City Slicker: Hanoi

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Behind its crumbling facades, this place looks to the future. Ian Paynton offers some ideas for new and returning visitors to Vietnam's fast-changing capital



Why visit?


Hanoi is one of South-east Asia's most authentically charming cities, built on centuries of rich tradition, colonisation and conflict.

It has just marked the moment 1,000 years ago when Emperor Ly Thai To moved the capital from Ninh Binh province, in the Red River Delta, 60 miles upstream to Thang Long, aka Hanoi. Think conical hats, street stalls selling exotic fruits, and lakes framed by young lovers, set against a backdrop of crumbling colonial facades.

But Hanoi is also racing towards modernity. Signs of what's to come can be seen everywhere. Just a few kilometres west of the city, a glistening metropolis is sprouting from the rice paddies at My Dinh, while in the Old Quarter, in the heart of Hanoi, the tiny streets and alleyways are jammed with expensive cars and shops selling big-brand names. This city may draw on its past but it is now being shaped by the future.

Don't miss

The Old Quarter. Get lost and end up where you started – without even knowing it – in Hanoi's most frenetic commercial district, also home to an increasing number of bars and clubs. Most street names begin with "Hang", which means merchandise. (In the 13th century, artisans occupied 36 streets that each specialised in a certain product – Hang Ga sold chickens, Hang Bun sold noodles and Hang Mam was the place to find fish sauce.) Look down the side alleys for hidden cafés and food vendors.

Long Bien Bridge. The "horizontal Eiffel Tower" has come to symbolise Vietnamese strength; Hanoi's link to the port of Hai Phong was bombed at night and fixed by the morning during the Vietnam War.

The Rooftop Bar in Pacific Place (facebook.com/therooftophanoi). Visit this newly opened bar for great panoramic views of the city.

A glimpse of Ho Chi Minh at the Mausoleum (Ba Dinh Square). The revered revolutionary leader rests embalmed with his arms crossed and beard still long. The guards are strict, so no cameras or shorts.

Strong drip coffee and ice lemon tea next to St Joseph's Cathedral. Join the locals: sit on one of the small blue stools with a drink and crunch the shells of sunflower seeds beneath your feet.

The Temple of Literature (Quoc Tu Giam street). This Confucius-inspired university is Hanoi's most important relic. Step into its leafy feng shui courtyards to go back in time.

The lakes. They are all different – take in the romance at Hoan Kiem, or join the tourists at Huu Tiep taking snaps of a fallen US Air Force B52 bomber that rusts in its green water.

Homemade yoghurt at Mr Chi's patisserie (Kinh Do 252 on Hang Bong). Follow in the footsteps of Catherine Deneuve, who ate here most days while shooting Indochine.

What's new

My Dinh

During the past six years, this 370,000-square-metre city has replaced farmland on the outskirts of Hanoi. Lush green rice paddies have been transformed into palm-lined main roads, mirror-windowed office blocks, and a 40,000-seat sports stadium. Crowne Plaza West Hanoi (crowneplaza.com) will be the first five-star complex to open here and the new shopping centre, The Garden (thegarden.com.vn), is the largest in the capital. The whole area will soon be the place to do business and live – welcome news for the frail Old Quarter.

Hang Da Market

Hanoi's most sanitised market was refurbished as part of the clean-up for the capital's 1,000-year anniversary. The booth-style outlets and shiny escalators make it reminiscent of Bangkok's MBK centre, though it's on a smaller scale (the outside is deceptively grand). You'll find everything here from meat and souvenirs to alcohol and clothes. Only two of the five floors are currently open.

Details: 1 Hang Da, Hoan Kiem District

24-hour PUKU

PUKU was once a popular but easy to miss coffee lounge tucked deep down an alley in the Old Quarter. Since moving to Tong Duy Tan – or "food street", the only place permitted to conduct business 24 hours a day – it has become a Hanoi favourite. Locals and expats enjoy the breezy colonial-villa setting, quirky decor and curfew-busting late-night bar. Improved service would make it the city's best.

Details: 16/18 Tong Duy Tan, Hoan Kiem District

Microfinance Tours

Take a "microfinance" day tour. These not-for-profit day trips take visitors to meet people in "marginalised communities in the developing world", with a percentage of the fee helping to fund small loans for entrepreneurs in the areas you explore. Bloom Microventures (bloom-microventures.org) takes visitors to areas such as Soc Son, a farming district 25 miles north of Hanoi's centre, for a unique insight into rural life here.

Quan An Ngon

The founders of this popular restaurant have gone their separate ways. One has stayed on Phan Boi Chau and the other has moved to a grand colonial structure on Tran Hung Dao. The latter, which is now named Nha Hang Ngon, may just edge it, but both are guaranteed hits for traditional street-side cuisine in the comfort of a restaurant. The service is rapid, the menus are huge and the prices are right.

Details: 18 Phan Boi Chau and 26 Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem District

Compact Facts

How to get there

Ian Paynton travelled to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com), which offers return flights from Paris from £832. There are no direct flights to the city from the UK.

Further Information

Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (vietnamtourism.com). For good online guides, go to vietnam.com, wordhanoi.com and newhanoian.com.

Insider Secret

Joe Ruelle, writer, comedian and TV presenter

"Show up at any university and chat with students – the Foreign Trade University and the Institute of International Relations are good bets. Students have good English and are eager to practice. Tell them you want to go for chicken feet or tofu and shrimp paste. They'll guide you around for what could be the best afternoon you'll have in Hanoi."

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