Historical landmarks, a zingy street food and nightlife scene, and motorbikes. Here’s how to navigate it all in Hanoi, Vietnam’s cultural capital
“Motorbike exhaust, fish sauce, incense, the faraway smell of something — is that pork grilling over charcoal?… It could be no place else,” said the late Anthony Bourdain of Hanoi. Indeed, in Vietnam’s historical cultural centre, the past mingles instinctively with the present. It’s only here that motorbikes zip past grand old commemorative structures blessed with interesting architecture and fascinating traditions happily raising a toast to a contemporary food and drink scene. Here’s how you can cover it all in two days.
Morning: Moseying in the Old Quarter
The Vietnamese capital’s commercial and historical centre is where most tourists start their exploration of the city, and rightly so. Grab some iced coffee, or ca phe sua da, and set about exploring its bustling network of streets and alleyways that are almost always buzzing with mopeds. Do stop for charcoal-grilled bun cha and pho before you head for the historical Hoa Lò Prison and the O Quan Chuong Gate.
Afternoon: A Lakeside Stroll by the Hoan Kiem
Your meanderings (make use of that navigation app) in the Old Quarter should soon lead you to the adjoining Hoan Kiem Lake. Take in some cool breeze as you circle the tranquil water body fenced by trees. When you’re done, get a ticket to the Ngoc Son Pagoda. It is a classical Vietnamese structure located on island in the lake and accessible via a gorgeous scarlet bridge.
Evening: Chugging Bia Hoi
It’s a wasted trip if you do not down a few pints of the bia hoi, a light draft beer served ice cold. It is insanely cheap and can be had at any one (or two, or more) of the Old Quarter’s numerous cafés (the Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien streets) setting their plastic stools and chairs out in the streets as soon as the sun goes down. Buy peanuts and fried tofu to go along with it from the vendors and chomp away. The lucky ones there on a weekend can even help themselves to some quick retail therapy at the 3-km-long weekend night market.
Morning: Pay your respects to Uncle Ho
Hop into a bus to get to Ba Dinh square to arrive at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The muted exterior of the building is a columned structure featuring polished stone in red, grey and black, and the changing-of-the-guard ceremony here is not to be missed. Inside, let a riot of emotions wash over you as you pass the embalmed body of Vietnam’s revolutionary freedom fighter and first prime minister, kept inside a glass sarcophagus. Make sure to be there early in the morning, as the mausoleum closes at 11am.
Afternoon: Seek Enlightenment at the Temple of Literature
Just a kilometre away is the country’s first imperial university, now known as Van Mieu, or the Temple of Literature. The rather well-preserved complex is a stellar example of vintage Vietnamese architecture – red-tiled pagoda-style roofs, huge bells, connecting courtyards, and commemorative stone-turtle stelae engraved with names of those who graduated here between the 15th and the 18th centuries. For lunch, try the excellent Vietnamese fare at a nearby restaurant that is part of a not-for-profit project training disadvantaged youths to be chefs.
Head back to the Hoan Kiem area (it’s only minutes away, but walking is a better idea) for one of Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre’s daily shows set to nice Vietnamese music. However, remember to book in advance – the seats fill up pretty fast.