Photo by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène
For many visitors to Vietnam, Hanoi is the first stop on a north to south adventure that takes in the natural beauty of Halong Bay, the hill-top retreats of SaPa (to the north) or Dalat and the beaches of Nha Trang or Hoi An before moving on to Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta to the south. It's a well worn path for good reason and an itinerary that visitors can put together themselves. eShores.co.uk has some great itineraries which combine Hanoi with other Asian destinations, they're well worth checking out for a little holiday inspiration. Those in the know put aside plenty of time for Hanoi. For many, the Vietnamese capital is the undisputed jewel in Vietnam's crown, a highlight of any visit to South East Asia.
The beauty of her French Quarter boulevards and faded colonial buildings add a Parisian flavour to the organised chaos of street-level, where daily life plays out on the pavement and simply crossing the can require a steely resolve.
If you're a morning person, get up before the sun. If you're not, do it anyway, at least once during your stay. Watching Hanoi wake is a delightful experience. The relative cool of the early morning Red River Delta air can set you up to cope with the inevitable heat to come. To experience the streets of Hanoi before the high pitched cacophony of a thousand Hondas sets in for the day, offers a totally different perspective of the capital.
Impromptu markets are set up on the sidewalks and tended by slipper-clad locals in traditional conical hats, crouching over wicker baskets full of freshly picked produce. Fresh food is the cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine and for many restaurants only today's ingredients are fresh enough. Within an hour or two they're all packed and gone.
There's a proliferation of western style cafes now taking root in Hanoi but give them a wide berth. Make for a well-populated restaurant where the multi-coloured plastic stools come midway up your calf, pull up a seat (avoid kneeing yourself in the chin) and prepare to wake up properly. The local drip-style Vietnamese coffee is certainly not to everyone's taste. It's thick and muddy and rich and with a caffeine kick that should come with a warning. For the sweet-toothed, add a little of the accompanying condensed milk.
Follow your coffee up with a steaming bowl of pho, a hearty noodle and chicken or beef broth garnished with fresh herbs, coriander and lime. Pho's a Vietnamese institution in a bowl that's enjoyed around the clock in the north of the country.
Take the edge off that coffee buzz with a little early morning Tai Chi. The Vietnamese are prolific practioners of the ancient Chinese martial art and there's no better place to see this pastime in action than picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake just after dawn. Thousands of lithe locals of all ages, shapes and sizes take to the peaceful shores of Hoan Kiem. Find a free space and join in or take up a park bench and let the early-morning serenity of this inner-city oasis overtake you. You may well be joined by a postcard seller, someone offering to take your photo or just a local student looking to practice their English. Take them up on the offer, ask them a question or two and you may just learn a little more about the beautiful Vietnamese people and their fascinating culture.
Wedged between the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake and the walls of the ancient citadel is Hanoi's Old Quarter. Her 36 streets are each named after the single trade or commodity which was once sold here. From chickens to coffins, jewellery to fans, it's a fascinating concept. Whilst there's a little more diversification these days, many family-run businesses from generations ago remain and it's an enthralling part of town in which to get lost.
Flag down a cyclo and barter a price out to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex west of the Old Quarter. The resting place of Vietnam's most-loved public figure is located on Ba Dinh Square—where Uncle Ho read the Declaration of Independence on 2 September 1945, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. It's a traffic-free quarter of open-space, memorials, pagodas and gardens. The Mausoleum is open Tuesday to Thursday and on weekends between 8.00am and 11.00am.