The first thing we noticed was how much smaller and more traditional Hanoi felt. Ho Chi Minh City was big and bustling and busy dealing with its own affairs. Da Nang was gleaming and modern, and its rapid development, striking.
Yet in Hanoi, the modern façade had yet to replace the (often decaying) evidence of French and Chinese occupation. A slower pace moved amongst the locals (with the exception of the roads). We also felt the presence of more tourists, particularly in the Old Quarter.
We only spent two and half days in Hanoi, and for one of those days, we went on a day trip to Halong Bay. Overall, the city lived up to its reputation for good food. Unfortunately, it was so hot and humid that our entire stay was dictated by the weather. Visiting Vietnam’s capital city in June is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Here’s a list of the top 5 things we saw and ate in Hanoi:
1. Water Puppet Show: Hanoi has a reputation for the best Water Puppet Show in Vietnam and we weren’t disappointed. We bought tickets directly from Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre for a show that night. The brightly coloured puppets enacted traditional legends and historical tales on a pool of water. On the side of the stage, musicians played traditional instruments and a chorus of women and men recounted the stories in Vietnamese. It was a great insight into this 1,000 year-old art form.
Price: VND 100,000
2. Memorial House aka Ancient House: we visited this traditional merchant’s house to see just how the people of Hanoi used to live. The narrow room on the ground floor acted as a street front to sell goods. The two courtyards allowed for natural light and ventilation. The room upstairs was a living room to host guests as well as a place to worship ancestors – while, the adjoining room (accessible by the balcony) was a bedroom. The high steps between the two floors stopped the flow of bad energy around the building.
The house dates back to the 1800s and was requisitioned by the government in 1954. Five families moved in and lived there until 1999. The building was then restored under a cooperation agreement between the cities of Hanoi and Toulouse. Today, Memorial House aka Ancient House is open for tourists and sells traditional Vietnamese souvenirs.
After visiting the house, we went next door to Café Nola (and by next door, I mean down an alleyway next door and upstairs). We chilled on a lounge among the antiques and drank fresh, cold juice.
3. Madame Hien restaurant: we treated ourselves after a hard day of sightseeing in the heat. The food at Madame Hien was delicious – an elegant version of street food in a beautifully restored 19th century villa. The colonial-style building was built and owned by the same French architect that designed the Hanoi Opera House. After Liberation, an influential Vietnamese doctor moved in and entertained many important figures there, including Ho Chi Minh. In 2006, the former-residence became the Spanish Embassy, and then in 2010, it was bought by French chef, Didier Corlu. Madame Hien was his grandmother.
Price: $$$ – ‘36 Streets’ fixed menu (VND535,000)
4. Old Quarter and Night Street Market: Hanoi’s historical area aka Old Quarter is accessible and easy to wander around. Sometimes referred to as ’36 Old Streets’ (even though there are more than 36 streets), the area has so much to offer. We got lost in its alleyways and found hidden craft/textiles shops and culinary delights.
Here are a few examples:
- Han Gai Street : silk clothing and tailored, embroidery and silver products.
- Hang Quat Street : funeral and festival flags and religious objects.
- Thinh Street : wood turners.
- Hang Ma : paper products.
- Lan Ong Street : herbal medicinal products.
- Tong Duy Tan Street : night street food.
- Dong Xuan Street : aka Market Street, Vietnam’s oldest and largest market.
- Hang Dong Street : bronze products.
- Hang Trong Street : drums.
- Cau Go Street : commercial street (women’s accessories and international eateries).
- Hang Dau Street : shoes and footwear.
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night from 7pm, the central streets of the Old Quarter are closed off to cars and motorcycles. Instead, they are flooded with food stalls, live music and people sitting on plastic chairs, enjoying the night’s festivities.
We also explored Hoan Kiem Lake (Turtle Lake) in central Old Quarter and the grey-looking Saint Joseph’s Cathedral. When we visited, there was a mass taking place and the Cathedral was so jam-packed, we didn’t see much of the interior. A beautiful female voice floated outside, followed by the congregation. It was pleasant to sit in the leafy square and listen to the singing as we people watched.
5. Hanoi Social Club: this is a Vietnamese-Western fusion café with retro furnishings. Hanoi Social Club offers good coffee, vegetarian menu options and respite from the heat. The only downside, we found, was that the place was full with foreigners, mostly speaking English, sharing stories of their drinking escapades.
Accommodation: we stayed at Brika House’, which we booked via AirBnB. The apartment was located inside Hanoi’s Old Quarter and 200m from Tong Duy Tan Street (night street food).
Travel advice: stay in the Old Quarter. Then you can walk around everywhere and you don’t have to hassle with taxis. We stayed on the outskirts of the Old Quarter, which we found nicer as we were still within walking’s distance of many things but we were away from the tourists.
Transport: we mostly walked around everywhere. Getting to and from the train station, we used Grab taxi.
Photo: Water puppets at Thang Long Water Puppet Show in Hanoi, Vietnam