Local Insight: Hanoi

attractions - Saigon/HCMC: May 31, 2016

Hanoi Local Insight

The city of lakes

Want an incentive to travel to Hanoi? Nothing beats watching the sunrise over West Lake with a drink. There are many more lakes here than in Ho Chi Minh City, allowing for a quiet pocket of nature in the middle of the city, and ample opportunities to relax without heading to the outskirts.

Hanoi West Lake

A city of over 1,000 years, Hanoi has a lot of history packed into its clean, French-Vietnamese exterior. Perhaps this explains the conservative overtones - almost the entire city shuts down at midnight - as well as the brief moments of rebellion like less helmets and wafting smells of euphoric handrolled cigarettes in bars.

Head over to Hanoi from November to March, and you’ll escape much of the horrid heat that comes on from May to September.

To most travellers Hanoi is two lakes, a (dead) turtle, 36 rowdy streets, and some tough-headed Northeners. However, there is much to the destination rather than what’s glossed over in travel guides. If you’re looking for where to stay, there is an overflowing abundance of boutique Hotels in Hanoi. For high-end souvenirs, there is Tan My Design, which has the largest combined collection of unique handicrafts, art, bedding, designer clothing and more in the region. In particularly touristic areas, avoid the shoeshine boys - they rip you off badly.

Busy Street in Hanoi Old Quater

Getting around is easy if you rent a motorbike, but be warned that traffic gets horrific at times. Otherwise watch for ripoff taxis, as there are more companies operating here than in Saigon. If you want a taxi back to the airport, Noi Bai and Hanoi Airport Taxi are two companies that charge VND180,000-200,000 instead of the usual VND350,000-400,000. Grab and Uber vehicles are abundant and cheap.

Like Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2, Hanoi offers its own expat enclave around West Lake and more specifically along Xuan Dieu. No matter what the phrase “expat enclave” stirs in your heart, Xuan Dieu has some great eateries and nightlife, such as Chops, which serves meaty burgers and Pasteur Street Brewery drafts. Similarly, Hanoi has a District 7 type of area called Cau Giay, larger than D7 and with many new developments including multiple company headquarter highrises and Vingroup projects.

What Hanoi offers in spades is gastronomy, mixology and caffeine - and you will not find any shortage of fine eats and drinks that rival the best Saigon has to offer. For restaurants head over to Luna d’Autunno for some superb Italian pizza and aperitifs, and to Don’s Tay Ho for cigars, clams, salmon and more. The difficult to find Soft Water Restaurant is situated among lush vegetation and was closed for years by the owner for private use - until now. La Badiane has great French cuisine. Saint Honore on Xuan Dieu arguably has some of the best pastries in the country.

Hanoi Don's Restaurant

If you want the roaring nightlife a metropolis often lends its inhabitants, skip the backpacker-packed 36 street and instead go to the expat and local frequented places. Also avoid bia hoi - locally brewed cheap swigs are nothing special and you’re better off sticking to shipped craft brews from Ho Chi Minh City, or the Czech beer houses. Lounge 88 on Xuan Dieu provides nice respite.

Things get shut down at 12 p.m. so your night out might come to a halt - unless you know where to go. Luckily right on Xuan Dieu you have Nest Lounge, which comfortably goes past curfew. Bars along the same street offer quieter and less kinetic respite after hours.