Turtle Tower- pagoda in the center of Hoan Kiem lake in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. Legend has it that the pagoda sits atop a giant turtle's back in the lake. By Aaron Joel Santos
A wander around a morning market provides a tantalising hint of what you can expect to hit your table in Hanoi. For an authentic taste of Hanoi, look no further than the street kitchens of the Old Quarter. Phở noodle soup is king of cuisines here, with steaming pots of its star anise-infused broth simmering on every corner; while every day, the irresistible scent of bún chả fills the air as barbecued pork sizzles over hot coals. In recent years a growing band of superb international dining rooms have emerged, serving everything from contemporary tapas to fusion fare.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter serves up a sensory overload for the eyes, ears and nose. Wisps of incense drift out onto streets from ancient temples painted a riot of reds and oranges, while in a far-flung corner the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer mingles with a mobile fruit seller’s call. To fully immerse yourself, grab a map to explore. Or jump in a cyclo and take a tour of this intoxicating maze of markets, street kitchens, shop houses, and more.
It is by taking a seat and waiting as your coffee slowly filters that the Vietnamese capital can best be understood. Fast-paced on the surface, the true rhythm of city life is far from hurried. Alongside the thousands of coffee houses selling traditional Vietnamese coffee, an ever-growing band of unique coffee shops serve espressos and macchiatos in surroundings rivaling the world’s coolest caffeine dens.
Hanoi has long had a reputation as Vietnam’s art capital, with the elegant Fine Arts Museum housing the country’s foremost collection, including ancient Cham artifacts and impressionist pieces. For something more contemporary, head for Manzi--an art space-cum-cafe--or the Vietnam Art Gallery. Both are top places to take the pulse of the city’s art scene. Smaller gallery spaces include Nha San Collective at the up-and-coming Hanoi Creative City urban project.
Hoan Kiem lake rests at the heart of Hanoi and embodies the soul of the city. Every morning it comes alive with walkers, aerobics classes, badminton, ballroom dancers, and even a laughing yoga group. It bursts back into life at sunset, and after dark, is again thronged with locals out to take the evening air. A little further north the lesser-visited Truc Bach and West Lake shouldn’t be missed--their calm temples and lakeside cafes provide peaceful enclaves away from the buzz of downtown.
Begin your day early with a wander around Hoan Kiem and soak up the invigorating rhythm of life, with everything from open air aerobics to laughing yoga ringing across the waters. After a breakfast phở, wander the streets of the Old Quarter before sampling the capital’s staple lunch dish, bún chả. Visit the Women’s Museum in the afternoon, then head to Summit Lounge for the best sunset views in town before crowning the day with dinner at Chim Sao.
Plan an early morning visit to Cong Vien Thong Nhat, then head to the Museum of Fine Arts before refreshing with a drink at Manzi, for a rewarding morning of artistic exploration. In the afternoon go temple-hopping around West Lake, stopping at some of the many coffee and juice bars that surround it. For a Vietnamese dinner, dine at Nha Hang Ngon. Round out your 48 hours with a nightcap at Hanoi’s coolest bar, Tadioto.
The climate is inviting from April to June, but Hanoi is particularly beautiful in May when its many trees come into bloom – orange, white, purple and red flowers elevate the already beguiling street scenes to another level. October and November are also excellent months to visit when temperatures are cooler.
Hanoi is served by Noi Bai international airport as well as trains. A bus network links all major destinations within the country and international buses also link the capital with Laos.