48 Hours in Hanoi
If you're someone - like me - who travels to eat, it's hard to imagine a better destination than Vietnam. And while I knew to expect a vibrant street food scene in the country's capital, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Hanoi also boasts a cafe culture comparable to what you'd find in cities like Paris. On our first morning in Vietnam we were introduced to the almighty ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk), which we fervently consumed from the balcony of a cramped second floor cafe near West Lake - an establishment that's been serving the caffeine-crazed population of Hanoi since 1936. As we peered down from our perch onto the frenzied street below, buzzing with the rumbling engine noise of motorbikes and the beckoning calls of street vendors, I knew that'd I'd already fallen in love.
David and I only had two full days in Hanoi, and despite arriving with a long list of I-have-to-see-this attractions, we found ourselves making excuses to break from our itinerary for leisurely hours of people watching in local cafes. We began mapping out our activities based on their location relative to the next cafe on our list; cultural sites and shopping became the things we did to fill time between never-ending glasses of ca phe. While the beverage offering alone was enough to lure me into the cafes, I adored the haunting beauty of the French colonial villas in which they are housed in Hanoi. I snapped photo after photo of their crumbling facades, painted in sunny shades of yellow; their tiled floors and staircases in wonderfully mismatched patterns; their grand windows with heavy wood shutters that opened to the street. I could feel Hanoi's history as I entered each restaurant, and we'd speculate over drinks on who might have once lived there or what the original building looked like. And though we'd never know the answer to our pondering questions, I was happy just the same.
So, my advice to you is this: go to Hanoi and do as Hanoians do. Embrace the early morning coffee, the after lunch coffee and the late afternoon lingering-for-hours coffee. Find your favorite balcony, order a drink and watch the world go by. Then repeat.
We booked accommodations at the Paradise Boutique Hotel, which sits smack in the middle of Hanoi's Old Quarter. This area may be fraught with tourism companies and street vendors hounding you to buy travel tchotchkes, but I loved the charm of its colorful streets. The central location can't be beat, and the rooms at Paradise Boutique Hotel are clean, comfortable and cheap, ranging in price from USD 35 to 55 per night. All rates include breakfast (we never ate it, so I can't speak to the offering) and in-room WIFI; stays of three nights or more will get you a free airport transfer. Street noise can be an issue, so it's best to bring ear plugs if you're a light sleeper.
If budget accommodations aren't your thing, check out the Sofitel's Hotel Metropole, a beautifully restored French colonial-style hotel that dates back to 1901.
SEE + DO
Demystify the overwhelming number of food options on a street eats & market tour. Operated by the Hanoi Cooking Centre, this 4-hour eating extravaganza should be the very first thing you do upon landing in the capital! It's an experience worthy of its own blog post, which you can read here.
Explore the scenic banks of Hanoi's West Lake on two wheels. Get your wheels at The Hanoi Bicycle Collective, which offers both half and full day rentals. We didn't have enough time to traverse the lake's entire 20-mile perimeter, but our favorite stops along the way included Bohemia West Lake Cafe, where you can sip Vietnamese coffee and rest tired legs on a lakefront terrace, and Thien Nien Pagoda, a quiet Buddhist temple with intricately carved timber doors. For a full list of cultural sites around West Lake - and their location - reference VietnamNet's article here.
Shop for souvenirs in the Old Quarter. Each street in Hanoi's Old Quarter is dedicated to a different type of merchant - there are entire lanes of jewelry shops, fabric and linen stores, tailoring businesses and handicraft hawkers. Although the handicraft shops all start to look the same after a while, I thought the quality and design at Chie Handmade was a step above the rest. Head to one their three locations for gifts, toys, home decor, clothing and pottery made by ethnic groups in northwest Vietnam (I came away with a wall tapestry handwoven by the H'mong people).
Visit the beautifully manicured grounds of the country's first university at the Temple of Literature. We ventured here after giving up on the horrendously long line snaking out of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I loved exploring the lush, leafy courtyards and walkways at this nearly 1,000-year-old institution, which now pays homage to Vietnam's greatest scholars.
Take a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. Of course, on this walk I'm going to suggest that you stop for - wait for it - ca phe! Don't miss visiting Cafe Pho Co, a hidden cafe with a rooftop terrace overlooking the lake where you can try ca phe trung (raw egg coffee). To get there, look for 11 Hang Gai Street, which is a souvenir shop. Walk through the shop to the courtyard behind it, where drink orders are placed. Then head up several floors to the terrace!
Learn about the impact of French colonization at Hoa Lo Prison. Built in 1896 to house Vietnamese revolutionaries who opposed French rule, this prison complex is now a museum that details the grim plight of its political prisoners. Following liberation from France in 1954, the Vietnamese used Hoa Lo Prison to house American POW's captured in northern Vietnam. Expect the history lesson here to seem one-sided and propaganda-ish (I doubt that prison life was all fun and games for American POW's).
EAT + DRINK
Hanoi Social Club for a hippie hangout that serves a mean brunch. I took 10,000 pictures of this place for its enviable collection of vintage furniture and cool flea market vibe, but the food here also deserves a shout-out. Hearty portions of western-style food like grilled chorizo with potato and cheese fritters. Just go.
Bar Betta for happy hour. This funky little watering hole offers 2-for-1 beers from 3PM to 7PM, which you should enjoy on their rooftop terrace.
Quan An Ngon for all of Vietnam's street food offerings under one roof. The concept here is genius: an open-air patio, table service and individual food stalls each manned by a chef who specializes in a particular street food. Our favorite dish was bun bo nam bo (southern style sautéed beef with rice noodles).
Bia Hoi Junction for people watching with a cold one. Head to the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen in the Old Quarter to find Bia Hoi Corner, where travelers and locals alike post up streetside on child-size plastic stools to imbibe on bia hoi (fresh beer). Vietnam's unofficial beverage is a cheap one, with glasses selling for mere cents. Hungry? You'll find street vendors circulating with tempting snacks (still mad at myself for passing up on the donuts!). This place gets REAL scene-y at night - avoid it if you hate crowds.
Cong Caphe for the Vietnamese take on a frappuccino. David and I were borderline obsessed with this place, visiting multiple times a day. Our drink of choice was ca phe cot dua (coffee with frozen coconut yogurt), which is more like a caffeine-laced dessert. You'll find hipsters lazing around on retro floral seat cushions, kitschy communist memorabilia hanging on the walls and eclectic beats on the speakers. There are numerous locations throughout Hanoi - reference their website for a full list.
Cha Cha La Vong for the only thing on the menu: grilled fish. Named after the popular northern Vietnamese dish, Cha Cha La Vong is an unassuming little restaurant in Hanoi's Old Quarter that's low on frills and big on flavor. Here you'll dine on grilled fish - cooked with fresh turmeric and dill on a portable burner at your table - piled together with rice noodles, heaps of fragrant herbs, a dusting of crunchy peanuts and a drizzle of chili-infused oil.
Caphe Duy Tri for the quintessential Vietnamese coffee experience. This place has been around since 1936 for a reason.
Street food! I'll go into more detail in my next post on the different types, but don't leave Hanoi without trying pho bo (beef noodle soup), bun cha (grilled pork with rice noodles - my favorite!), nem lui (spring roll), bahn cuon (rice cake with meat and veggies), bahn mi (pork sandwich) and che (dessert - and the only word in Vietnamese I can remember).
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