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Hanoi: through the eyes of travel writers

A surprising choice perhaps, but Vietnam’s historic second city is like nowhere else on Earth.

By David Farley, Shaney Hudson
Published 30 Apr 2019, 15:00 BST
Selling apples on the streets of Hanoi
Selling apples on the streets of Hanoi.
Photograph by Getty Images

Describe the moment when Hanoi first really made sense to you.

Shaney Hudson: As a naïve teenager with a brand new backpack and an empty passport, I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole when I arrived in Hanoi. But, jet lagged, at dawn I walked down to Hoan Kiem Lake to find the city bursting with energy: thousands of people were power walking, stretching and practising tai chi on the banks of the lake.

David Farley: The city really clicked for me when I figured out that the streets in the Old Quarter are all named after what they sell. There’s Hang Da (‘leather street’), Hang Gai (‘hemp street’) and Hang Ca (‘fish street’), among many others.

What do you love most about the city? 

Shaney Hudson: Hanoi survived the Vietnam War relatively unscathed, and I was particularly taken by the beauty of its architectural heritage, as well as being struck by the intense communist propaganda I encountered in museums and in public spaces throughout the city. Culturally, it’s a fascinating place to visit and, for certifiable penny pinchers like me, it also offers incredible value. 

If you were there now, what would you do first?

Shaney Hudson: I’d head to the most crowded pavement restaurant I could find, order a bowl of pho (noodle soup with broth), perch on a plastic stool and people-watch.

What’s your favourite neighbourhood?

Shaney Hudson: The Old Quarter. It’s easy to get lost amid the colonial architecture, decades-old banyan trees and garlands of crackling electrical wires hanging ominously from every building, reminding you of your
own mortality.

David Farley: I like wandering around Ngoc Ha district, between the Old Quarter and West Lake. Once a sleepy village, it’s now part of the city but is still relatively quiet and slow-paced.

Did anything surprise you?

David Farley: There are a lot of great, Czech-themed beer halls. These have their roots in the Soviet era, when many Vietnamese studied and worked in Prague before returning home. Beer hall crawls are fun, sipping Czech and Vietnamese lagers along the way; two places to hit up are Hoa Vien Pilsner Original and Bohemia Pivo. Le Mat, meanwhile, about four miles outside of Hanoi, is known as ‘Snake Village’. Here, you can eat all manner of serpents and shot vodka infused with snake blood. If that’s your kind of thing..

What should a newcomer do first?

Shaney Hudson: Learn how to cross the street. Step out with a confident stride and the traffic will magically stop or swerve around you.

Describe an ideal day in Hanoi.

Shaney Hudson: Head out early to Hoan Kiem Lake for a stroll along the shore, before a cup of ca phe sua (thick, slap-you-in-the-face Vietnamese coffee, sweetened with condensed milk), on Trieu Viet Vuong Street. Hanoi has some amazing culinary credentials, so I’d go on a food tour in the morning to set me up with a list of places to eat for the rest of my stay. In the afternoon, tick off some of the city’s big attractions, including the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Drink a sundowner on the rooftop of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, have dinner at Koto and end the day with a hunt for the best bia hoi (locally brewed beer) in the many beer bars around town.

Coffee with egg?

Ca phe trung, or egg coffee, is a local speciality: a sweet and creamy concoction of coffee, condensed milk, sugar and — yes — egg yolks. For one of the best versions in town, try Cafe Pho Co in the Old Quarter. Access — through a silk shop, along a passageway and up some courtyard stairs — is confusing, but persist and you’ll be rewarded with great views of Hoan Kiem Lake and the manic streets surrounding it.

Four we adore

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum 
Visiting the tomb of former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh might seem grim, but it offers a fascinating insight into how much influence the man had — and still has — over modern-day Vietnam. Dress modestly (no shorts or vests) and make sure it’s open, as Ho is sent to Russia for two to three months every autumn for a touch-up. 

Temple of Literature
One of the most beautiful attractions in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature (pictured below). Established in 1070, it’s considered to be one of the world’s first universities. Dodge the tour groups and instead stroll solo through the courtyards and pagodas, admiring the stone scrolls honouring those who studied Confucius. 

Old Quarter
Head to the Old Quarter to wander streets lined with lavish merchant houses built in the French-colonial style, head to Dong Xuan Market (Hanoi’s biggest) to shop for silk, and keep an eye out for pagodas and temples tucked away down side streets. 

West Lake
It’s worth hiring a bike for a scenic, 11-mile cycle tour around West Lake. The ride takes in Tay Ho, the main expat district, as well as a number of cafes, boutiques and restaurants.

Inside Asia Tours offers specialist small-group and tailored trips to Hanoi and Vietnam, including locally led bike tours around Hanoi, street food tours, art-focused excursions, historical tours and more. 

Click to see the full list of our travel writers favourite cities.

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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