Photo Courtesy of Bryon Lippincott
As anyone who has fallen for its evocation of Indochinese charm or witnessed recent introductions such as top-end restaurants, designer boutiques, and even Bentleys will know, the Hanoi of today is not short on class. Nevertheless, this grand old dame of the Orient, which celebrated its millennium i…n 2010, is as thrilling as it is beguiling, its buzzing streets alive with colorful sights, pungent smells, and often deafening sounds. A fascinating blend of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French influences, Hanoi is changing quickly but maintains a strong identity. Timeless tableaus of Old Asia are easy to spot, although those looking to buy a period piece will leave disappointed. From grandfathers with wispy beards playing chess to youngsters sipping wine at art openings, Hanoi is a stew of many flavors that emerges tasting singularly Vietnamese.
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The best time to visit Hanoi is undoubtedly March–April or October–December, when springtime and autumn temperatures are cooler. In winter, the city tends to be shrouded in a pall of gray mist. Summer is hot, humid, often wet, and largely uncomfortable.
Many international airlines fly into Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport from other parts of Asia and also from European hubs such as Frankfurt, Paris, and London. As of now there are still no direct flights from North America, but plenty of connecting services via cities such as Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.
Taxis are generally safe and efficient, though a bit more expensive than other options. Taxi scams are not uncommon but can usually be avoided by riding only with a trusted taxi company. Mai Linh and Hanoi Taxi are two of the capital’s most reputable companies.
Rent a bicycle from Hanoi Bicycle Collective (www.thbc.vn) in the late afternoon and ride around West Lake, taking in the sunset on the roof terrace at Commune café.
Hanoi’s food scene is one of its prime assets. Northern Vietnamese food varies quite significantly from food in the south. It tends to be saltier, and prevalent use of fermentation is a legacy of the region’s relative poverty. Pho (rice-noodle soup with beef or chicken) is Hanoi’s best-known culinary creation. Other greatest hits include banh cuon (rice-paper crepes stuffed with pork and mushroom) and bun cha (vermicelli noodles served with mini pork patties, sliced pork belly, and herbs). The favored drink of Hanoian men is beer. Hanoi Beer is the most popular local brand, while bia hoi—a light draft beer delivered in fresh batches to vendors daily—is as much a part of Hanoian life as honking horns and crazy traffic.
In Vietnam, Hanoi is regarded as the high-minded counterpart to Ho Chi Minh City’s upstart glitz. The reality is that both cities have plenty of cultural highlights to show, with Hanoi offering everything from reminders and celebrations of Vietnam’s tumultuous past to cutting-edge art galleries and regular live music events.
Late January to mid February, you can breathe in the excitement of Tet, the lunar New Year (the date each year changes based on the Chinese lunar calendar). The lead-up to the celebration sees the city come alive with displays of moon cakes, red banners, joss sticks, and red envelopes for giving lucky money (mung tuoi) to children. February and March are the months to join the mass Buddhist pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda, just south of Hanoi.
Women shouldn't wear long skirts to any of Hanoi’s many bia hoi joints; toilets are rudimentary at best, and the predominantly male clientele tend to relieve themselves on the floor. When visiting Hanoi, make sure you choose your season right: December to March can be terribly gray and miserable. April–May is gorgeous. Summer can be compared to a steamy Peruvian jungle. And the weather finally relents in autumn, when the sky turns azure with fresher days.
After arriving on something of a whim, Duncan Forgan has spent the past eight months living and working in Bangkok. In a previous life he was a features writer for the national newspapers in his native Scotland, an editor of various travel guides in the Middle East and a long-term freelancer in Vietnam. Now he prefers to discover new street food and to drive his motorbike around the sois. When he’s not comparing venues for Isaan food he writes and broadcasts for a variety of outlets worldwide on Asian travel, culture, and cuisine.