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Sometimes when you’re on the road, unexpected things happen. Like exiting your hotel in old town Hanoi in search of a local travel agent and ending up at his family’s place for dinner. There are many tantalising Hanoi highlights – both big and small – to be uncovered just by walking down the street and chatting to the locals.
It is this eager hospitality and old-world charm that sets the city apart from other Vietnamese cities, as well as its fresh and tasty street or “hawker” food lining the footpaths around the Old Quarter. Declaring it a physical impossibility to go hungry in this city would be an understatement. With delectable delights of Bun Cha (grilled pork and noodles) and Beef Pho (pronounced “pha”, I swear) steaming away right in front of you, all you have to do is pull up a crate and get gorging. Eating on the street is always a memorable experience, from the ephemeral nature of many vendors, who might be there Tuesday but not Monday, and possibly only until 10:45am, or whenever they run out of food, to the often chaotic setting, with the makeshift hawker stalls dotted along the sidewalk and the noisy Vietnamese traffic blaring in the background.
There are of course, some commonsense tips to follow when choosing your preferred vendor:
- Always look for vendors with people already eating their fare.
- Ensure the food is still bubbling and boiling in the Pho pots.
- Scope out how clean the “kitchen” and the condiments look.
If you follow these tried and tested tips both your taste buds and stomach will be happy.
Hoan Kiem Lake (The Lake of the Restored Sword)
First things first, when you arrive in Hanoi head straight to its historical centre and take a leisurely stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a great way to get a feel for this French-colonial-inspired city, and it is one of the major scenic spots serving as a focal point for its public life. Quaint little café’s line the lake so you’ll have your pick of where to stop for lunch.
Take a Tuk Tuk Ride
Every city in Southeast Asia has a different kind of tuk-tuk, and cyclos are Hanoi’s tuk-tuks! The driver pedals you in a bike-like device reminiscent of a wheelchair. Warning: these contraptions are built for two very minuscule people, and if you do manage to squeeze in with a buddy make sure you agree to a fixed price before the driver starts peddling! It’s very easy to get duped on these things. For a basic 1 hour “drive” you should be paying no more than 200, 000 dong (or approx. $9USD).
The Old Quarter, near Hoan Kiem lake, has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households specialised in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewellery, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specialisations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce.
The area is famous for its small artisans and merchants, including many silk shops. Local cuisine specialties as well as several clubs and bars can be found here also.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a large memorial of the revered Vietnamese leader in Hanoi, Vietnam. It is located in the center of Ba Ðình Square, which is the place where Ho read the Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Hanoi Night Market
There’s nothing like this market in Asia – it’s a feast for the eyes, mouth… and probably your wallet. There’s just so many things to sample and buy at the Night Market, losing several hours among the bustling streets is commonplace.
Food stalls often sell “banh beo” (bloating fern-shaped cake), bacon, grilled “nem chua”, sausages, Hai Phong bread, Donner Kebap, cakes, sweet porridge of northern provinces or Hue city. At the end of the night market street, next to Dong Xuan market, there is a night eatery with a wide range of food, such as “lau”, grilled food, “banh khuc” and steamed sticky rice.
Hanoi Highlights – Stay
With so many boutique hotels in Ha Noi, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are a couple of the highlights.
Even for those on a limited budget, one MUST visit this historical treasure. It’s the perfect blend of old and new Hanoi, a luxuriously tranquil haven in the middle of the city where both the staff and rooms are charming. The poolside lounge is just perfect for reading and the small dining room fabulous for the 3 PM Tea (or Coffee) selection of sandwiches and pastries. Also, you can see the original painting by singer Joan Baez in the lobby.
Room Tip: Something to be aware of though, is the difference between the old wing and new wing rooms. The old wing has the charm of the french colonial style, complete with green wooden shutter windows, beautiful wooden floors but the downside is some of the air conditioning units don’t work very well (eg, we set it at 16 degrees, but couldn’t cool the room below 24). Whereas the new wing rooms are bigger and have better air conditioning. Know what you want, and book accordingly as the prices differ.
Price: From $207 USD per night
On the less pricier (but still lavishly charming) scale, is this little gem of a hotel located in the old quarter. Right from the greeting of the hotel Manager Peter, to the welcome drink, everything at Hanoi Pearl was pretty effortless! The rooms were lovely, modern and spotlessly clean. Spacious bathroom and comprehensive breakfast (included in price). At approximately 4$0USD per night, the rooms in the hotel are often booked out (and for good reason), so ensure you make a reservation early. Special thanks to John (Hung) the bellman who made our stay extra special.
Room Tip: Make sure you request a room facing the street on one of the higher levels.
Price: From $40 USD per night
Hanoi Highlights – Eat and Drink
Apart from the abundance of street food there are a few very popular haunts dishing up some delectable Vietnamese fare.
Café Nola, Hanoi
Cafe Nola is a well-hidden sanctuary of calm at the centre of the tourist area in Hanoi’s old quarter.
89 Ma May , Hanoi – down an alley.
Bobby Chinn got his breaks on the road to celebrity chefdom right here in Hanoi and these days he’s one of Asia’s most popular foodies.
Address: 77 Xuan Dieu Street, Tay Ho District, Hanoi, Viet Nam
Com Pho Restaurant, Hanoi
Not far off the southern end of Hanoi’s French Quarter, Com Pho is another busy Hanoi local eatery – a great place for an authentic no frills meal.
Address: 29 Le Van Huu St, Hanoi