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Hanoi

Vietnam

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I woke up in The City That Always Eats, feeling ‘A number one, top of the heap’.  Well, I was staying in the Penthouse after all!  

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Local Colour

While the view from the top floor was dizzying, it was the whirl at street level that made me giddy. 

 

An abundance of people (and things) circulates constantly on motorbikes in Hanoi. At one point I witnessed a three-person sofa whizz by. Don’t worry, there weren’t three passengers onboard as well.  Not on that bike anyway! 

 

The motorbikes are constantly molested by the horns on four wheels. Cars honk incessantly, hungry for road space and desperate to assert their presence. But all to no apparent effect. Indeed, it’s vital the bike riders express not the slightest flicker of a reaction, show no contrition, and take no avoiding action whatsoever.

 

For equilibrium to reign, it’s essential everyone blithely carries on, in a densely tangled noodle soup of traffic.

That includes the occasional Old Town rickshaw, trundling along at below walking pace. Often with a charming (and rather hopeless) bell to hook in tourists.  A few have upgraded to a loudspeaker system, through which a looped tape continuously and tonelessly repeats ‘ca phe’ (coffee), ‘bun cha’ (a local pork soupy dish) or similar sustenance.

All the above makes crossing the road a much discussed topic amongst Hanoi newbies. Anyone who’s been in the city more than a day realises the knack involves the exact opposite of all sensible and ingrained behaviours.  

1. Do not wait for a sizeable gap in the traffic. 

2. Step out and walk slowly and steadily, regardless.  

3. Do not react to oncoming traffic. It will deviate subtly and wind past you without drama.  

4. If you rely on traffic lights, zebra crossings or following the rules you’ll need to add a day or two to your trip.  

5. If you hesitate or waver mid-crossing that could be the end your trip. 

6. Don’t treat pavements as safe spaces. They're fair game and a useful overflow lane.

 

Welcome to the maelstrom. In a travellers’ version of Stockholm Syndrome, within 24 hours you’ll be loving it.

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Cross Here?

Certainly, one of the main things to ‘do’ in Hanoi is nothing whatsoever. Plonk yourself on any street corner in the Old Quarter. There’s always a welcome ca phe. A couple of hours watching the street theatre unfold around you will make it the best seat in town. For real authenticity, perch like a local on one of the impossibly small, brightly coloured plastic stools.

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Stool stockpile

And while we’re talking authenticity, the local coffee options are both mind-boggling and tastebud challenging.  Salty egg coffee was a step too far for my palate. (Well, two steps to be honest). More troubling are the ranges of coffee beans named after the animal through whose digestive tract they have passed. Mountain Weasel Americano anyone? That’ll put hairs on your chest.

 

Don’t worry, there’s always the option of condensed milk to sweeten the taste.

 

Speaking of taste, unlike the ca phe, I found the food universally delicious.

 

Eating is first, second, third and fourth on the agenda in Hanoi (as elsewhere in Vietnam). And true to the concept of street food, much slurping takes place literally on the street.  At all times of the day and night. On those little plastic stools I mentioned.  

We associate Vietnamese food with pho (pronounced phu – ahh, voice goes down, then up). But there are endless  permutations around soupy, starchy, ricey, spicy, rolly, noodley, porky, crabby, vegie, chewy, sucky and messy. All zing with freshness, many hold a surprise of some sort or other Some of the best involve self-assembly or prep, sometimes a bowl of fresh leaves and herbs to add liberally to your bowl, other times a wonky ‘roll your own’ challenge, and for some dishes a cook-your-own-at-your-table experience.

 

My favourite local dish in Hanoi was cha ca. It’s a wok-on-the-table number, involving catfish, a sauce of turmeric, shrimp paste, fish sauce, lime and goodness knows what else, heaps of fresh dill and noodles. The go to place is Cha Ca Thang Long.  Despite being Michelin listed, you can stroll in without a reservation and walk out for around a tenner.  (Albeit that’s a tidy sum by street food comparisons).

It's common for food places like Cha Ca Thang Long to specialise in one dish and name themselves after it. Effectively the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘Reg’s Beans on Toast’. These places aim to consistently serve the best Viet equivalent of beans on toast man can avail himself of, and nothing else. If successful, three or four other places with almost identical names will spring up next door. Unless you’re really attentive, you could find yourself eating at ‘Reggie’s Beans on Toast’ instead – a completely different business.  Although, in fairness, probably of equal quality.

 

There’s something gloriously liberating about not having to choose from a menu in one of these places. Sit down, order a beer and you’re done. Your food arrives within minutes. Without plate envy. 

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Old Quarter vibes

If you want an encyclopaedic local food guide, I refer you to ‘Will Fly For Food’ (see listings below). This blog shortlists the best restaurants by dish, together with commentary on the slurpiness, suckiness and general deliciousness. You can’t go far wrong with its recommendations, and may end up going down alleyways or up stairs you wouldn’t have explored otherwise.

 

Thang Long, incidentally, is the old name for Hanoi, meaning ‘soaring dragon’; once allegedly witnessed above the Citadel, and signifying good luck. The modern name ‘Hanoi’ means ‘city located within the river’, referring to the Red River circling the sprawl, but the key stretch of water is Hoan Kiem, The Lake of the Returned Sword. This is a place of relative sanity adjacent to the madness of the Old Town, where people come to stroll, do tai chi or celebrate Tet. The shoreline at the top has a lot of Leicester Square about it, but the lake generally will give you a moment to breathe.  Particularly if you pay the 50p to cross the bridge to Ngoc Son temple on its own little island.

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Courtyard at the Temple of Literature

But for a real oasis head to Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature. This is a shrine to Confucius dating back to 1070 and a place of knowledge and composure. I’ve heard it described (incorrectly) as the oldest University in the world, pipping Bologna by 18 years and Oxford and Cambridge by over 100. But not Al Quaraouiyine in Fez.

 

The atmosphere is magical, serene and learned. Ponds lie still and unruffled. Courtyards flow one into the next. Altar houses cocoon shrines to philosophers and scholars. Turtles, symbolising longevity and wisdom, support giant engraved stelae proclaiming the meaning of life, the universe and everything (which anyone of my generation knows is 42). Spend time here and things begin to feel clear (certainly compared to the chaos outside its walls).

 

Come exam time, students flock here to touch the turtles’ heads, hoping a trace of sagacity or plain good luck will rub off.

Naturally Hanoi has other sights to check out, including Uncle Ho lying in state (against his wish to be cremated), the ca phe lined street with trains running right through it and the One Pillar Pagoda. But the Temple of Literature I rate as reason enough on its own to visit Hanoi.

With all its history and talk of the Old Quarter, it’s worth flagging the upscale, contemporary flashes that punctuate the city. You’ll find London priced craft coffee joints, fancy private art galleries, pop up experiences, designer boutiques, a skate scene, underground music and everything else you’d expect from a 21st century metropolis. I found things I couldn’t afford, couldn’t comprehend or just wasn’t cool enough for.  Surprise and contradiction hit you in Vietnam when you least expect. Doh! I guess that’s the definition.  

 

This wouldn’t be View with a Room without me referring you to the best places to stay. At the risk of massively over simplifying, there really is only one hotel room worth booking; the aforementioned suite at Le Soleil. Enjoying 180 degree floor to ceiling city views, a roof terrace and even a circular bed, you'll feel distinctly Candy and Candy, if not a touch Austin Powers.  

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Boutique Chic

I looked down from my sanctuary on the tenth floor and watched a stunned motorbike rider stopped by police receiving a ticket for running a red light. He stood out as the only thing stationary, while all around, streaks of lights broke the rules with routine, nonchalantly oblivious.  

A Few Links and Practicalities  (Just sharing the love. I absolutely don’t get paid for these.)

My advice would be to stay near (but not in the midst of) the Old Quarter and walk everywhere. But that’s my default setting everywhere, and those who know Hanoi well will point to cool, up and coming quarters springing up everywhere.

Soleil Boutique Hotel.  www.soleilboutiquehotel.com/

There are flashier and much more upscale hotels.  But the Soleil is perfectly positioned on the edge of the Old Quarter. And their La Lune One Suite is one of a kind. You’ll be over the moon there.

There’s no shortage of hotels of similar size, price and location to the Soleil.  Like the Silk Path and the Meritel next door.  Before you start salivating over the rooftop pools, read the para below!

When to visit is a critical question. Mid to late March and late November early December is the very precise answer. The sweet spots are tight. Jan and Feb are distinctly cold. When I arrived, on March 1st, it was a cool 14C and I had to break out my jeans and fleece. When I left a few days later it was due to hit 30C. In April it starts drizzling and the summer months are excessively hot, wet and muggy, through October and beyond. I use the history tab on www.wundergroud.com as a gauge.   

 

Ngon restaurant.  www.quananngon.com.vn/

I rate this popular Michelin restaurant. Its pretty courtyard is surrounded by food stalls, each specialising in a Vietnamese classic. It’s the complete opposite of the one dish places I describe above. Perfect for a getting a flavour of all the flavours Vietnam throws at you.

Will Fly For Food.

www.willflyforfood.net/hanoi-food-guide-25-must-eat-restaurants-street-food-stalls-in-hanoi-vietnam/

Incredible almanac of eating. I refer to this now wherever I go.

Don’t Miss

 

The buzz, energy, colour and chaos. It can be overwhelming and intimidating, but go with it and it will go about its business without troubling you.

 

Bun cha. Perhaps “the Obama combo”, named after the ex-president's photo op at Bun Cha Huong Lien. 

www.flavorsofhanoi.com/blog/bun-cha-huong-lien/

 

The Water Puppet Theatre.
www.thanglongwaterpuppet.com/

Maybe this has crossed over into tourist naff, but I don’t know any water based stages in London.

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