Vietnam’s capital is a bustling and brilliant metropolis. Centred around the sparkling Hoan Kiem Lake, it’s a city developing relentlessly, where luxury shops rub shoulders with street food stalls. The Old Quarter’s riotous roads are perfect for getting lost in, while the city’s history demands exploration at a string of fascinating museums.
Hanoi’s chaotic traffic can be negotiated either by motorbike taxi or standard cab. Old–style pedal cyclos still ply the streets of the Old Quarter, while an electric train bus serves 14 stops in the city centre. If you’re staying central, walking is the best way to get around.
Hanoi has some of Vietnam’s best sights, and it’s worth spending a chunk of time exploring them before heading out into the countryside. The stunning Temple of Literature, dating back to 1070, is one of the country’s best preserved religious sights, its formal gardens and statues an oasis of calm among the bustle.
Reminders of Vietnam’s place at the forefront of 20th century history are hard to miss. Hoa Lo prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, offers a stark look at the conditions under which Vietnamese and American soldiers suffered during a series of conflicts.
The nation’s revered leader, Ho Chi Minh, lies in state in a Soviet–style mausoleum on the edge of town. Queues can be long, but it’s worth filing past, if just to see how Vietnam still holds its erstwhile leader dear.
Hoan Kiem Lake dominates the centre of Hanoi and is best seen at sunrise and sunset, when hundreds of locals promenade or join in with group exercise routines. The Lotte Building, the city’s swankiest new skyscraper, has an observation deck from where you can see the sheer scale of this city, which continues to spread further and further into the surrounding paddy fields.
Easily left off of culture buffs’ itineraries, the superb Museum of Ethnology sits 7km outside the city centre. It’s home to a string of artefacts found across the country, some dating back thousands of years. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum does a brillaint job of exploring the essential role of women in Vietnamese society.
Vietnam may be largely Buddhist, but the crumbling facade and austere interior of St Joseph’s Cathedral is worth exploring when the midday heat gets too much. The streets around the back of the church are also a peaceful counterpoint to the Old Quarter’s more hectic avenues.
Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter are blessed the dozens of street side cafes and stalls, where you can pick up simple rice bowls and pho for little more than a dollar. Many have English menus, although the smaller stands will only do one kind of dish. Be bold: street food is often as good or better than many restaurants.
Ly Club, set in an old colonial mansion, and Minh Thay, run by a Masterchef Vietnam contestant serve up gourmet takes on Vietnamese classics. Quan Kien offers delcious hill tribe delicacies, such as grilled chicken and peppers and even insects if you’re feeling adventurous.