By NAOMI LINDT
Published: April 5, 2009
Bowls of bun bo nam bo, grilled strips of beef served over rice noodles, at a Hanoi street stall.
NEAR Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi, a digital clock counts down the seconds to this atmospheric city's 1,000th birthday in 2010. There certainly will be a lot to celebrate: the city, Vietnam's capital, has experienced extraordinary growth over the last two decades, evolving from a grim, famine-ravaged place into a sophisticated metropolis with high-rises, sensational cuisine and world-class art. Those shaking their heads at the disappearance of local culture, though, should think twice. For every glitzy mall, there's an incense-filled temple nearby, and cultural influences of the past are still part of the modern-day fabric, from revered Confucian monuments to trendy French restaurants. In fact, it's this zeal for barreling toward the future while always looking back that defines this city.
1) IMBIBING EARLY
In a country that's up before dawn and closes down around 9 p.m., it's by necessity that Vietnamese nightlife kicks off early. Bia hoi, a type of local draft beer, is also the name for the outdoor cafes that serve it at rock-bottom prices, forming the center of the city's raucous drinking culture. The intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen Streets in the bustling Old Quarter is called “bia hoi corner” for its no-frills beer vendors. Backpackers, students and middle-age men in post-workout mode cram onto sidewalk seating for drafts directly from a keg (3,000 dong, about 17 cents at 18,000 dong to the dollar).
2) A FISHERMAN'S FEAST
Hai San Ngon (199A Nghi Tam Street; 84-4-37-19-31-69), which translates as "tasty seafood," is a restaurant that lives up to its name. The large menu offers an excellent selection of steamed, sautéed and grilled options for countless crustaceans and fish. Standouts include the blood cockles salad (50,000 dong), clams mixed with shredded carrots, cucumbers and green papaya; and sautéed prawns in a sweet, hot tamarind sauce (80,000 dong). Dine on the large outdoor terrace flanked by elegant, slate-tiled pools or in one of the glassed-in dining rooms where chandeliers fashioned from authentic bamboo fishing cages dangle overhead.
3) WATER WORLD
For a family-friendly treat, head to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater (57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street; 84-4-38-25-54-50; www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org; admission 40,000 to 60,000 dong), where 1,000-year-old stories invented by farmers during the Red River's rainy season are recreated several times a day. Puppeteers, hidden backstage and standing thigh-high in a pool of water that extends onto the stage, expertly maneuver long sticks to make lacquered wooden marionettes skip, splash and frolic across a shallow pool. Puppets are given voice by singers as musicians play traditional instruments.
4) LUCKY TURTLES
For over 1,000 years, the Chinese ruled northern Vietnam, and their influence is evident in the defining role that Confucianism still plays in society. The Temple of Literature, or Van Mieu (at Quoc Tu Giam and Van Mieu Streets; admission 5,000 dong), was built in 1070 to honor Confucius and became the country's first university. The vast complex of peaceful courtyards, lotus-filled pools and red-roofed temples is still an essential pilgrimage for many. The rows of stone tortoises lining the grounds bear steles with the names of former students; young men and women preparing for exams still rub the turtles' heads for good luck.
5) STREET STALL SMARTS
If you're willing to forgo air-conditioning and proper chairs, you'll discover the sublime flavors cooked up in Hanoi's street stalls, which are known by their addresses and the dishes they serve. Generally, you'll find the freshest and finest fare at the most crowded stalls, with prices of roughly 20,000 to 50,000 dong. Don't-miss items include banh cuon, soft rice crepes filled with minced pork and mushrooms at 14 Hang Ga Street; bun cha, grilled pork patties served with crispy crab spring rolls and fresh herbs at 1 Hang Manh Street; and bun bo nam bo, grilled strips of beef served over rice noodles, fresh herbs and peanuts at 67 Hang Dieu Street.
6) CREATIVE HAVEN
It's an ideal time to score some deals on Vietnamese art, which has been gaining international recognition. An essential first stop for painting and sculpture is the Art Vietnam Gallery (7 Nguyen Khac Nhu Street; 84-4-39-27-23-49; www.artvietnamgallery.com), run by Suzanne Lecht, an American who has been involved in the local art scene for 15 years. Other venues like the Mai Gallery (113 Hang Bong Street; 84-4-39-38-05-68; www.maigallery-vietnam.com), the Apricot Gallery (40B Hang Bong Street; 84-4-38-28-89-65; www.apricot-artvietnam.com) and the Dragon Gallery (12 To Tich Street; 84-4-38-25-07-40) represent dozens of artists, though they seemingly lack any specific curatorial direction.
7) ISLAND RETREAT
Hanoi's buzz can be as exhausting as it is intoxicating, so head to the Sunset Bar at the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake (1A Nghi Tam Street; 84-4-62-70-88-88; www.ichotelsgroup.com) for a tranquil cocktail. Built on an artificial island overlooking West Lake, a 15-minute drive from the town center, the stunning bar's wooden deck features woven rattan couches and plush daybeds topped with triangular pillows, making it a favorite late afternoon hangout for diplomats and designers alike. With the breeze in your hair and a martini in hand, you'll feel as if you've been whisked away to an exotic, tropical resort far from the city.
8) FRENCH TASTE
From local households to five-star restaurants, Hanoi is a city of superb cooks. A promising newcomer to the scene is La Badiane (10 Nam Ngu Street; 84-4-39-42-45-09), where the Asian-inspired French cuisine that emerges from the kitchen is the work of Benjamin Rascalou, an acclaimed local chef. The restaurant is housed in an old, white-shuttered colonial villa with hand-painted silk chandeliers, earth-toned décor and intimate individual dining rooms. Three-course set menus (from $23; dollars are commonly quoted at high-end Hanoi hotels and restaurants, though payment is in dong) include options like shrimp ravioli in peanut sauce, aubergine mille-feuille and coffee-marinated lamb.
9) DODGING THE LAW
Thanks to the government's regular crackdowns on what if refers to as "social evils," finding a spot that's fun for a late-night drink can be challenging. To thwart the authorities, many bars will simply shutter their front entrances around 11 p.m. or midnight, but in speakeasy fashion, keep the party going. Le Pub (25 Hang Be Street; 84-4-39-26-21-04; www.lepub.org) is a friendly Old Quarter bar with drink specials and a great iTunes library as its soundtrack. Eté (95 Giang Van Minh Street; 84-4-9-76-75-13-31) lures a diverse expat crowd for its labor-intensive fresh fruit cocktails, tasty pub food and impromptu dance parties. On weekends, D.J.'s create a bumping scene at Loop (6 Hang Bai Street; 84-4-62-70-05-95), a small dance club just south of Hoan Kiem Lake.
10) WHOLESALE GOODNESS
The Vietnamese are renowned for their industriousness, an attribute nowhere more apparent than at the city's nocturnal markets. Around 1 a.m., the Long Bien Market (Dyke Road, next to Long Bien Bridge) is just getting started; for the next few hours, it's positively throbbing with activity. Along the dimly lighted aisles, you'll see seas of green-skinned oranges, baskets overflowing with hot-pink dragon fruit and trucks stacked to the brim with watermelons. Just a few miles down the road is the fragrant, colorful Quang Ba flower market, where huge bouquets of red roses and armloads of pink gladiolas are sold for less than 50,000 dong. It's all packed up and gone by 5:30 or 6 a.m.
11) FASHIONISTA FANTASY
With talented seamstresses and cheap materials, Vietnam is a fashion maven's paradise. In a strikingly white three-story building on a street known for its silk shops, the new Tan My Design (61 Hang Gai Street; 84-4-39-38-11-54; www.tanmyembroidery.com.vn) shows off the work of talented local designers. Like true Hanoians, they've taken styles of the past — mandarin collars, sumptuous silks and fine embroidery — and given them a new lease on life, perfectly suited for the 21st century.
There are no direct flights between Hanoi and New York, but several carriers, including Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and American Airlines, connect the two cities with stopovers in Hong Kong, Seoul or Tokyo. A recent online search found round-trip one-stops for late April starting around $1,180. A taxi from Noi Bai Airport into the city center costs roughly 230,000 dong, about $13 at 18,000 dong to the dollar. Taxis are widely available in the city.
At the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake (1A Nghi Tam; 888-424-6835 in the United States; www.ichotelsgroup.com; rooms from $128.), the city's newest luxury hotel, has several buildings built right over the water, connected by lantern-lighted walkways.
More central is the Maison D'Hanoi Hanova Hotel (35-37 Hang Trong Street; 84-4-39-38-09-99; www.hanovahotel.com; rooms from $80), a boutique hotel a few minutes' walk from Hoan Kiem Lake. Its 55 rooms feature wood floors, padded silk headboards and thick white duvets.