Walking the streets of Hanoi by Aaron Joel Santos Take me there
The instant you step foot in Hanoi, you’ll notice that time slows to a crawl. For those lacking in time, the slow motion affair that is Vietnam’s capital city will work in your favor. There is a careful deliberation to living and life itself in this 1000-year-old metropolis, from the way the sun cascades over West Lake at dusk, to the unhurried pedaling of cyclo drivers around the Old Quarter. The tranquility is quite unusual, especially for a city with eight million inhabitants, but is a welcoming change for those who are usually subject to fast-paced itineraries. Here is your perfect weekend in Hanoi:
9 a.m.: When in Hanoi, do as the Hanoians do: greet the morning with a steaming bowl of phở. While the northern iteration of this noodle soup is known for its simplicity, Pho Thin on 13 Lo Duc stands out from the crowd. Don’t be fooled by the modest trappings; for over 40 years, owner Nguyen Trong Thin has been serving up bowls of phở with a special flair. That’s because unlike other shops, Thin stir-fries his beef flanks in garlic before adding them to the broth, deviating from the traditional preparation. His innovation has resulted in such an exceptional flavour profile that his version of phở is regarded the best in Hanoi.
10 a.m.: Burn off the calories on a leisurely stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, the city’s historical centre. Also known as the “Lake of the Restored Sword,” the name was inspired by a legend originating in the mid-15th century surrounding a giant golden turtle who recovered a magical sword from Emperor Ly Thai To that was used to defeat the Chinese. To this day, it is said that the lake conceals the descendants of the tortoise. On the weekends, the roadways encircling the lake are closed off from motor activity. On the northern side of the lake is a small island where the picturesque Ngoc Son Temple sits.
12 p.m.: Give your feet a break and opt for sightseeing around the Old Quarter by way of cyclo. Cyclos are a type of rickshaw powered by pedalling. The suspended chair affixed to the front of the bicycle offers the passenger an unadulterated view of the streets. An hour-long introductory ride through the Old Quarter labyrinth will help you map out your nighttime affairs, as this neighbourhood is a prime spot for local libations and the likes.
1:30 p.m.: End your cyclo tour at the French Quarter and make your way to the Sofitel Legend Metropole for the buffet lunch at Le Beaulieu. The lunch will set you back 790,000 VND ($36 USD), but the price is well worth the luxury. Plus you’ll be able to gloat that you sampled the finest French gastronomy outside of France at a table graced by some of the world’s elite, such as novelist Graham Greene, actor Charlie Chaplin and actress Angelina Jolie, to name a few.
3 p.m.: Make your way to the Temple of Literature built in honour of Confucius and his teachings. This is also the site of Vietnam’s oldest university, established in 1076. Admire the traditional-style architecture painted in a splendid shade of red. Some of the treasures that are hidden around the premises include a pond dubbed “The Well of Heavenly Clarity” and a collection of ancient stone slabs inscribed with the names of exceptional scholars, all mounted on the backs of stone turtles. A pavilion, which houses a statue of Confucius and his four greatest disciples, lies in the furthest courtyard.
5 p.m.: Academic endeavours tend to work up an appetite. Fortunately, one of Hanoi’s best restaurants is right around the corner. KOTO, which stands for “Know One, Teach One,” is a social platform dedicated to transforming lives by providing vocational training to underprivileged youth.The entire wait staff is comprised of trainees learning the ropes of the hospitality trade and rest assured, all proceeds from your meal go directly to funding the charity.
7 p.m.: As night begins to descend on the city, this is the perfect time to head back to the Old Quarter to experience the revelry of bia hơi. To experience the nightlife at its most vibrant, head to the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. No need for signage as you’ll immediately recognise “Bia Hoi Corner,” a chaotic sight where pubs spill out onto the street in true Vietnamese fashion, clogging up the intersection. Park yourself on a little stool and order a glass of freshly brewed beer served straight from the barrels. The low cost of $0.50 USD per glass explains why the lager is wildly popular amongst locals and travellers alike. This past August, the age-old midnight curfew in Hanoi was extended to 2 a.m. much to the excitement of all.
8 a.m.: Kickstart day two with a brew unique to Hanoi, cà phê trứng, aka egg coffee. There’s only one location to indulge in this frothy concoction: Giảng Cafe (also known as Café Giang) on 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân. The founding father of this establishment is none other than the creator of the recipe himself, Nguyen Giang. Invented purely out of necessity, Giang’s substitution of fresh milk with whisked eggs during French War food shortages birthed this famous dessert/caffeine hybrid. To this day, Tri Hoa Nguyen continues to keep his father’s legacy alive. The recipe remains top secret.
9:30 a.m.: Quickly make your way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, an imposing marble stronghold situated in centre of the grandiose Ba Dinh Square. If you want a chance to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s revered communist political leader, dress modestly and be early: the last entry is slated at 10:15 a.m. Interestingly enough, while other communist leaders’ bodies have been preserved in the same fashion, i.e., Mao, Stalin and Lenin’s, Ho Chi Minh’s dying wish was for a simple cremation, which was apparently overruled. Plan your visit accordingly as the mausoleum shuts down annually between Sept. 4 to Nov. 4 when the body is sent to Russia for upkeep. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the spectacular display of the changing of the guard outside the mausoleum. Photography is strictly forbidden.
11:30 a.m.: It isn’t a proper visit to Hanoi if you don’t indulge in the staple lunch of the everyday workman, bún chả. Bún chả became an overnight sensation after a recent appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations with special guest, President Barack Obama. Their stop, Bun Cha Huong Lien, has now become a popular tourist destination and warrants a visit for its “Obama Combo,” which includes bún chả, a side of nem rán (fried spring rolls) and an ice cold bottle of beer. To eat it like a local, dump the cold rice vermicelli and the fresh herbs in the bowl of sweetened fish sauce. The grilled pork patties come soaking in the broth.
1:30 p.m.: Time for some ethnographic inquiry. On the outskirts of the city lies the Museum of Ethnology, about a 20-minute taxi drive from the city centre. A first class museum-going experience, the 40,000 VND ($2 USD) ticket covers all areas on this three-part complex. This includes: an ethnology museum dedicated to the traditions Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups, a garden with full-scale replicas, some relocated originals, of traditional minority homes, and a museum devoted to Southeast Asia. Catch the Water Puppet theatre performance at 2 p.m.
4:30 p.m.: On your way back to town, stop by at the enormous Tay Ho Lake, also known as West Lake. The 17-km shoreline makes for a fantastic cycling route. The Hanoi Bicycle Collective is your one stop for bike rentals, which are reasonably priced at 60,000 VND ($3 USD) for usage fewer than six hours. The circumference of the lake is lined with hip cafes, ancient pagodas and picturesque gardens. While the southern stretch is usually quiet, the path tends to get quite busy during rush hour, so don’t panic when trying to avert Hanoi traffic.
7 p.m.: Conclude your Hanoian adventure at Highway 4, boasting four locations all around town. With quirky decor and an even quirkier menu, you won’t be disappointed. Indulge in the local tipple, a Vietnamese spirit called rượu, made from sticky rice and laced with traditional herbs and spices. Hopefully, the liquor motivates you to try more of the adventurous items on the menu, not reserved to: chicken hearts, locusts, eel, buffalo and frog. For those feeling a bit conservative, there are crisp salads and the usual meats like beef and fish.
In this article:
Sofitel Legend Metropole Le Beaulieu: http://www.sofitel-legend.com/hanoi/en/bars-restaurants/le-beaulieu.shtml
Museum of Ethnology: http://www.vme.org.vn/home
Highway 4: http://highway4.com/en