A five-minute guide to Hanoi

Vietnam’s chaotic capital will seduce travellers who get under its skin and explore the historic quarters and fast-developing arts scene. 

By Liz Dodd
Published 2 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT
Scooters crossing Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Scooters crossing Long Bien Bridge, Hanoi
Photograph by Getty Images

There’s something alluringly impenetrable about the Vietnamese capital, an elegant metropolis whose modern face was forged in the Vietnam War. From architecture to attitude, Hanoi’s history is fundamental to understanding its present, but getting under the surface of this frenetic city can be as tricky as crossing its scooter crammed streets. 

To get a sense of the past, start with a stroll across the Red River on the scarred-but-stately Long Bien Bridge, which connects  the districts of Hoan Kiem and Long Bien. The bridge is close to locals’ hearts; heavily bombed in the Vietnam War, its defence and restoration became symbolic of the city’s redoubtable spirit. On the far side of the bridge, Middle Warp, or Long Bien Island, feels a world away from the urban chaos, brimming with corn and banana trees, vegetable gardens and stilt houses made from foraged materials. 

Head next to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum near the Old Quarter. It explores the role of the nation’s women, from tribal groups and soldiers to housewives, highlighting their resilience through the ages. 

Eggpresso & lotus

Hanoi’s food scene is yet another place where ancient traditions meet modern innovation. Small and intimate, Blackbird Coffee is an splendid independent coffee shop on a quiet backstreet. Its eclectic clientele — which ranges from writers and designers to entrepreneurs and digital nomads — is a cross-section of modern city life and gives a flavour of the dynamic bohemian subculture that thrives in this part of the city. The cafe is famous for its ‘eggpresso’, a refined version of traditional ca phe trung (egg coffee — a northern speciality first developed in the 1940s as a creative solution to milk shortages). 

For dinner, head to Sente – The Flavour of Lotus, a charming bistro tucked away in an alleyway in the Old Quarter. An exemplar of Hanoi’s subtle contemporary cuisine, its dishes are based around the lotus plant, the symbol of Vietnam, and conform to the traditional Taoist concept of yin and yang (the balance of light and dark). 

This riffing on Vietnamese tradition continues at Kumquat Tree, a stunning speakeasy-style bar near the Hanoi Opera House that you can only enter using a secret password (obtainable via the bar’s Facebook page). A favourite with the locals and renowned for its live music and creative craft cocktails, the decor is a fusion of traditional Asian and modern bohemian — ochre lanterns cast pools of light onto bare-brick corners, blue-and-white china and a striking altar.

Like a local

Nga Hoang, co-founder of Collective Memory, an art shop in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, reveals her pick of Hanoi’s art scene. 

Six Space
An artist-run space dedicated to installations, exhibitions and film screenings.

Work Room Four
This studio-gallery is a great place to pick up affordable Vietnamese paintings and sculptures.

Hanoi Creative City
A hub of studios, galleries and cafes set in an high-rise that’s great for handmade clothes.

The place for artisan tableware made using traditional materials and methods, sourced from Hanoi’s neighbouring craft villages.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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