Buro City Guide: Hanoi
The Paris of the Orient
After three consecutive months of featuring a Malaysian city (Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh) for our new series Buro City Guide, the spotlight for this month goes to somewhere a little further but not too far for a quick getaway: Hanoi, the capital and also second largest city of Vietnam. As it's north of Ho Chi Minh, it serves as a strategic base for those who wish to wander out of town to Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa although there's aplenty to see, do and eat within the city itself.
WHERE TO STAY
For the ultimate luxe stay, opt for the famous Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi that's located just mere steps away from the Opera House in the French Quarter. The magnificent 5-star hotel was built in 1901 and gleams in magnificent French architectural elements with elegant Vietnamese touches and above all, a rich history.
If it's a boutique hotel experience you're after, there's Hotel de l'Opera Hanoi - MGallery Collection by Sofitel. The 5-start hotel is just three minutes walk from Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter, and promises colonial architecture, operatic interior and lush comfort. Apricot Hotel is a new addition to Hanoi, having only opened December of 2015 but has already picked up the title for Best Luxury Boutique Hotel in Vietnam at the 2016 World Luxury Hotel Awards.
WHAT TO EAT AND WHERE
Where to even begin? Perhaps, for starters, a must-do is eating pho bo for breakfast—it can enjoyed at anytime of the day but is more commonly taken as sustenance in the AM for the Vietnamese—at Pho Gia Truyen on Bat Dan Street in Hanoi's Old Quarter. It's a humble shop that boasts a queue of locals so you know it's a good spot for a genuine bowl of simmering Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Note: Don't be alarmed if it doesn't come with fresh herbs and bean sprouts on top as Northern pho is usually enjoyed with just a few scallions, a bit of cilantro and a squirt of rice vinegar.
Cafe culture in Vietnam is as strong as its coffee and if you're looking for a place that brims with history, charm and taste, Cafe Nang on Hang Bac Street is a landmark itself, having been there since 1956. The obligatory drink here is the egg coffee, of course. Another old coffee shop to try is Giang Cafe, founded by a man in 1946 who used to work as a bartender at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.
Then, there's also cha ca la Vong, a classic Northern Vietnamese dish of grilled fish (traditionally, either snakehead fish or catfish) marinated in turmeric and dill. The restaurant to go to is well, Cha Ca La Vong though beware as it's surrounded by several knockoffs and it doesn't help that the street is also named Cha Ca.
With such an extensive variety in Vietnamese cuisine, it'll take a longer guide (and holiday) to cover it all but there is a shortcut. Quan An Ngon on Phan Boi Chau Street is a favourite among visitors as a one-stop restaurant for a decent sampling of Vietnamese street food. Housed in an old villa, a large courtyard serves as the dining area peppered with all-star street food vendors. They've gotten so popular that they've opened up a second branch (albeit less exciting) on Phan Dinh Phung Street.
WHERE TO SIGHTSEE
As a city rich in both history and culture—its own mixed with remnants from periods of French and Chinese occupation - it's almost impossible for one to run out of things to see and do in Hanoi. You may visit these landmarks and attractions for a stunning photograph or to read/hear its colourful stories. Hoan Kiem Lake—also known as The Lake of the Restored Sword due to a local legend—itself could easily take up half a day, especially if you stop by Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), a pagoda that sits on a small island in the centre of the lake, the iconic red Huc Bridge (Rising Sun Bridge), and the famous Ngoc Son Temple at the end of said bridge.
While you're taking photos, be sure to stop by the Hanoi Opera House, a beautiful monument that was inspired by Palais Garner.
Founded in 1070 as a Confucian temple which soon evolved to become the country's first university, the Temple of Literature is often visited by even the locals. One of the city's most popular attractions, however, would have to be Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum where the embalmed body of the communist leader of that name resides. For a deeper insight to Vietnam's complicated history, try the Vietnam Military History Museum, the National Museum of Vietnamese History or the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology where you'll be able to catch a water puppet show and see a full-scale replica of a Tay stilted house.
On a less cultural note, the Lotte Center in Hanoi has an Observation Deck, which includes a Sky Walk, on its 65th floor to give visitors a breathtaking 360-degree few of the city. There's also a restaurant called Top of Hanoi should you wish for a romantic dinner affair. For a place that offers both coffee and a view, Trill Rooftop Cafe comes with rather positive reviews.
WHERE TO SHOP
While Hanoi may not be known for its shopping, it still has a couple of specialities of its own, namely artisanal goods. The local markets would be a good spot for coffee, snacks and other dry food to bring home, along with the common souvenirs but for something a little more specific, you'll have to head to the specialist shopping streets and villages such as Tran Nhan Tong (shirts and jackets), Hang Giay (paper), Van Phuc (known as a silk village), and Chuyen My (also known as Chuon village that's famous for mother-of-pearl inlaying).
Within the city centre, Mosaique sells beautiful and colourful lamps, silk pillows and gorgeous jewellery while Craft Link has artefacts made by hillside tribes. Then, there's Fuku, which doubles as a cafe and an artisanal leather goods shop.