Afternoon coffee on the sidewalk. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos
The instant you step foot in Hanoi, you’ll notice that time slows to a crawl. 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 unusual for a city with eight million inhabitants, but you'll soon find the pace is just right. 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 stands out from the crowd. For over 40 years, owner Nguyen Trong Thin has been serving up bowls of phở with a special flair. Unlike other shops, Thin stir-fries his beef flanks in garlic before adding them to the broth. This innovation has made his version of phở one of the most popular in Hanoi.
10 a.m.: Burn off the calories on a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. A 15th century legend says a giant turtle in the lake recovered the magical sword Emperor Ly Thai To used to defeat the Chinese. On the weekends, the roadways aroundlake are closed to vehicles, and on the northern side the picturesque Ngoc Son Temple sits on a small island.
12 p.m.: Give your feet a break and see the Old Quarter by way of cyclo, a type of pedal-powered rickshaw. An hour-long ride through the Old Quarter labyrinth will help you map out your nighttime affairs, as this neighbourhood is a prime spot for local libations.
1:30 p.m.: Make your way to the Sofitel Legend Metropole for the buffet lunch at Le Beaulieu. The lunch will set you back 790,000 VND, but the price is well worth the luxury. Afterwards check out the hotel's beautiful interiors, which have seen the likes of 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, this is alos the site of Vietnam’s oldest university, established in 1076. Admire the traditional-style architecture, the 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 wait staff are all trainees learning the ropes of the hospitality trade and all proceeds go directly to funding the charity.
7 p.m.: As night decends, head back to the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen in the Old Quarter to experience the revelry of bia hơi. 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 (15,000 VND) served straight from the barrels.
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. 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 hybrid. 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. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the spectacular display of the changing of the guard outside the mausoleum. Photography is strictly forbidden.
TIP: The mausoleum shuts down annually between September 4 to November 4, when the body is sent to Russia for upkeep. Plan accordingly.
11:30 a.m.: You can't come to Hanoi and not try bún chả. Bún chả became an overnight sensation after Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama lunched at Bun Cha Huong Lien on the show No Reservations. The “Obama Combo” includes bún chả, a side of nem rán (fried spring rolls) and an ice cold bottle of beer. Dump the cold rice vermicelli and the fresh herbs in the bowl of sweetened fish sauce.
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. The museum is dedicated to the traditions of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups, and includes a garden with full-scale replicas, some relocated originals, and a museum devoted to Southeast Asia.
TIP: Don't miss 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 (60,000 VND for up to six hours.) The circumference of the lake is lined with hip cafes, ancient pagodas and picturesque gardens.
7 p.m.: Conclude your Hanoian adventure at Highway 4. With four locations, 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 laced with herbs and spices. Hopefully, the liquor motivates you to try the adventurous items on the menu: chicken hearts, locusts, eel, buffalo and frog.
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