Ultratravel cityguide: Hanoi, Vietnam

That the Vietnamese capital is now part of a new route on Emirates is just one more reason to visit this characterful city.

The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi is the oldest Buddhist temple in the city. Getty Images
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Why Hanoi?

Now a sprawling and increasingly polluted city of seven million, the Vietnamese capital’s centre is still smaller, quieter and more atmospheric than Ho Chi Minh City in the south. There’s a steely dynamism to its people, and their city offers a multidimensional dive into history, architecture and culture.

Founded more than 1,000 years ago, Hanoi boasts a handful of ancient buildings, extensive structures from the French colonial period, and monumental, Soviet-style communist architecture – all of which are straining to retain their character against the forces of modernisation. Just in the past 10 years, new towers have risen, a new airport has opened, the population of motorbikes has dwindled as more people have cars, citizens are more vocal in their criticism of officials, and even the military seems to have softened. Yet it’s still quite something to be at what was the centre of resistance during the Vietnam War, and being able to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the morning before, say, a cooking class in the afternoon and dinner in a high-end French restaurant. There’s still a surprising elegance to many aspects of Hanoi: flower sellers transporting their wares by bike, pensioners performing tai chi by the lake, compact restaurants with soothing, delicate interiors and handcrafted food borne from hours of toil, and touching representations of the effect of war on people. Go before it changes too much.

A comfortable bed

The luxury property with the most character is the Hotel Metropole in the historic French Quarter. Built in 1901, the 364-room hotel is now managed by Sofitel and is split between two wings; there are 106 rooms and three suites named after famous guests – Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin in the old section – and a new wing, which houses 236 rooms and 18 suites. Double rooms from €257 (Dh1,050) per night including taxes.

If you want something cheaper and are willing to sacrifice on character, the Hilton Hanoi Opera just over the road charges from just US$88 (Dh325) per night, including breakfast for advance-purchase rooms. A modern building opened in 1999, the hotel overlooks the real Opera House, which is more than 100 years old.

Find your feet

Most hotels will be situated in or near the Old and French quarters, both of which are a delight to walk around, as it’s here that you can observe the details of street life: food vendors, people taking their wares to market, small workshops and cafes, and people strolling through the park by the Hoàn Kiem Lake, which links the Old Quarter and French Quarter, and has some interesting points of interest itself. There’s more going on in the Old Quarter, with both budget and upscale restaurants, galleries and markets. Give yourself at least two hours just for strolling.

For a good overview and a look into the future, visit the observation floor at the 65-storey Lotte Center Hanoi, on the western side of the city. This is the second tallest building in the country, so you'll get a 365-degree view of the lakes, rivers and urban landscape below (from 130,000 Vietnamese dong [Dh21] per adult).

Meet the locals

On most nights, locals gather in parks and squares near their homes to stroll, skate and dance to music played on portable stereos. Sometimes the groups resemble outdoor fitness classes, and are made up of people of all ages. Tourists who join in are greeted with excitement.

To observe rather than participate in local culture, even the tourist spots of the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum offer opportunities to see the fervency with which belief is still held. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is only open between 8am and 11am daily, and visitors are expected to dress smartly and be quiet. People of all ages come here from all over the country to pay their respects, and the complex also features botanical gardens, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and the Presidential Palace.

Not far away is the Temple of Literature, a Confucian edifice founded in 1070 to honour exceptional scholars, literature and poetry. Entry costs from VND20,000 [Dh3].

Book a table

Vietnam’s most popular dish is pho, a noodle soup usually served with beef in a rich broth seasoned with shallots, ginger, star anise, cardamom and cinnamon. There’s no better meal, and while it’s served in lots of places, it’s best at cheaper establishments. A good place to try it is Pho Bát Đàn at 49 Bát Đàn (also known as Pho Gia Truyen) at the western edge of the Old Quarter. It costs about $1 [Dh3.7] for a bowl, and with it you feel you can take on the world.

If you want to learn how to cook Vietnamese food, and then sit down and eat it, the half-day cooking courses at the Hanoi Cooking Centre start with an excellent culinary tour of the local market before heading into the group kitchen and then sitting down at the pleasant upstairs restaurant. Choose from themes including "vegetarian", "spring rolls" and "street food"; tours cost from $59 (Dh215).

For classic Vietnamese dishes in a beautiful, old building, Wild Lotus offers delicious plates of stir-fried clams in tamarind sauce; fish with black mushroom and onions; braised eggplant with tofu; and sautéed prawns with cashew nuts (from about $25 [Dh92] per person for a full meal).

Going further upscale, La Badiane – French for star anise – has been open since 2008 and offers fine-dining fusion food in a gorgeous courtyard-style restaurant in an upmarket part of the western city centre. Signature dishes include duck leg confit in rosemary and tamarind; seared scallops in saffron; and tuna fillet with tomato tartar and chilli coulis. A three-course set lunch costs from $17 [Dh62] per person.

More centrally, Nineteen 11, in the basement of the Hanoi Opera House, is a sophisticated, western-style fine-dining restaurant offering a three-course set menu from VND950,000 (Dh157) per person.

Shopper’s paradise

Lacquerware, silks and other luxury items can be bought in Hanoi, but many prefer to use a really good guide to escort them on a day trip to handicraft villages in the surrounding countryside. This allows you to visit semi-rural communities and see silks, mother-of-pearl furniture, basketware, pottery, jewellery, and other arts and crafts being made at source, and to get the best choice of products. Van Phuc, 8 kilometres south-west of Hanoi, specialises in silk and you can have clothes tailor-made after choosing your fabrics.

Phu Vinh is a rattan- and bamboo-weaving village, and Chuyen My is famous for carpentry and mother-of-pearl inlaying. Look for a good finish – unbroken, flat pieces of mother-of-pearl tightly fitted into carved wood. Ha Thai is a lacquer village – products are made using an extremely laborious and centuries-old technique of applying and polishing layer upon layer of Vietnamese lacquer (resin). Quality items are expensive, but it can be difficult to tell the real stuff from plastic without drilling a hole in it or waiting to see surface changes over time. Fake lacquer feels waxy, while the real surface should feel dry and hard; also, lacquer needs a support, such as wood, bamboo or porcelain; plastic is self-supporting. Plastic also tends to have a chemical smell, whereas lacquer is perfumed. If in doubt, you can always research prices online and compare with that charged by shops in the city centre.

What to avoid

Pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent, and traffic will slow or swerve to avoid you, rather than stop. Walk calmly and slowly across a road without stopping and avoid any sudden movements. Similarly, if you’re unhappy with service or some other matter, avoid loudly fronting up to a Vietnamese person, especially a male in public; they will likely take great offence, may become surprisingly aggressive and things can escalate. Press them in more conciliatory tones. If you’re buying items to be shipped home, double-check the establishment (ideally via your tour company and not just your guide). Take great care with whom you hand money over to; be sure to keep all receipts and records, and full details of the store itself, but, ideally, bring any bought items back with you directly. Be aware of scams that may involve link-ups between hotels, transport operators and tour guides; if in doubt always get a second opinion.

Don’t miss

The Temple of Literature, where locals still outnumber tourists, especially inside the temples buildings, where some make offerings.

Getting there

Emirates flies to Hanoi from Dubai, via Yangon. Return flights cost from Dh2,500 return, including taxes.