From hidden cosy coffee shops in aging buildings and an emerging contemporary art scene to luxury cars slinking through the city’s intricate little streets, Hanoi truly knows how to welcome modernity while keeping true to its roots. Stylish, nostalgic, romantic and tested by the extremes of its seasonal weather, this is a city bursting with character.
Getting lost is compulsory when visiting Hanoi. Walk the 36 Streets in Old Quarter and allow yourself a day of wandering without purpose, a day of walking just for the sake of walking. Every street will lead you to a new discovery and every corner has its charm, if you suspend time for a while.
Nostalgia aside, the Old Quarter struggles with an influx of around 2 million tourists a year and has the challenge of balancing the need to protect its historically important structures with allowing economic development that may demand taller buildings. Pedestrianisation is one solution mooted but while that may improve the lot of the tourist, it will undoubtedly be resisted by residents who still have to conduct their day-to-day commercial activity.
The city is hot and sticky in the summer and wet and chilly in the winter. More greenery than is found in Ho Chi Minh City adds some cool relief in the summer while the mist rising from the city’s enchanting lakes adds a dreamy touch to the winter landscape.
From historical monuments to ancient pagodas and temples, a treasure trove of French architecture and creative new development all around, you are sure to be engaged as you explore Vietnam’s capital. From colourful street markets to trendy boutiques and upmarket modern shopping malls, the city also boasts a plethora of art galleries and shopping outlets.
Hanoi is a melting pot of delicious and affordable street food and fancier local and international fare. After lunch or dinner, it is customary to relax on little plastic stools in one of the cafes surrounding St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Check out the street scene or chat to some of the city’s residents. Warm up with some tra nong (hot tea) served in little glasses during the winter or with the customary tra chanh (lemon iced tea) in the summer months. Nibble some sunflower seeds and taste a true Hanoian local experience.
For a real treat, take an afternoon ride around West Lake (Ho Tay). Travel to Phu Tay Ho on the peninsula overlooking the lake to experience Hanoi’s more spiritual side. Savour banh tom Tay Ho, a delicious cake made from fresh shrimp and flour (and sometimes potato) with an ice-cold beer followed by freshwater fish and crab while waiting for the sun to set.