Loading T cafe in the Old Quarter. Photo by Christian Berg
Loading T is tucked inside a handsome, century-old colonial villa in the heart of the Old Quarter. The house is an appealing but crumbling example of Indochina-era architecture, with olive-green shutters, rounded balconies and patterned tile flooring. The building was originally built in 1932 and housed just one wealthy family, but was appropriated in the 1950s and divided into 16 separate dwellings. Loading T occupies one of these divisions but many of the others remain as family homes.
TIP: Loading T owners Son and Trang mix their coffee with cinnamon, adding an unusual and delicious aftertaste to their blend. They also make a mean egg coffee.
Another hidden architectural gem, Hanoi House is a one-room café exemplifying French-style housing from the early 20th century. The ceiling is high to keep the space cool throughout the summer, and the now-unused fireplace warmed the house in the winter. Mesmerizing art deco tiles blanket the floor while two tall windows allow plenty of natural light. One window has been repurposed as a door, giving access to a makeshift balcony. This balcony is the best seat in the house, as you have front-row views of St. Peter’s Cathedral.
TIP: The Hanoi House Cafe is easy to spot but difficult to access. Head down the alleyway to the left of the café and climb the steps on the right.
Nha San Art Cafe is one of Hanoi’s best examples of ethnic minority architecture. Hanoi’s artist community painstakingly brought this traditional Muong stilt house to the capital in the 1990s. The structure was taken apart and moved piece by piece to Hanoi before it was reassembled in what was then a new suburban area.
Wandering into this café for the first time, you can’t help but gaze up at the lofty tiled roof and the elevated platforms with simple tables and chairs. Directly opposite Nha San is a tight grid of 1950s low-rise apartment buildings. These reveal a so-called “parasitic architecture”, with additional spaces later built upon the original structures.
TIP: Café Nha San is notoriously difficult to find – make sure you have Google Maps at the ready and don’t be afraid to ask a friendly local if you need help.
Manzi is a contemporary art gallery-cum-cafe with rotating exhibitions. The building is a rare example of a colonial-era detached house that’s maintained its architectural integrity. The house stands almost exactly as it would have done a century ago, though the owners have tastefully white-washed the interior so visitors can focus on the exhibitions. The upper level still has the original floorboards in the front-facing room and charming French windows that bathe the space in natural light. You’ll find more fine colonial buildings on the same street.
TIP: Looking for something special to take home? Manzi’s upper floor showcases pieces from Vietnam’s up-and-coming contemporary artists.
As Vietnam’s cities grew after the war, it became more difficult to allocate desirable land to members of the growing urban population. Many people resisted living down small alleys as they wanted access to the main road for commercial reasons. The solution was the so-called “tube house” which you’ll see all over the capital. These houses have very narrow entrances – sometimes just two or three metres-wide – but they go back far from the road.
Duy Tri is a good example of Hanoi’s tube houses. You can barely walk through the entrance without brushing somebody’s knees. The business has existed since the 1930s, though it moved around several locations before finding its current home in West Lake. The café serves excellent traditional Vietnamese coffee and homemade yoghurt.