admission 60p). Hanoi’s Thang Long Citadel (admission £1), revealing the vast residential remains of the imperial dynasties of Hanoi, is newly opened; a bunker, buried in the grounds, which housed North Vietnam military command during the Vietnam war, is time-capsuled with wall maps and telephone hotline booths. Nearby, the tranquil 11th-century Temple of Literature (58 Quoc Tu Giam, admission 90p) invites quiet contemplation (during its off-peak moments). Return to Hanoi’s central Hoàn Kiếm Lake, framed by winsome flame trees, in the late afternoon. Buy a green rice ice-cream (25p) at the popular flirting territory and drive-thru Kem Trang Tien and circle the lake that is popular with exercisers, lovers, idlers, dancers and dog walkers.
DAY TWO: BEYOND THE OLD CITY
Queue to see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s 20th-century communist leader, in his mausoleum (admission free) at monumental Ba Dinh Square, followed by a visit to Ho’s stilt house and the neighbouring diminutive One Pillar Pagoda (admission 75p). Further west is the outstanding, insightfulMuseum of Ethnology (admission £1.10), which colourfully details the traditions of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups; on the way stop at the remains of a downed US B52 bomber upended in Huu Tiep Lake.
The set French lunch and fusion menu (£11) at La Badiane – including crabmeat brandade in dill perfume, and yoghurt mousse sprinkled in crispy rice bathed in passion fruit sauce – has always been a steal. This should set you up for cycling a circuit of Hanoi’s enormous Ho Tay (West Lake). The Hanoi Bicycle Collectiverents bikes for solo exploration around the full 15km of West Lake, a misshapen spread of fresh water snipped off the edge of the Red river. On the way round call in at the war bunker Block House cafe for a drink; Mau Dich (37 Nam Trang, Truc Bach), the ration-style restaurant pasted with subsidy-era decor for 1980s throwbacks such as top mo (pork scratchings, 60p); and coffee den Duy Tri (43A Yen Phu) for its signature coffee with yoghurt (ca phe sua chua, 60p). Extraordinary sunset views are to be had from the Summit lounge roof terrace of the Sofitel Plaza. Between 5pm-8pm an extra half-price passionfruit mojito is very welcome. Around West Lake, the juicy burgers at Tracy’s (40 Xuan Dieu) are rightfully acclaimed. While you’re in this area call in at Manzi, a new art space and cafe artfully arranged around a French colonial villa. Co-founded by British-educated Bill Nguyen, it hosts performances, a gallery, and talks.
Water puppetry, an ancient Vietnamese art, is staged on the liquid platform of Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theatre at the north-east corner of Hoan Kiem Lake. The enchanting performances, accompanied by live music, are held from mid-afternoon until 9.15pm (from £1.85).
At Highway 4, south of Hoan Kiem Lake, indulge in a rice wine tipple under the guidance of Son Tinh, purveyors of rice elixirs laced with fruits and spices. Just around the corner, sit on the floor for dinner at Chim Sáo (65 Ngo Hue), favoured for its delicious, good-value extensive spread of Vietnamese dishes (grilled beef encased in betel leaves, green mango salad, and hot pots). Then ze ôm it over to the cool hangout of Bar +84 for late-night drinking, or visit the insanely and justifiably popular The Kafe.
DAY THREE: OFF-THE-BEATEN-TRACK HANOI
Start your morning with Hanoi Street Food Tours who’ll guide you through a three-hour extended breakfast (£49). Mark Lowerson and Van Cong Tu’s culinary trail takes you off the beaten track, winding past pagodas and pile-ups (of the wet market kind) in one of the world’s top food destinations. On this consummate foodie tour you’ll taste pho (beef noodle soup), banh da ca (fish noodle soup), intoxicating fermented wild rice with frozen yoghurt (sua chua nep cam), and heavenly banh cuon (silky parcels of rice wrapped around minced pork, wood-ear mushrooms, and sprinkled with fried shallots) dipped in sauce.
Hanoi’s street food will power you over the Red river to Long Bien, on its eastern bank. Buffalo Tours bike ride takes you past market gardens, and the nudist beach on a river island, before visiting cop-turned-artist Dao Anh Khanh at his home studio (tour: £60).
In the hours before sunset, motor out to Hanoi’s railway station for an on-and-off-the-tracks photography tour with Vietnam in Focus (from £53). Pro snapper Colm Pierce introduces documentary style photography for those keen to sharpen their skills and capture a different downtown groove. Make time to return to return to Ray, Quan (8A Nguyen Khuyen, open from 5pm), a simple bar on the railway tracks to slug back mango rice wine or something more challenging – porcupine stomach or silkworm rice wine anyone?
Sit down for some of the best steak in Hanoi at the Moose & Roo pub & grill before mixing up your evening with opera and contemporary sounds. The curtain regularly comes up on classical music, choral and dance works at the opulent Opera House (ticketvn.com, from £6), then head to music and drinking den CAMA ATK for a live lineup of percussion, international DJs, and dance acts.