Kenya Airways has become the first airline in Africa to link the continent directly to Vietnam, with its new thrice-weekly Dreamliner flights to Hanoi. Martin Zatko gives us a flavour of this bustling capital
Buzzing to the hum of a million motorbikes, lined with lemon-coloured French-colonial architecture and heady with the aroma of coffee and incense, Hanoi is one of the most distinctive and vibrant capitals in South East Asia – no mean feat, as anyone who has travelled to the region will tell you. With an impressively long historical tradition, including a fair few tragic chapters, Hanoi is reinventing itself once more. It is a city on the up.
One can’t talk about Hanoi, or Vietnam in general, without mentioning the superb food and drink. Vietnamese cuisine is becoming ever more highly rated around the world. But in contrast to what happens almost everywhere else, some of the best places to eat in Hanoi are in fact the cheapest – street-stands where individual families have perfected staple foods down the generations. Then there’s the coffee – Vietnam is the second-biggest producer of the world’s favourite bean, and locals like it super-strong and super-sweet.
The Old Quarter
The life and soul of Hanoi is its Old Quarter, a busy maze of small lanes, teeming with traders and visitors from dawn to dusk. It’s a paradise for shoppers. Many of its streets are named after items that have been sold here for centuries, including pipes, fabric, ceremonial fans, and the paper votive objects that Vietnamese burn to venerate their ancestors. Some shops are located in tube-houses, residences up to 60m in
length but only a couple of yards wide – a means of avoiding tax in days gone by.
Hoan Kiem Lake and the French Quarter
To the south of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, a placid expanse which is best viewed on a misty morning over coffee and a pain au chocolat. Joggers and chess-addicts enliven the small belt of parkland surrounding the lake, and there’s a small temple on the island, at its northern end. South of the lake is the French Quarter, a district characterised by gorgeous buildings erected during the city’s colonial period (1882–1945). It is almost another Paris, exiled to South East Asia, with wide boulevards lined with elegant villas.
On the culture trail in western Hanoi
Hanoi doesn’t start and finish with the Old Quarter and French district. Visitors with time on their hands will find that there’s plenty more to see. Just to the west of the city centre is the spellbinding Temple of Literature, which dates back to the 11th century. It has been a centre of Confucian learning for almost a full millennium, and has an air of Oriental majesty. Some way further west is the diverting Museum of Ethnology, filled with exhibits explaining the lives, history and customs of Vietnam’s various ethnic groups. There are no fewer than 53 different minorities spread around the country, and more information about them to be found here than one could possibly take in.
The most colourful of those ethnic groups live in the mountains north of Hanoi. The delightful, and delightfully cool, town of Sapa makes for a great excursion from the capital, and is easily accessible on overnight trains. Sapa itself is a base for mountain treks, and you won’t be able to take enough pictures of the surrounding Red Dao and Black Hmong villages. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but many inhabitants still go about in striking traditional costumes. It’s also possible to take a trip east of Hanoi to world-famous Ha Long Bay, a mesmerising place where emerald-green towers of limestone soar out of the ocean: the done thing here is to overnight on a traditional wooden boat, feasting on fresh fish for dinner.
• The Old Quarter If you’ve only got time for one Hanoi district, make it the Old Quarter, an atmospheric warren of small streets and alleyways.
• Water puppet shows This charming art form constitutes Hanoi’s best, and most traditional, form of entertainment.
• A night at the opera Hanoi may be the world’s cheapest city in which to see an operatic performance – US$20 should be enough for a ticket, plus a cocktail at the Hilton, a few steps away.
• Bia hoi Vietnam also has the world’s cheapest draught beer, but drink it fast because it only lasts a day after being made – ‘Bia Hoi Corner’ is a small crossroads packed every night.
• Pho Vietnam’s signature dish originated in Hanoi – pho bo, a noodle soup made with beef, leaves, shoots and spices, and garnished with lime and a few flecks of chilli pepper.
Where to stay
• Art Trendy Hotel
New boutique option on one of the Old Quarter’s quieter streets. Rooms have been lovingly decorated – flower petals await your arrival on the beds – and the breakfasts are superb. 6a Hang But, 04 3923 4294 www.arttrendyhotel.com US$50.
• Hilton Hanoi Opera
Designed along neoclassical lines in order to blend in with the adjacent opera house (see above), this is a highly atmospheric and very central, place to stay, and it won’t break the bank. 1 Le Thanh Tong, 04 3933 0500 www.hilton.com US$130.
• Sofitel Legend Metropole
Set in a building that dates back to the French colonial era, this is quite simply one of the most attractive hotels in South East Asia – well worth the splurge. 15 Ngo Quyen, 04 3826 6919 www.sofitel.com $230.
Currency Vietnam uses the Dong; it’s usually around 20,000d to US$1
Tel code Dial +84 to call Vietnam from abroad
Getting from the airport Taxis cost a fixed US$10 for the 30-minute ride to the city centre
Security As with all busy cities around the developing world, you’re best advised to keep valuables in a money belt or something similar
Tourist information There are countless travel agencies in Hanoi, and almost all offer day-trips around the city
Cost of coffee You can have a western-style coffee (US$2) at branches of Highland Coffee, though many visitors try the strong, shot-like local coffee (US$0.50), available from street-shacks across Hanoi.