Hanoi is no friend of the neat aphorism. While Hoi An offers great shopping and ambiance, Saigon the niceties of any major world city, Hanoi is defined by its mix of culture, cuisine, history and ambiance. All good holidays to Vietnam from the UK need Hanoi in their itinerary.
Character & pedestrianism
Much of the old quarter was constructed in the late 20th century under French colonial rule, delivering an unmistakable fusion of rich Vietnamese culture and French colonial charm. Looking up as you walk you’ll see crumbling facades of buildings taken straight from the streets of Paris, small alleyways filled with bicycles and a lake front strewn with locals playing games, talking shop and otherwise enjoying some down time.
Made up of around 36 streets the old quarter is a joy to explore by foot. As you’d expect the tree lined streets are filled with mopeds, bicycles and the odd taxi but don’t let this put you off. As you wander you’ll see street traders on every corner, obscure cafe’s, secluded restaurants serving piping hot bowls of Pho soup and shops selling car exhausts to local art.
You’ll have noticed this elsewhere on your holiday through Vietnam but be prepared as the streets are always busy and can get especially frenetic, especially late afternoon and into the evening!
Lakes, temples & deceased leaders
Centred on the iconic Hoan Kiem lake, Hanoi has oodles to do. Hoan Kiem lake itself you can take a walk across the small yet iconic Red Bridge (always a hot with locals, especially newlyweds!) or just soak up the atmosphere. You’ll find locals playing chess, dancing, bantering and generally enjoying one another company. The streets adjacent are home to some solid bakeries, coffee houses and ice cream parlours like Fanny’s and Ho binh!
Elsewhere, take a trip out to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Here ‘Uncle Ho’, as he’s often known, remains in his embalmed state in one impressive structure and takes around 10 minutes to reach by taxi from the lake.
A Confucian temple dedicated to study, dating back to the 10th century the Temple of Literature is set in reasonably peaceful gardens and is always worth a visit. As well as seeing a fine piece of traditional architecture, you’ll meet congregations of students praying for good grades, pools of water peppered with lilies and perfumed incense wafting through its immaculate grounds.
A more recent historical site is the Hanoi Hilton. Once used to house the Senator John McCain and other downed fighter pilots from the war, the prison is a humbling insight into Vietnam’s modern history. If politics is more your thing then visit the vast Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi’s political centre.
Big chains, big names or small budgets
When planning your holiday try and base yourself in Hanoi’s old-quarter. The accommodation can be more expensive (roughly 20% more) and a little smaller. However being in the heart of the action in an old colonial building with instant access to the city’s countless restaurants, venues and romantic streets is worth the investment! There are some great hotels in Hanoi from world famous Sofitel Legend Metropole, mid-range treats like the Anise or the ever popular Hanoi backpackers which is perfect for the solo holidaymaker looking to meet others!
After all that sightseeing you’re appetite will be insatiable. The Joma Bakery Cafe (Ba Dinh District) is great for a light bite and makes for a perfect retreat from Hanoi’s often crazy streets. For a more intimate meal in stunning settings of an old colonial building then the Seasons of Hanoi is always popular. Elsewhere the Tamarind Cafe is a great option for traditional Vietnamese cuisine and also has a solid drinks menu. Right opposite the Temple of Literature you’ll find KOTO (Know One Teach One) which does great food and also does a huge amount of good in the local community.
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