The Weekly Getaway: motorbikes, smog and amazing food in Hanoi
Vietnam was always in mind in a bit of an exotic manner, as an out-of-this-world experience. Luckily, I've since been able to visit this unique crossroads of influences from Southeast Asia, China and France twice in the last few years. Boasting a mix of the inherent colonial heritage, its Asian backdrop and a touch of Chinese taste, Hanoi is a perfect urban getaway (and adventure) and a photographer's dream destination!
Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, currently hosts 7.8m locals and up to 3.5m bikes and scooters around.Busy streets filled with low-end motorbikes, densely populated urban-feel neighbourhoods and a greyish kind of weather make up for a unique combo. That were my first impressions when I first found myself there.
French and Old Quarters
Offering a rich food culture and a long history (the city celebrated its millennium in 2010), the most well known and important districts in Hanoi are Ba Dinh District (aka the French Quarter), where the government offices are located, and Hoan Kiem District (aka the Old Quarter), which is considered the city’s business hub and main tourist destination. At the city's heart is the chaotic Old Quarter, where the narrow streets are roughly arranged by trade. There are many little temples, including Bach Ma, honoring a legendary horse, plus Đồng Xuân Market, selling household goods and street food.
One of Hanoi’s most common sights is that of streets packed with scooters, bicycles and cars swarming around pedestrians like a school of fish. Then there are the many sidewalk vendors and people simply out for a stroll around the popular Old Quarter. Visitors have no choice but to face the traffic in the local style (try raising your hand when you want to cross the street!) but the experience of exploring the historical area is a must-do and truly well worth it.
The southeastern area around the lake is quite vibrant filled with many quick eats, impromptu markets and busy little shops. If you want a truly local breakfast experience, head to Nghi Tam boulevard next to Yen Phu market. Ran-down dated establishments is no excuse for skipping this as their Pho will leave you more than satisfied!
West Lake is also home to the Ho Chi Minh's tomb as well as the Temple of Literature, which is a nice area to wander around and get a feel of local life. When you get enough, head to the carefully manicured luscious gardens around the Presidential Palace for a quick break and some fresh fruit from the street food stalls.
Whatever you do, the area is a great choice for picking up some local food. No matter how ran-down and, well, filthy an eatery can look... the food does indeed taste amazingly delicious! Want proof? Just scroll one photo up and catch a glimpse again of the Banh Cuon, a classic dish of steamed rice cake-like dish filled with minced mushrooms and pork! Just make sure you stay away from the fried stuff which are most of the times very heavy on oil and fat! Well, that can be tasty too (sigh).
Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever. - Anthony Bourdain
With 1,000 years under the Chinese, 80 years under the French and a whole lot of angst with the Japanese and the Americans, Vietnam has been a nation of war as Hanoi was only left in peace in 1989. A young population, hungry to live the life is what Hanoi is all about!
- Hoan Kiem - Hanoi's City Centre is the commercial centre of Hanoi with the Old Quarter as the main point of interest for travelers and Hoan Kiem Lake the main attraction for locals
- Temple of Literature - a temple hosting Imperial Academy, Vietnam's first national university, and that represent a special place of worship during New Year's Day when locals gather outside the temple and write wishes in Han characters
- Ho Chi Minh's tomb - you cannot miss this monument located in a big square, where Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence from France. This is where his body now lies
- Hanoi Opera House - a magnificent colonial architecture opera house that opened in 1911 and now offers classical music, dance and opera performances. Although there is no official tour offered here, if you're looking to get a local feel of the good life pop in but make sure you're dressed up properly
- Đồng Xuân Market - originally built by the French administration in 1889, this market constitutes the largest covered market in Hanoi, located in the center district Hoàn Kiếm
- Yen Phu Market - more of a local establishment, rather than a commercialised/touristy attraction, this neighbourhood market is all about fresh vegetable and meat. Wander around the temporary food stalls and indulge in the local feel of daily shopping
- Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake – set on the waterfront overlooking Hanoi's Westlake, this high-end hotel offers a pleasant stay and great views to the lake
- Essence d'Orient Hotel - very nice hotel with great amenities like its spa, perfectly located in the Old Quarter
- Hanoi Pearl Hotel - luxury, nicely decorated rooms (although its communal areas are a bit worn down) close to the lake and with some nice dining options
- Sofitel Metropol Hotel - high-end French colonial-style lodging offering free WiFi, an elegant spa and an outdoor pool. Also features a great restaurant with an emphasis on high-end local cuisine
- Angelina Restaurant and Lounge – upscale restaurant that features good-sized portions of local dishes, as well as some international flavours. Most of the times you will find this quite empty though
- Ly Club - spending time between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Ly's Club restauranteur is a master on local dishes and Vietnamese cuisine. Its ambience is also of the essence as the restaurant boasts a homey feel with furniture covered in ruby red colors
- Bun Cha Huong Lien - a traditional Hanoi noodle joint, also hosting Anthony Bourdain with former President of the United States Barack Obama. Try their signature Ban Chu dish!