I liked Ho Chi Minh City, but I loved Hanoi. We were in Vietnam last year for a total of eleven days, spread over four days in HCMC before we headed over the border to Cambodia for a few days in Phnom Penh, a few days in Siem Reap, then back over to northern Vietnam for five days in Hanoi in between trips to Sapa and Halong Bay before heading up to Hong Kong. The Vietnamese capital is hectic with its crazy streets and bustling markets, yet elegant with beautiful French colonial architecture, Chinese influences and lakes dotted around everywhere. Here's what we got up to...
We stayed at the chic, peaceful Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake just out of the busy city centre, from which we hired bikes and cycled around the largest lake past parks, swan boats and locals running, cycling and fishing. In the centre, the Old Quarter is packed with scooters and honking horns - crossing the road is pretty full-on - alongside farmers selling fresh produce, street food stalls and market traders hawking knock-offs. We walked around the Hoan Kiem Lake, and crossed over the red bridge to the Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the middle. The ancient Temple of Literature is the perfect place for a moment's respite: an idyllic 11th century Confucian temple filled with statues, pagodas and strings of red lanterns hanging amidst the trees. We went to The Rooftop bar nearby for jasmine tea-infused cocktails as the sun set over the hazy skyline, more rooftop cocktails another night at The Avalon and pre-dinner drinks at The Hanoi Social Club and the eclectic Bar Betta. I lost count of how many coffee stops we made; the streets are filled with the aroma so we kept craving it - Hanoians are big into their strong, flavoursome coffee (and crusty, fresh baguettes); there's that French influence again - the most memorable of which was at the quaint, chilled Cafe Runam near the 19th century neo-gothic St Joseph Cathedral, where we bought a stainless steel drip coffee filter we use every day.
My favourite dinner place was Home Restaurant in the charming Truc Bach neighbourhood, merging old world charm and friendly service whilst serving up modern takes on traditional Vietnamese dishes. I'm still dreaming of their exotic, marinated sea snails with local celery, grilled chicken with salt and lemongrass, and pork and prawn fresh spring rolls. SO good. I also loved supper at celebrated chef Didier Corlou's Verticale, where classic French gourmet meets contemporary Indochinese cuisine, and a poolside lunch at the five star Sofitel Legend Metropole housed in a beautiful colonial building with a bomb shelter beneath.
We visited the glorious yellow Presidential Palace surrounded by mango trees, walked to the wartime B-52 bomber shot down in the middle of Huu Tiep Lake in the residential Ba Dinh district, toured the UNESCO World Heritage listed old citadel which was the former residence of Vietnamese monarchs dating back to the 11th century and the Military History Museum next to it. We bought some bamboo bowls at one of the many street markets, sat on little plastic chairs and had beers at one of the many street food stalls, saw a traditional water puppets show and had hoped to see something at the grand Hanoi Opera House, but unfortunately nothing was on when we were there. Next time!