Hanoi (Vietnamese: Hà Nội), the capital of Vietnam, and also its second largest city, is afascinating blend of East and West, combining traditional Sino-Vietnamese motifs with Frenchflair. It is largely unscathed from the decades of war, and is now going through a building boom,making it a rapidly developing city in Southeast Asia.1) The ultimate old quarterHang Bac in the Old Quarter. Once the guild street of silversmiths, now home to travel agencies,tourist cafes and tombstone carvers. The Old Quarter isn’t just a figurative phrase in Hanoi.A maze of at least 36 streets between Hanoi’s famed Hoan Kiem Lake, the Red River and thefew walls that remain of the Hanoi Citadel, the Old Quarter is more than 1,000 years old and stillgoing strong.The oldest surviving neighborhood in Vietnam, the Old Quarter became a market place whereartisans organized themselves into 36 guilds (the guild of silk, silver, bamboo rafts, conical hats,and sweet potatoes to mention a few), each occupying a street.The craftsmen have since been overwhelmed by tourism, motor bikes, bars and zippo lightertouts. But small temples, pagodas and hidden communal guild houses still remain from the era ofthe guilds.More iconic now are the tube houses, skinny and tall by force of a land tax on street frontage.Check out tube houses at 87 Ma May Street or at 38 Hang Dao.To spot French colonial townhouses whose lower floors are often disguised by commercialfacades, you just have to look at the roof of the house which is usually preserved in its originalstate.The Vietnamese heart of colonial Hanoi, the Old Quarter is where the anti-French movementoriginally headquartered itself.2) Hoan Kiem Lake
The heart of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem Lake, which, despite its toxic green colour, offers apleasant respite for pedestrians from the frantic game of Frogger that constitutes the rest of thetraffic-heavy area. The 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple, on Jade Island, can be reached via thebeautiful Huc Bridge but another lesser-known haven is Balcony Bar, overlooking the lake fromits first-floor nest of fairy lights on Le Thai To Street.3) Hoa Lo PrisonThe infamous “Hanoi Hilton” – dubbed thus by American prisoners during the Vietnam War –was constructed by the French in 1896 over the top of Phu Khanh village. Its history is long andgrisly, only selectively recounted (in line with propaganda objectives) in the several rooms thatremain of what was once a much larger site. Cells occupied by life-like shackled mannequins areparticularly evocative; the soundtrack accompanying a guillotine and a grandiose shrine to“patriotic prisoners” less so. Like the Museum of the Revolution, a full understanding of whathappened here requires additional reading.4) Street foodBesides the motorbikes, few things define Vietnam like the food. To visit the country withouthunkering down on a footstool for a bowl of “pho ga” (chicken noodle soup) is like visiting Italyand abstaining from pasta. There are plenty of restaurants aimed at tourists in Hanoi – skip them.Find a vendor on the footpath and follow three rules. Choose from the food you can see, not from
a menu. Offer a fixed amount of money before asking for the price, thereby heading off theinevitable overcharge. Follow your stomach’s intuition: if in doubt (hygiene-wise), leave it out.5) So French, but notJoie de vivre translates well in Vietnam. Whilst people from Hanoi are considered aloof bysouthern Vietnamese, they have nothing on Parisians.The Vietnamese have not forsaken their French colonial heritage and it is a great place to enjoyFrench aesthetics with Asian hospitality.Many wonderful French buildings remain, mostly functional and not a few sporting a fashionablebohemian decay.However, the success of French-Vietnamese fusion is best experienced through Hanoi’s food.French baguettes are stuffed with Vietnamese pâté and pickled vegetables to create the rich andtangy banh mi sandwiches.Coffee is an obsession passed on by the French. In Hanoi, your espresso drips through a smallaluminum filter into sweet condensed milk.Cafés are still arranged in the French style, as if the street is a theater and the café is the audiencesection. But diners are usually perched on humble plastic or rattan chairs that are mere inchesfrom the ground.6) Very fresh beerBia hoi, Hanoi’s “morning brew,” enjoyed all day. Hanoi is famous for it’s dirt-cheap,unpasteurized beer made fresh daily — bia hoi.The official Hanoi bia hoi comes fresh daily from the Habeco factory. It ferments throughout theday, consequently tasting different at each vendor.The flavor depends on the rate at which the beer is being sold and how much the seller hasdecided to water it down that day.
By day’s end, unsold beer goes off and is thrown away. But there’s rarely any left each evening.The ridiculously cheap price and the fact that it is served out of plastic cups makes this theperfect anti-yuppie, anti-elitist brew, suited to the ideals of a socialist country.Find it on every happening Hanoi corner, sometimes paired with food, other times with atelevision and karaoke machine offering classic tunes by Abba and Boney M.The most famous Bia Hoi for travelers are right in the heart of the old quarter on Bia Hoi Cornerat the intersection of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien streets.7) Night marketsJust when you think the Old Quarter couldn’t possibly hold any more stuff, it surrenders HangGiay and Hang Dao streets to a seemingly infinite line of illuminated orange stalls every Fridayand Saturday night. Much of the material on sale is an extension of the surrounding shops but thefestive atmosphere is infectious. Think wallets, Buddhas, plush buttons and wall lights shapedlike teapots. You can even find greetings cards with a pop-up Sydney Opera House.8) People are friendlierIt’s a rare night you’ll spend with friends clusteredround the low-slung plastic stools of a bia hoiwhere some blinking, red-facedbloke won’t lurch up to your table to repeatedly grasp your hand
and yell,”Helloo! Hello! Helloh?” then invite you to join his mates for somerounds of cheap,rice-based spirits.9) Pop warThe Vietnam War — most iconic war? The Vietnam War is remembered as much for theatrocities that occurred as it is for the anti-war demonstrations abroad.A pilgrimage to Hanoi is part of the catharsis sought by veterans of the Vietnam War.Others who grew up hearing cool protest songs by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, remainfascinated by a war that is associated with the rebellious 1960s and 1970s.It is a war that influenced a decade of youth culture in the U.S. and continues to inform popculture around the world.For scars of U.S. bombings of Hanoi check out the Long Bien Bridge which crosses the RedRiver and transported supplies from the port at Hai Phong. Or visit the Hoa Lo prison, dubbedthe “Hanoi Hilton” by American GIs.10) Street lifeUsually these beer barns are open-walled and tables and chairs often spill onto the street. Youmay get a lungful of motorbike exhaust with your fried spinach, but you get a nice view as well.Others back onto lakes or parks, or the Mausoleum.