Turtle Tower- pagoda in the center of Hoan Kiem lake in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. Legend has it that the pagoda sits atop a giant turtle's back in the lake. By Aaron Joel Santos
However, today’s Hanoi is about much more than the past. Its long-established coffee culture is being invigorated with scores of modern, one-off cafes; the never ending variety of street food is now backed up by world-class restaurants; while the art scene is seeing a resurgence with contemporary galleries and studio spaces opening across the city.
And when the sun goes down, visitors can choose from rooftop bars, sophisticated drinking dens or hundreds of buzzing open air bia hơi (fresh beer) joints that bring locals out in droves every night of the week.
For many, the number one reason to visit Hanoi is the food. A wander around a morning fresh produce market provides a tantalising hint of what you can expect to hit your table later in the day. Think entire stalls dedicated solely to varieties of chilli or garlic and mountains of fresh herbs ready to flavour the delicately complex dishes of the capital.
Those looking to experience the authentic tastes of Hanoi should look no further than the street kitchens of the Old Quarter. The ubiquitous phở noodle soup is king of cuisines here, with steaming pots of its star anise-infused broth simmering on every corner.
However, phở is just the tip of the iceberg and the wealth of alternative dishes could keep a dedicated foodie going for a lifetime. Every day, the irresistible scent of bún chả fills the air as BBQ pork sizzles over hot coals and competes for diners’ attention with countless other lesser known classics.
The restaurant scene has also taken off in recent years, with a growing band of superb international dining rooms serving everything from contemporary tapas and Italian to fusion fare and Japanese.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter serves up a sensory overload for the eyes, ears and nose. Wisps of incense drift out onto streets from ancient temples painted a riot of reds and oranges, while in a far-flung corner the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer mingles with a mobile fruit seller’s call.
To fully immerse yourself grab a map to explore or jump in a cyclo and take a tour of this intoxicating maze of markets, street kitchens, shop houses and more.
There can be few cities in the world that rival Hanoi in terms of coffee shop density and it is by taking a seat and waiting as your coffee slowly filters that the capital can best be understood.
Fast paced on the surface, the true rhythm of city life is far from hurried, with Hanoians still eschewing take away cups in favour of idly enjoying their caffeine hit with friends.
Alongside the thousands of coffee houses selling traditional Vietnamese coffee, an ever-growing band of unique coffee shops serve espressos and macchiatos in surroundings rivaling the world’s coolest caffeine dens.
Hanoi has long had a reputation as Vietnam’s art capital, with the elegant Fine Arts Museum housing the country’s foremost collection ranging from ancient Cham artifacts to 20th and 21st century works including impressionist pieces.
For something more contemporary, head for Manzi--an art space-cum-cafe that shows work of emerging and established local and Vietnamese artists.
On the other side of the Old Quarter lies the Vietnam Art Gallery. Owned and curated by long-term Hanoi art denizen, Suzanne Lecht, this is another top place to take the pulse of the city’s art scene. Smaller gallery spaces include Nha San Collective at the up-and-coming Hanoi Creative City urban project.
Hoan Kiem lake lies at the heart of Hanoi and embodies the soul of the city. Every morning it comes alive with walkers, aerobics classes, badminton, ballroom dancers and even a laughing yoga group.
It bursts back into life at sunset, and after dark, is again thronged with locals out to take the evening air. Get amongst the action for an immersive Hanoi experience.
A little further north the lesser visited Truc Bach and West Lake shouldn’t be missed--their calm temples and lakeside cafes providing peaceful enclaves away from the buzz of downtown.
Begin your day early with a wander around Hoan Kiem and soak up the invigorating rhythm of life, with everything from open air aerobics to laughing yoga ringing the waters. After a breakfast phở, wander the streets of the Old Quarter before sampling the capital’s staple lunch dish, bún chả. Visit the Women’s Museum in the afternoon, then head to Summit Lounge for the best sunset views in town before crowning the day with dinner at Chim Sao.
With 48 hours you can extend your 24 hours itinerary with an early morning visit to Cong Vien Thing Nhat, which comes alive from daybreak with exercise of every ilk. Follow this with a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts and then a drink at gallery-cum-coffee shop, Manzi, for a rewarding morning of artistic exploration. In the afternoon go temple-hopping around West Lake, stopping at some of the many coffee and juice bars that surround it. For a Vietnamese dinner, dine at Nha Hang Ngon. Round out your 48 hours with a nightcap at Hanoi’s coolest bar, Tadioto.
The climate is inviting from April to June, but Hanoi is particularly beautiful in May when its many trees come into bloom – orange, white, purple and red flowers elevate the already beguiling street scenes to another level. October and November are also excellent months to visit when temperatures are cooler.
Hanoi is served by Noi Bai international airport as well as trains. A bus network links all major destinations within the country and international buses also link the capital with Laos.
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