Hanoi, Vietnam, is one of the most celebrated yet resolutely traditional of the Asian capitals. It is also, at times, an overwhelming city. Though not quite the sprawling mass of high-rises and sky-trains so often seen in this part of the world, aimless meandering is certainly not an option. The throng of motorbikes on both street and sidewalk, combined with the stifling summer sun, mean that visitors need a plan. With this is mind and with the help of Chef Joseph Gann who lived there for many years, here is our IDEAL guide to spending 48 hours in Hanoi
There are two things every tourist and local alike must do to start their day – pho and coffee. The finest beef noodle soup in Ha Noi (by rights then, in the world) is found on Bat Dan street, number 49. You won’t miss it, as the snaking queue of hungry locals stands testament to the quality of the bowls within this little family run shop. Service is cursory on a good day, and you’ll need to juggle a boiling hot bowl of soup while you jostle for a stool, but genuinely, honestly and with truth, it is worth it. If you really can’t bear to queue head to 10 Ly Quoc Su Street, just around the corner and where the pho is almost as good.
After this, a delicious, awakening ca phe nau da (Vietnamese iced coffee) is a must. This silky smooth coffee, full of roasted, chocolate and buttery notes, is a quasi-religious experience in the capital. Enjoy one in one of the many Cong Ca Phe coffee shops in the area.
Sated and invigorated from your breakfast, take a stroll around the nearby Old Quarter. 36 streets, traditionally dedicated to one craft per street, wind and tangle and spit you out again, arms full of souvenirs. It’s quite the eye opener, and even if you don’t buy anything, a people watcher’s dream.
Within the old streets lays a place so revered it attains an almost mystical status. Cha Ca La Vong, on Cha Ca street – named after the famous dish – has been serving the same dish, and only that dish, for hundreds of years. Catfish marinated in turmeric arrives at your table in a frying pan, sizzling away, and you assemble yourself a bowl of cold, sour noodles, loads of fresh herbs and a pokey, dangerous looking fish sauce. Flavours are elegant and sophisticated, and just the right side of unusual. It’s often full to the rafters and obviously booking is not an option in place of such heritage, but if you can get a seat, you must.
No visit to Ha Noi would be complete without a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake. Situated just off the 36 streets of the old quarter, the temple which sits in the middle of the lake is the emblem of Ha Noi and a very special, spiritual place to the locals. If you’re visiting at the weekend, the area is pedestrianised. This is a fairly new innovation to the city, and locals are still luxuriating in it – you’ll see families strolling, chatting and playing games in great numbers here – a really convivial way to pass an afternoon in this great city. Enjoy refreshments of iced-tea, more coffee or Ha Noi beer as you go, it’s sold on every corner.
Having had two famous, much-lauded noodle dishes, now might be a good time to try a wider range of the country’s great cuisine. Quan An Ngon is a good place to start exploring Vietnamese cuisine. The restaurant has a couple of outposts across the city so check the Internet to find the nearest to you. Serving a broad range of Vietnamese street food classics, in a French colonial setting a notch up in comfort and convenience to your usual side-of-the-road joints, this place is popular with the locals. Ordering the Quan An Ngon grilled beef, a green mango and prawn salad, and frogs legs, is the foundation of a great meal here.
Not far from any of the Quan An Ngon restaurants is Bia Hoi corner, slap bang in the middle of the old town. Here, hundreds and hundreds of travellers and locals combine to drink cheap, light, freshly-brewed beer and watch the crowds go by. It’s busy, bustling and buzzy, and the place where the young locals go to be seen. If it’s just too hectic, nearby Tadioto bar caters to a more sophisticated crowd, with good wine, strong cocktails, dim lighting and hushed tones.
Many visitors to Ha Noi don’t venture much beyond the borders of the old town, but the city has so much to offer in its other quarters. Head to Le Van Huu street for a chicken pho at Pho Mai Anh- the perfect light and nourishing breakfast. Alternatively, if you’re late to get up and in more of a brunch time slot, the same street is home to the famous Obama Bun Cha. When the former president made his historic visit to Vietnam in 2015, he went here for lunch. You’ll find his pictures on every wall, with his order now an option on the menu. To be fair to the man, he chose very well indeed. A bowl of bun cha – noodles, barbecued pork, a soup of fish sauce and sugar, and loads of fresh herbs – sits alongside an opulent fried spring roll, filled with crab and prawns. Oh, and a Ha Noi beer to wash it down.
After breakfast in the French Quarter, it’s time to take in Ha Noi’s rich history. Dien Bien Phu, a short taxi ride away, is host to the war museum. A short walk from here is Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Although it’s only open early in the morning, it’s quite the spectacle from the outside – looming and grand. Reverent Vietnamese often stroll in the gardened area in front, so take it all in from here even if you don’t actually go in to pay your respects.
Not far from here – a short taxi ride or a 20 minute walk, is Truc Bach lake. The lake is beautiful, shaded and cool, and here you’ll find pho cuon. These are small, fresh spring rolls – perfect for a light lunch in the summer months. Wash it down with a Truc Bach beer or a coffee and you’re good to go.
Ha Noi’s West Lake is a thing of wonder – a huge, ocean-like area of water which is utterly dazzling in the sunlight. In a city constantly developing skywards, it’s a privilege to have this area of flat, perfect calm. Enjoy it by way of a stroll or better still, rent a bicycle from the Ha Noi Bicycle Collective for the afternoon.
By now there’s been so many noodles that you may find yourself craving bread, cheese or anything of a more Western bent. Fear not, West Lake caters for a large expat population, so your desires will be met here. Pizza Belga, serving fine, wood-fire pizzas or Chops, fantastic burgers overlooking the lake, are just a couple of dinner options around here.
Make the most of the area by heading to Standing Bar, which has a wide range of locally brewed craft beers. Alternatively, do as the locals do, and pull up one of the many deckchairs positioned near the lake close to Quang An street. Order a beer, tea or coffee and immerse yourself in the chatter and noise. A perfect way to end a perfect 48 hours in Ha Noi.
Where to Stay
The Elegance Hotel Group have a number of amazing properties in the heart of Hanoi, all walking distance from many of the best pho stalls, traditional coffee shops and tailors for which Vietnam’s capital city is so famous. We particularly love La Siesta Diamond Hotel and Spa, which is right in the middle of the the mix in the Old Quarter, on Ma May Street. It’s the ideal hotel from which to explore the city; a minute’s walk from Bia Hoi Corner, and about five from Hoan Kiem Lake. The hectic pace of Hanoi can sometimes be overwhelming, so the spa is the perfect oasis when you need an escape.
La Storia Ruby Hotel
Alternatively, for a super cheap option in the old town, La Storia Ruby Hotel offers simple, perfectly formed rooms and a light breakfast for as little as $30 dollars a night, per double room. It’s a stone’s throw from a veritable feast of food options and Hang Bong, Hanoi’s famous silk street. Their staff are just lovely and the daily tours organised in-house are a great way to explore the city.
InterContinental Hanoi Westlake
For a real treat, the InterContinental hotel in the West Lake district of Hanoi is as stunning as it comes. With a view of the expansive lake, and access to the modern amenities of the district, as well as boasting the World Traveller title of ‘Vietnam’s Most Romantic Resort’, this is a wonderful choice for a special occasion. The usual superb attention to detail of the Intercontinental Group is very much on display here, from the knowledgeable concierge service to the abundant, international breakfast. Magic.