An Insider's Guide to Hanoi

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An Insider's Guide to Hanoi by Connla Stokes for Ascoott Living -- 2012

Transcript of An Insider's Guide to Hanoi


    HanoiFlying High

    AT THE END OF YOUR FIRST DAY IN VIETNAMS CAPITAL, YOU MAY FIND yourself under the shade of a Banyan tree, or tucked away in a plush French restaurant, enjoying a well-deserved apritif and trying to contemplate what you have just experienced.

    The swirling mix of traditionalism and modernism, not to mention the breathless pace of life in Hanoi, has a habit of churning out head-scratching contrasts in fleeting vignettes. These range from a shoeshine boy trading barbs with a dapper businessman at a street-side caf; hip-hop dancers busting moves beside a statue of Lenin on Dien Bien Phu Street,

    or a conical-hatted huckster flogging 50-cent watermelon slices to dolled-up sales assistants from a Gucci boutique where a single tie costs hundreds of dollars.

    It has a fascinating multilayered architectural heritage with a long list of cultural attractions, plus a pulsating street life, affordable high-end dining scene and incredible local cuisine. In all, as resident CONNLA STOKES writes, Hanoi is an intense but intoxicating metropolis

    Welcome to 21st-century Hanoi a beguiling balance of tranquillity and chaos, youth and tradition, wealth and poverty, communism and consumerism. Extremes which are testament to how in recent times a skyrocketing economy and population surge have transformed the once sleepy capital of a Socialist Republic into a dynamic city with an increasingly cosmopolitan air.

    The writer Nguyen Qui Duc, who left Vietnam as a 17-year-old refugee and returned in 2006, now describes Hanoi as a lovely city with all the promises of a time past, but also filled with the madness of modern Asia. It is in transition and parts of town are changing at the speed of light. But ancient attitudes also prevail.

    CALMING FOCAL POINT The first place to get your bearings is Hoan Kiem Lake, an extraordinary, calming presence amidst the frenzied traffic of downtown Hanoi. If you rise early, you can catch the morning Tai Chi classes in full swing an inspiring and hypnotic spectacle or even a session of laughing yoga, a newer and more peculiar activity. If you are too late for that, you can still while away an hour or two over ca phe sua da, or Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened

    Whether fine French dining (right) or common street fare (left), foodies will surely be bowled over by the sheer scope of dining options available in Hanoi





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    Take some time out of your busy schedule to explore this sprawling beauty of a city. Whether on foot or bicycle, or with the aid of a convenient taxi or boat tour, youll discover Hanois long history, pick up some souvenirs for friends and family, and learn how to bring a taste of Vietnam back home

    Address:19 Ngo Van So Street Telephone:(844) 3944 6317Getting there:From Hoan Kiem Lake, stroll down Ba Trieu Street; Ngo Van So Street will be on the right.

    Hold No QuarterThe Old Quarter, the commercial heart of Hanoi and one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world plus the citys unofficial backpacker quarter constantly teems with life. The street plan dates back to medieval times when guilds were created to serve the needs of the royal palace. Check out the revamped section of Ta Hien Street, Bach Ma Temple, Dong Xuan Market and the restored tube house at 87 Ma May Street, for a glimpse of late-19th-century architecture in Hanoi.

    Getting there: Walk north from Hoan Kiem Lake up Hang Dao Street, or tour in a cyclo (electric car).

    Fine French-Viet Fusion Acutely aware of Vietnams rich culinary heritage, the French chef and owner of La Verticale restaurant, Didier Corlou, has conjured up his own unique brand of French-Vietnamese haute cuisine thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge of indigenous ingredients and natural flair for combinations both subtle and spectacular or just plain playful. Here you can sample pho (noodle soup) served with foie gras, or passionfruit cake with Vietnamese curry ice cream. The setting, a restored French period villa, makes this an exquisite venue for a memorable degustation.

    condensed milk, at the lakeside Thuy Ta Caf before tackling the rest of the city.

    Further exploration will reveal that Hanoi is indeed a city of lakes. Away from the picturesque touristy areas, in the residential neighbourhoods, small lakes are vital spaces for otherwise muddled communes. The largest body of water by a considerable margin is Ho Tay (West Lake), most of which can now be circumnavigated thanks to a recently completed road project. Tracey Lister, Australian food writer and a director of Hanoi Cooking Centre, often cycles along parts of the track around the lake before work. After weaving your way past pagodas and lotus ponds, you can stop for a sua chua caf (coffee with yoghurt), or a fruit juice at one of the lakeside cafs, says Lister. It is the perfect way to start the day.

    At the southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake is the so-called French Quarter, where in the late 19th century the colonial administration transplanted Parisian-style boulevards, parks, villas and even an Opera House in the style of the French capitals Palais Garnier. Architecturally, the iconic Metropole is one of the most celebrated buildings of the era and a fine venue for afternoon tea or weekend brunch.

    Around town you will also see Buddhist temples with strong Taoist and Confucian influences, Catholic churches, French period villas and Soviet bloc era government offices, collectively creating what is described by historians and heritage experts as an architectural palimpsest, revealing much about Hanois long and colourful history.

    LIFE IN A BOOMTOWN To accommodate todays economic and population growth, the city has also grown. In the newly created central business district a land populated by farmers and defined by paddy fields less than a decade






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    ago the 68-floor Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower (developed to the tune of US$1.05 billion by a South Korean firm) is a symbol of the capitals reputation as a burgeoning business hub, attracting swathes of new foreign investment.

    According to Matt Powell, the managing partner of Hanoi-based property consultancy group Three Temples, there are initial challenges when it comes to doing business in Vietnam. But, he adds, There is a balance to be found that works for both sides. And once newcomers understand the way things work here, huge progress can be made quickly.

    The capital has a reputation for lumbering bureaucracy and sluggish services, but Powell believes that the times are changing. The young professionals I see are very motivated and ambitious, and almost always take a sense of civic or national pride that in their own work, they are helping to drive Vietnam onwards, says Powell.

    WARTIME LEGACYIf you are anticipating illuminating conversations on the legacy of the American-Vietnam war, you might not have much joy around town simply because about two-thirds of the local population were only born after the war ended. Still, there is nothing stopping the curious from visiting some of the more revealing historical sites, such as the Long Bien Bridge, one of Hanois most iconic and symbolic structures. Built way back in 1903 by the French architecture firm Dayd & Pill, according to designs originally created by Gustave Eiffel, the bridge was heavily bombarded during the American-Vietnam War, in an attempt to thwart supplies getting to the capital from the main northern port of Haiphong. Today, the bridge stands like a patched-up war veteran.

    Above: Take a moment to take in the sights at one of the many scenic spots in this city of lakes

    This photo: Although Hanoi is steeped in history and culture,

    rest assured that there is something for everyone in the

    family, even for the edgiest teen


    Elsewhere, the Ascott Limiteds Somerset Grand Hanoi on Hai Ba Trung Street actually overlooks what is left of Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by the American soldiers who were imprisoned there. Now a museum, you can visit the dank cell where now-US Senator John McCain was held in solitary confinement. Alternatively, head to Ngoc Ha Village, where you will find the crumpled vestige of a B52 bomber aircraft that landed nose-first in the middle of a small brackish lake in 1972.

    DINING OUTThe high-end dining scene in Hanoi has improved in leaps and bounds recently, thanks to more cosmopolitan local tastes, and the demands of an ever-expanding expatriate population. Canadian

    Pot Luck The artisans of Bat Trang Village have been making ceramics for centuries. Today it is also a popular tourist destination, thanks to its proximity to Hanoi and buzzing activity (almost all households are engaged in the production of ceramics). Visitors are welcome to amble around, admiring and purchasing the various wares on display.

    Getting there:A guided tour is highly recommended. Boat tours across the Red River to Bat Trang Village are also available.

    WEDNESDAYSquare One for VietnamThe citys political core is Ba Dinh Square, where Uncle Ho declared Vietnam independent in 1945, and also where he now rests in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum an imposing Socialist edifi