Beijing Getaways: Hanoi
Vive le Hanoi: The cosmopolitan charms of south-east Asia's chicest city
Vietnam's thousand-year old capital, Hanoi is a fascinating blend of East and West, as French and Chinese influences enhance a vibrant native culture. Like the local oil painters encircling Hoan Kiem Lake, this bustling city mixes the richest sensations from a loaded palette to give each visitor a uniquely colorful experience. No stranger to pain and destruction, today's Hanoi now overflows with bonhomie and joie de vivre.
"This is my favorite city for many reasons," says Nguyen My Giang Huong, owner of the city's popular Green Tangerine restaurant. "There aren't many capitals with such attractive buildings and landscapes - where your view of the sky isn't obscured by skyscrapers, where yesterday and today integrate so beautifully. Of course, having fantastic cuisine is also a major advantage."
Despite an excess of gorgeous colonial architecture, Hanoi's residents aren't ones to dwell on the past. Young women carrying twin baskets of jackfruit amble past exclusive designer malls, while senior citizens in berets share restaurant benches with teenage fashionistas and their buzzing cell phones. Nearly two-thirds of Vietnam's 80 million inhabitants are under 30, and the country's youthful dynamism is almost palpable.
A booming Vietnamese economy (around 8% growth for the last three years) and growing numbers of tourists are collectively driving Hanoi's hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors. Visitors can now chose from an array of accommodation, retail and dining options, while those watching their pennies will find reasonable prices allow for an extra touch of personal pampering from time to time.
When it comes to selecting the ultimate hotel, it's hard to look beyond Hanoi's grande dame - the Sofitel Metropole. Steeped in history this fin de siècle classic remains a perennial favorite with travelers from around the globe. The list of former guests reads like a Who's Who of twentieth century artistic heavyweights, with such distinguished patrons as Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Jane Fonda and Oliver Stone all having their favorite room.
"The Sofitel Metropole is part of Hanoi's history," says Nguyen Dinh Thanh, the hotel's Director of Public Relations, proudly. "We've been operating for over 100 years. When the hotel was constructed this area was actually a swamp, and we're still sitting above 10,000 bamboo poles used to support the foundations."
The Metropole is a stone's throw from the Hanoi Opera House, a small-scale replica of Paris's Palais Garnier and another of the city's trademark colonial-era buildings. When it opened in 1911 the Opera House was French Indochine's very own architectural pièce de résistance, but the departure of the French from Vietnam saw it fall into serious disrepair, and it remained in dilapidated condition well into the 1990s.
After a three-year renovation project costing US$14 million, the Opera House eventually reopened in 1997, and now features regular classical music and ballet performances once again. Many local Vietnamese still wonder at the amount of money spent doing the place up, but are rightly proud of this beautiful building that sits at the heart of their city's French Quarter.
Enjoy a romantic ride on a pedicab in Hanoi
Hanoi's French colonial-era Opera House
Close to the Opera House, and the destination for those seeking more mid-range accommodation, is the Hoan Kiem Lake area. Neither Hanoi's deepest nor largest body of water, Hoan Kiem nevertheless represents the spiritual heart of the city, and its tree-lined shore is frequented by young and old alike. According to Vietnamese legend the murky waters conceal a magical sword used by Emperor Ly Thai To to banish the Chinese in the mid-15th century - Ho Hoan Kiem means "Lake of the Returned Sword" in Vietnamese.
"Hoan Kiem is the ideal place to see Hanoi coming to life every day," says Tran Thi Thuyet, a local English student. "Those who can make it down to the lake at dawn can see residents exercising, chatting and drinking coffee together. The Tortoise Tower (Thap Rua), which stands on a small island in the lake and honours the turtle god who once gave the emperor his sword, is also really picturesque when lit up at night."
Just north of Hoan Kiem Lake lies the Old Quarter, Hanoi's 2000-year old hotbed of commerce. Here you can witness craftsmen at work, pick up tasteful souvenirs such as silk clothing and watercolor paintings, and sample delicious snack food such as bánh rán (sweet and savory fried rice balls) and phở bò (beef noodle soup). While the rabbit warren streets can easily be covered on foot, many opt to take a pedicab, which makes a relaxing (and romantic) way to see the sights. For an added bonus have your driver take the French-built Long Bien Bridge across the chocolate waters of the Red River, and then stop for a quick draft beer on the other side before returning.
Also a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake is St. Joseph's Cathedral, Vietnam's largest Catholic church, consecrated in 1886. The French demolished the ancient Bao Thien Pagoda to make way for the cathedral, built in neo-Gothic style to resemble Paris's Notre Dame and boasting some beautiful stained glass. Mass has been held here since 1990 and Sunday services are usually packed.
Vietnamese Water Puppets, Hanoi
A pleasant two-kilometer stroll westward from St. Joseph's Cathedral brings visitors to the tranquil Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), which many consider Hanoi's greatest cultural attraction. Founded in the 11th century and dedicated to Confucius, this is the site of Vietnam's first university, built to educate the country's administrative and warrior classes - one of the highlights is a range of stone stelae recording the birthplace and achievements of former students.
Close to the Temple of Literature lies Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, another of Hanoi's quintessential (if slightly more recent) constructions. Despite the fact that Ho Chi Minh - the legendary leader of Vietnam affectionately known to his people as "Uncle Ho" - expressed a desire to be cremated, this is where his body has lain since 1975. Modeled on Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow, the austere, colonnaded structure can seem slightly forbidding, although the surrounding parkland contains a range of more welcoming sights such as the former Palais du Gouvernement, the beautiful One Pillar Pagoda and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
For those who like to combine culture with entertainment, a water puppet performance is a definite must-see in Hanoi. Known as mua roi noc in Vietnamese (literally "puppets that dance on water"), this unique art form is rooted in history, and one-hour shows are an often amusing take on myths and historical events. These are usually introduced by a comical yokel known as Uncle Teu, with up to 18 short vignettes based on farming, fishing, boat racing, and buffalo fighting.
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Although water puppets now regularly grace theaters across Vietnam they originated in the country's northern Red River Delta area. Using the myriad lakes, ponds and paddy fields of this region, farmers created stages and put on ad hoc shows to celebrate the end of harvest and other special occasions. As puppetry became more elaborate and popular, troupes and guilds were formed, and rivalries developed as villages competed to outperform each other.
The oldest Vietnamese water puppet villages claimed a Buddhist monk named Tu Dao Hanh (1072-1127) as their patron saint, and a group of statues at the 11th century Thay Pagoda (Chua Thay) just outside Hanoi celebrate his life. In front of the pagoda, in the center of a small lake ringed by jungle-clad limestone outcrops, stands Thuy Dinh, Vietnam's oldest working water puppet stage, which Tu Dao Hanh is said to have used when he founded water puppetry.
Hanoi Water Puppets
Just a few kilometers down the road from the Thay Pagoda is the older Tay Phuong Pagoda (Chua Sung Phuc), first constructed in the 8th century. Perched on a hilltop, visitors have to climb over 200 steps to reach the temple, but the spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding countryside is worth the effort. Make sure to check out the dragons and demons carved into the wooden roof, and an array of magnificent wooden sculptures depicting Buddha and other Buddhist deities.
There's a saying in Vietnam that the southerly Ho Chi Minh City is the belly of Vietnam, while Hanoi is the head. Anatomical associations aside, Hanoi now boasts a mind-boggling array of dining options, offering everything from street side sweet-and-sour soup and soft-shelled crabs to the finest international cuisine. The only problem is finding enough meals to sample everything.
A good place to start is the Green Tangerine in the city's Old Quarter, owned by Nguyen My Giang Huong and her French husband. Housed in a beautifully restored silk shop dating back to 1928, the restaurant's intimate, al fresco courtyard is a perfect location for sampling "French cuisine with a Vietnamese twist". The scallops with apricot seeds are a particular favorite, while those with a sweet tooth should round off their repast with the heavenly chocolate truffle fritters.
Focused mainly on the Old Quarter, Hanoi is also a shopper's paradise, offering everything from shoes, silk wear and antique furniture to ceramics, lacquer ware and contemporary art. Probably the best known shopping item in Hanoi is silk, with very reasonable prices and tailoring services. The La Casa boutiques on Nha Tho and Xuan Dieu offer beautiful home ware and objets d'art, while the Artcen company is popular for its hand-made lacquer ware, silverware, bronze landscapes and gold earrings.
With all it has to offer, Hanoi keeps visitors as busy as its streets. "I could never leave this city when it's given me so much," says Nguyen My Giang Huong. After a few days in the Vietnamese capital, it's odds on you'll feel the same way.
Good Morning Vietnam: Early morning Hanoi
Accommodation in Hanoi, Vietnam
Book a hotel for your desired budget from this list of hotels in Hanoi. Recommendations include the Rising Dragon Palace Hotel in the Old Quarter, the Somerset Grand Hanoi Serviced Residences near Hoan Kiem Lake and Nikko Hotel Hanoi on Tran Nhan Tong Street.
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