Walking around the streets of Hanoi, the “most Asian city of Asia”, you feel like lost in a parallel world: a never-seen-before edition of South-east Asia, unique and unforgettable, which hides, between its yellow-painted buildings and the buzz of motorcycles, the beating heart of Vietnam. In a balance between authenticity and influences, the Old Quarter’s streets develop themselves as sounds, colors and perfumes that pour into the Hoan Kiem Lake, where its deep waters carry them to the French Quarter. And, at this point, they are no more the same, but calmer and emotional.
Hoan Kiem Lake (the thin city)
Whichever way you reach Hanoi, you will probably get to the city center by bus, as the Vietnamese cities are connected by a really convenient bus network. Certainly, your crazy driver will leave you on the lakeside of the magic and apparently endless Hoan Kiem Lake: the cultural and religious heart of the city.
Sunrise is the best time to enjoy the lake, and to discover the legend of its calm water. Lingering on the benches surrounded by blooming cherry trees, whose branches reach out towards the water, you can admire the impressive Thap Rua surrounded by the first fog of dawn, and hope to see the legendary turtle. According to the story, in fact, the lake gave to the Vietnamese hero Le Loi a shining sword, in order to win the war against Chinese people. When the war ended, the sword was claimed back by a golden turtle, who still lives in the lake nowadays.
Saint Joseph Cathedral
Although the time seems to stop here, the lakeside will be woken up by the passing of Hanoi’s people going to work, or people who, taking advance of the fresh summer wind, try their best to get fit. So, it will take you no time to feel the need of a spicy Vietnamese breakfast with noodles: you should just let the perfumes guide your foot on the lake side. However, at a certain point, your eyes will be captured by the huge architecture of Saint Joseph Cathedral, whose gothic details, in contrast with Hanoi’s colorful and small buildings, will pull you closer. A few steps afterwards, you’ll finally fall in love with this European-Gothic spot, and a question will take place in your mind: are you really in Vietnam, so far from home? At some point, long after, you will realize that your stomach is still growling.
The Old Quarter (the city and the trade)
The meaning of your trip to Vietnam will be questioned at the first sight of the Old Quarter’s streets. You won’t know if you are walking in the past or if, while looking through people, you are making out the future. The only way to understand it is by going deep and get lost in these “36 streets”, where past, present and future coalesce and take place in crowed sidewalks which separate the lines of colorful buildings in Asian-bohémien style, pagode and dinh, where the soul of Vietnam lives.
Hanoi’s street-food (the city and the trade 2)
This place offers strange items, but the best compass to be guided around the small and cozy streets is the traditional street food of Hanoi. The point where the Old Quarter meets the lake houses the best place to taste the famous Pho Bo. The ancient family who lives at the 10 Ly Quoc Su prepares this tasteful soup (pho) with rice noodle and beef (bo) every day. Here, together with Vietnamese workers, you can find not only a simple table, but an authentic Asian-made food-sharing experience surrounded by the pungent hint of chili and lime.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Whenever you are ready to plunge again in the vitality of Hanoi, your itinerary will go on through the streets that house artisan’s laboratories, such as those focused on upholstery. Like an equilibrist at work, while stepping on the overcrowded sidewalk to avoid the motorcycles that dominate the asphalt, you will finally reach the 67 Hàng Điếu. As a result, you will have the opportunity to taste the best Bun Bo Nam Bo of the city, made of beef with thin spicy noodles, soy, and nuts. In a moment, the warmth of the hosts, as well as the hot chili sauce, will be able to melt you. Obviously, you will come back before leaving the city.
Bun Cha Ta
The chili flavour won’t leave your lips easily, thus the most effective cure is coffee. To reach the next address, you’ll have to pass through the streets dedicated to the trade of precious Vietnamese food. Then, you’ll finally reach the Bun Cha Ta Hanoi. By far, the best Bun Cha Ta of the city can be found in 21 Nguyễn Hữu Huân. Spicy pork, thin rice noodles and fresh vegetables make it so delicious that you’ll want to share it while drinking a “bia Hanoi”.
The French Quarter (the city and the memory)
Getting over the quaint street network that characterize the Old Quarter, step by
step the ways get bigger. Therefore, the buildings get decorated and taller, and the saturated colours make room to elegant French colonial shades. As if by magic, it almost seems to cross the line between two historical eras rather than the arbitrary line between two quarters. In the blink of
an eye, it feels like to be in Paris, September 1920. As a result, you will wonder about what is the trendiest café to have a break, and, immediately you will question your back-packer outfit, that seems to be neither in the right time nor place.
The Opera House
Among the boulevards and the classy villas, the Opera House stands out in its decorated New Baroque front. Actually surrounded by a vintage atmosphere, its luxurious rooms in French style seems inappropriate if compared to the simplicity and the liveliness of the nation that hosts them.
A place in balance of time, preserved by social and cultural changes, which offers to romantic
travelers a good chance to live some hours in the past and to feel transported back in time. As if, in Vietnam, the European Golden Age could be lived just in the present days. Exactly like before, the best way to enjoy the thriving artistic rise of Hanoi is by visiting the cafés.
The French Quarter’s cafès (the city and the memory 2)
Situated just few steps away from the boulevards, the Vietnamese interpretation of European cafés gets incarnated at Cafe Lam. At first, you will overthink about going inside, because of its not-bourgeois aesthetic and its dusty walls. Notwithstanding, once you overcome the doubts, you won’t regret it. Over the delicious iced-coffee, sooner or later its colours and the melancholy atmosphere will win your heart. There, seated in this cozy place, you will feel like in the 50s. Moreover, its collection of paintings will tell you the story of the man-without-name, who by the time founded this place to give house to whoever feels home just by grabbing some crayons.
60 Nguyen Huu Huan, Hanoi
On the other hand, whoever is looking for a chocolate cake, instead of a story, will be pleased by S’Patisserie. In fact, its balcony with a view, decorated with colourful flowers and hand-made lanterns, offers warmth and kindness to those who just ask for sweetness. As long as your taste buds will be satisfied by cupcakes, and the tip of your nose will be spotted by the milk of a cappuccino, you will notice that the chilly whiff is gone. Instead, coconut perfume is in the air: you have finally found Europe in Asia.
17 Hang Khay Street, Hanoi
Nevertheless, those who won’t think about Europe, could play a treasure hunt to find the hidden entrance of the Pho Co café. Don’t give up. By reaching the cramped secondary street that houses it, and going up to the stairs where you could run into a chicken – alive and well – you will finally reach this breathtaking terrace. As a matter of fact, seated there, in front of your egg coffee, you will definitely understand that this is not Paris in September. And it’s better, by far. Because Hanoi is the present and perhaps the future. Equally important, it’s the only place where your coffee costs 30 cents.
2 Hang Dong, Hanoi
Having dinner in Hanoi (the city and the wish)
By the moonlight, Hanoi seems a different city: in a moment, its streets are full of youngsters who cheer with Vietnamese beer bottles to celebrate the end of the day. Moreover, crowds of people gather around the lakeside, whose waters reflects the artificial lights of the city. Finally, street vendors drive their items in the sound of traditional Vietnamese music. At this point, you will be distracted by the number of entertaining spots spreading in the city center. In the meantime, you will wonder about attending a karaoke contest singing American old songs, or maybe buying tickets for the marvelous play of marionettes in the water. But, first of all, you have to chose a place for dinner, and Hanoi’s food offer is able to satisfy everyone.
The only word to describe the Green Tangerine is unforgettable. One passed the doors of this glamour art-decò villa, you will feel like in a Woody Allen’s movie. Your Oscar-worthy plot will revolve around a two-course gourmet French-Vietnamese meal. And, as a matter of fact, the best way to experience it is by sitting in the exotic garden, surrounded by flowers. Everything lives up to expectancies, and the duck breast with French cheese will surely win you. But remember, this is not a movie. Thus, the only way to live again your favourite moments is by coming back before leaving the city.
48 Hang Be, Hanoi
Quan An Ngon
Just the most patient of you will have the opportunity to taste the rich food offer at Quan An Ngon. By all means, this is the most famous restaurant of the city, and it’s always crowded because of the format of its cuisine. In fact, it is based on the idea of creating a menu of high-quality street-food, proposed in a trendy place in the centre of the city. While waiting for your table, you’ll have the opportunity to take a look at chefs at work in their external stations, where you can let the perfume guides your steps around. Aftert a long wait, you will enjoy your tasteful Vietnamese meal.
18 Phan Boi Chan Street, Hanoi
The Hung Snake
Within the framework of Le Mat quarter, Hanoi offers to the bravest the unique opportunity to taste snake’s meat-based meals. These ones are prepared from generation to generation by the families who still live in this quarter. So, if you have a passion for cooking experimentations, and share the fun of gloom, The Hung Snake Restaurant suits you. In this corner, snake is prepared in different ways, stretching from fried to boiled. Furthermore, the managers of the place will entertain you telling stories about this as extraordinary as dangerous animal.
33 Le Mat, Hanoi
The Ba Dinh district (the city and the name)
If you have come this far, certainly your mind will be shaken by the wish for understanding where this city find its magic. By the same token, why does Hanoi have this shapes and its air is full of chili and honey? And furthermore, who has given the city a name that means “on the side of the river” thinking that it would have been able to represent its soul? Fortunately, the Ba Dinh district and its monumental buildings soaked in history hold all the answers.
Within the imaginary border that encloses the Ba Dinh district, you will find historical buildings recording the story of Hanoi. With this in mind, their architectures are able to pass on knowledge and beauty of Vietnamese culture since XI century. Only the One-pillar Pagoda can be compared with the sensation of calm and peace that can be felt at the end of the journey through the Literature Temple. Actually, their aim, based on Confucian principles, has to do with leading people to self-discovery.
Ba Dinh Plaza
Nevertheless, it’s just by reaching Ba Dinh Plaza, the political center of the nation, that is possible to completely understand not only the story of Vietnam, but also why the luxury of the Imperial era has been replaced by simplicity and austerity. Certainly, the most significant symbol of this transformation is the mighty and serious Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. In fact, this huge building, dedicated to the memory of the Communist Vietnamese leader, is ruled by grey shades. The only touch of colour is provided by the red words about freedom, written on the banner that runs the walls of the building.
Hanoi: the invisible city
While reading this article, literature lovers are going to feel like the Kublai Kan listening to Marco Polo’s tales about the invisible cities. As shown above, Hanoi is more cities in one, and they move uncoordinated in the same urban space, where they live happily ever after, surrounded by the noise of moto-cycles. And all things considered, just that sound will be able to keep you grounded in reality.
At the end of your journey, it’s time to understand that Hanoi is more than its history, and the bright faces of people who enliven its streets are more meaningful than the memory of an ended past. So, walking around the cheerful streets, you feel that what makes a city valuable and gives it its name are the people who are able to project a better future.