Hanoi Flying High
Foodies wil be bowled over by the scope of cusine in Hanoi, from fine French dining (above) to street fare
With a fascinating multilayered architectural heritage, a pulsating street life, a long list of cultural attractions, an affordable high-end dining scene and incredible local cuisine, Hanoi is an intense but intoxicating metropolis. CONNLA STOKES writes.
At the end of your first day in Vietnam’s capital, you may find yourself under the shade of a Banyan tree, or tucked away in a plush French restaurant, enjoying a well-deserved apéritif and trying to contemplate what you have just experienced.
The swirling mix of traditionalism and modernism, not to mention the breathless pace of life in Hanoi, has a habit of churning out head-scratching contrasts in fleeting vignettes: a shoeshine boy trading barbs with a dapper businessman at a street-side café, hip-hop dancers busting moves beside a statue of Lenin on Dien Bien Phu Street, or a conical-hatted huckster flogging 50-cent watermelon slices to dolled-up sales assistants from a Gucci boutique, where a single tie costs hundreds of dollars.
Welcome to 21st-century Hanoi — a beguiling balance of tranquillity and chaos, youth and tradition, wealth and poverty, communism and consumerism; extremes which are testament to how in recent times a skyrocketing economy and population surge transformed the sleepy capital of a Socialist Republic into a dynamic hub with an increasingly cosmopolitan air.
The writer Nguyen Qui Duc, who left Vietnam as a 17-year-old refugee and returned in 2006, describes Hanoi as “a lovely city with all the promises of a time past, but also filled with the madness of modern Asia. It is in transition and parts of town are changing at the speed of light, but ancient attitudes also prevail.”
A BECALMING FOCAL POINT
Street food is varied and deliciousThe first place to get your bearings is Hoan Kiem Lake, an extraordinary, calming presence amidst the frenzied traffic of downtown Hanoi. If you rise early, you can catch the morning Tai Chi classes in full swing — an inspiring and hypnotic spectacle — or even a session of laughing yoga, a newer and more peculiar activity. If you are too late for that, you can still while away an hour or two over ca phe sua da, or Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk, at the lakeside Thuy Ta Café before tackling the rest of the city.
Further exploration will soon reveal that Hanoi is a city of lakes. Away from the picturesque touristy areas, in the residential neighbourhoods, small lakes are vital spaces in otherwise muddled communes. The largest body of water by a considerable margin is Ho Tay (West Lake), most of which can now be circumnavigated thanks to a recently completed road project. Tracey Lister, Australian food writer and a director of Hanoi Cooking Centre, often cycles along parts of the track around the lake before work. “After weaving your way past pagodas and lotus ponds, you can stop for a sua chua café (coffee with yoghurt), or a fruit juice at one of the lakeside cafés,” says Lister. “It is the perfect way to start the day.”
At the southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake is the so-called French Quarter where in the late 19th century the colonial administration transplanted Parisian-style boulevards, parks, villas and even an Opera House in the style of the French capital’s Palais Garnier. Architecturally, the iconic Metropole is one of the most celebrated buildings of the era and a fine venue for afternoon tea or weekend brunch.
Around town you will also see Buddhist temples with strong Taoist and Confucian influences, Catholic churches, French period villas and Soviet bloc era government offices, collectively creating what is described by historians and heritage experts as an architectural palimpsest that reveals much about Hanoi’s long and colourful history.
LIFE IN A BOOMTOWN
Although steeped in history, Hanoi has something for everyone - even the edgiest teen
To accommodate today’s economic and population growth, the city has also grown. In the newly created central business district — a land populated by farmers and defined by paddy fields less than a decade ago — the 68-floor Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower (developed to the tune of US$1.05 billion by a South Korean firm) is a symbol of the capital’s reputation as a burgeoning business hub that attracts plenty of foreign investment.
According to Matt Powell, the managing partner of Three Temples, a Hanoi-based property consultancy group, there are plenty of challenges to doing business in Vietnam; however, he says, “There is a balance to be found that works for both sides, and once newcomers understand the way things work here, huge progress can be made quickly.”
The capital has a reputation for lumbering bureaucracy and sluggish services but Powell believes that the times are changing. “The young professionals I see are very motivated and ambitious, and almost always take a sense of civic or national pride that in their own work, they are helping to drive Vietnam onwards,” says Powell.
If you are anticipating illuminating conversations on the legacy of the American-Vietnam war you might not have much joy around town — simply because about two-thirds of the local population were only born after the war ended. Still, there is nothing stopping the curious from visiting some of the more revealing historical sites, such as the Long Bien Bridge, one of Hanoi’s most iconic and symbolic structures. Built way back in 1903 by the French architecture firm Daydé & Pillé, according to designs originally created by Gustave Eiffel, the bridge was heavily bombarded during the American-Vietnam War, in an attempt to thwart supplies getting to the capital from the main northern port of Haiphong. Today, the bridge stands like a patched-up war veteran.
Elsewhere, the Ascott Limited’s Somerset Grand Hanoi on Hai Ba Trung Street actually overlooks what is left of Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American soldiers who were imprisoned there. Now a museum, you can visit the dank cell where now-US Senator John McCain was held in solitary confinement. Alternatively, head to Ngoc Ha Village where you will find the crumpled vestige of a B52 bomber plane that landed nose-first in the middle of a small brackish lake in 1972.
The high-end dining scene has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, thanks to locals developing more cosmopolitan tastes and the demands of an ever-expanding expat population. Canadian restaurateur Donald Berger, from Don’s Tay Ho restaurant, is a long-term resident who knows just how far Hanoi has come in a short period of time.
“In the last decade, Hanoi has evolved from being quaint and backward, with a tiny handful of expat Western restaurants, to a highly competitive and international collection of many dining and entertainment choices at all levels from fast food to fine dining,” remarks Berger.
If you develop a craving for international cuisine of pretty much any kind, head for Xuan Dieu (pronounced, Swan Zee-o) Street in Tay Ho District. There, you will be spoilt for choice with restaurants and cafés serving everything from Mexican burritos and Moroccan tajines to thin-based pizzas, sushi, tapas and English-style fish and chips.
Your opening culinary venture into Vietnamese cuisine should be a bowl of the country’s signature dish pho bo (beef noodle soup) — described by the famed chef and food writer Peta Mathias as, “Vietnam in a bowl, heaven in a spoon, culture in a sip.” Another option is bun cha, a lunchtime-only affair of barbecued marinated pork patties served with fresh bun (cold rice noodles), ample herbs and greens on the side and a bowl of nuoc cham (a fish sauce-based mixture with vinegar, lime, pepper, chilli and sugar). According to one Vietnamese writer, the scent of grilling meat at a bun cha restaurant in Hanoi is enough to raise a sick man from his bed.
Many of the best local eateries are simple hole-in-the-wall joints serving a single dish and operating out of what would otherwise be someone’s living room. But according to Mark Lowerson, the Australian expat behind the much-loved food blog Stickyrice, such restaurants and street stalls guarantee authenticity. “With street food, the vendors are not catering for tourists; they are catering for locals. For me, the choice is simple,” says Lowerson.
The Hanoi Opera House modelled on Paris' Palais Garnier, is considered one of the city's architectural landmarks
If you have to choose just one website to bookmark for the duration of your stay in Hanoi, it has to be www.hanoigrapevine.com , which lists upcoming cultural events on a daily basis. According to Brian Ring, the Canadian artist who launched the highly successful blog, Hanoi enjoys “generous support from foreign embassies (notably the Danes, also the Italians and others) and cultural organisations (such as Goethe Institute, British Council, L’Espace and the Japan Foundation).”
Hanoi is also home to plenty of home-grown talent and tireless expat impresarios; all of this adds up to a rich variety of events, including classical concerts, a very active local music scene, theatre shows, film festivals, and contemporary art exhibitions. “There is quite simply more going on here now than ever before,” says Ring.
KEY SURVIVAL TIPS
Stick to well-known taxi companies, such as Hanoi Taxi, Taxi CP or Mai Linh Taxi, to get around town. You can call for a taxi at the below:
Hanoi Taxi: (84–4) 3853 5353
Taxi CP: (84–4) 3826 2626
Mai Linh Taxi: (84–4) 3861 6161
For short hops, you can always ride pillion on a “motorcycle taxi”, or xe om (literally, “motorbike hug”). A helmet will be provided by the driver and the cost is negotiable — Read: haggle! Expect to pay at least VND10,000 (around US$0.50) per kilometre for the first two kilometres, and VND5,000 for every kilometre after that.
You will often hear the word “oi” after someone’s name to grab their attention — it is like “hey” and “excuse me” rolled into one. If you are in a café waiting to be served, it is perfectly polite to holler “em oi!” to a waiter younger than you, or “anh/chi oi!” (“hey, older brother/sister”), if they are the same age or older.
You can find restaurant reviews, addresses, classified ads and advice to expat residents and recent arrivals at www.newhanoian.com — an excellent online resource for newcomers, with a handy app for iPhone users.
Take some time out of your busy schedule to explore this sprawling beauty of a city. Whether on foot or on a bicycle, with the help of a convenient taxi or boat tour, discover Hanoi’s long history, pick up some souvenirs for friends and family, and learn how to bring a taste of Vietnam back home.
Hold No Quarter
The Old Quarter, the commercial heart of Hanoi, is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world — and also the city’s unofficial backpacker quarter — and constantly teems with life. The street plan dates back to medieval times when guilds were created to serve the needs of the royal palace. Check out the revamped section of Ta Hien Street, Bach Ma Temple, Dong Xuan Market and the restored “tube house” at 87 Ma May Street for a glimpse of late-19th-century architecture in Hanoi.
Walk north from Hoan Kiem Lake up Hang Dao Street, or tour in a “cyclo” (electric car).
Fine French-Viet Fusion
Acutely aware of Vietnam’s rich culinary heritage, the French chef and owner of La Verticale restaurant, Didier Corlou, has conjured up his own unique brand of French-Vietnamese haute cuisine thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge of indigenous ingredients and natural flair for combinations both subtle and spectacular — or just plain playful. Here you can sample pho (noodle soup) served with foie gras, or passionfruit cake with Vietnamese curry ice cream. The setting, a restored French period villa, makes this an exquisite venue for a memorable degustation.
19 Ngo Van So Street
(84–4) 3944 6317
From Hoan Kiem Lake, stroll down Ba Trieu Street; Ngo Van So Street will be on the right.
The artisans of Bat Trang Village have been making ceramics for centuries. Today it is also a popular tourist destination thanks to its proximity to Hanoi and buzzing activity (almost all households are engaged in the production of ceramics). Visitors are welcome to amble around admiring — and purchasing — the various wares on display.
A guided tour is highly recommended. Boat tours across the Red River to Bat Trang Village are also available.
Square One for Vietnam
The city’s political core is Ba Dinh Square, where “Uncle Ho” declared Vietnam independent in 1945, and also where he now rests in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum — an imposing Socialist edifice open to visitors. After paying your respects, you can visit the adjacent Ho Chi Minh Museum and even the nearby Museum of Military Zone to gain a solid understanding of 20th-century Vietnam in one fell swoop.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: 8am to 11am every day, except Monday and Friday
Ho Chi Minh Museum: 8am to 11.30am, and 2pm to 4.30pm every day, except Monday and Friday
Museum of Military Zone: 8am to 11.30am, and 1pm to 4.30pm every day, except Sunday and Monday
A taxi can bring you to Ngoc Ha Street. From the square, it is a 15-minute walk down Dien Bien Phu Street to the Museum of Military Zone. Make sure you follow the mausoleum’s strict dress and behavioural code.
Anthony Bourdain claimed you do not have to find great food in Vietnam as great food finds you, but if you do need a helping hand, sign up for a tour with Hanoi Street Food Tours. Besides slurping down tasty morsels at roadside stalls, you can also discover more about the city’s wet markets and find out how to use local ingredients at home. If you are eager to sink your teeth a little deeper into the making of Vietnamese cuisine, you can also enroll in the excellent cooking classes at Hanoi Cooking Centre.
Hanoi Street Food Tours:
Hanoi Cooking Centre: