A city of faded elegance and rich history, Vietnam's capital is changing fast but retains a charm that's all its own, writes Padraic Convery.
1. Hoan Kiem Lake
Despite the fact the weather can be rather sticky, Hanoi is a highly walkable city, and the odds are you'll find yourself returning to its centrepiece again and again as you get your bearings. The name (which means 'Lake of the Returned Sword') comes from the story of Emperor Le Loi, who led a war against Vietnam's Chinese rulers in the 15th century, and whose gratitude to the spirit of the lake after 10 years of fighting is commemorated by a three-tiered pavilion on a tiny island in its centre. There's also a picturesque temple reached by an arched red bridge at the lake's northern end. Hanoians come to Hoan Kiem to stroll around its perimeter park, play chess and canoodle with their sweethearts.
2. Take to the road
Sadly, Hanoi's cycle rickshaws are strictly for bewildered-looking package tourists these days. Do as the locals do and hop on a motorcycle taxi (xe om) for a breezy break from walking when you're feeling the heat. The city's traffic is chaotic, and you'd be well advised to wear a helmet if you're offered one, although the unhurried pace of the swarms of motorbikes and scooters means it's not as perilous as it may at first appear. Alternatively, rent a motorbike (below centre) yourself (no licence, no problem) or, if you don't mind breaking a sweat, hire a bicycle.
3. Street eats
Vietnamese cuisine is some of the world's most distinctive and there's no shortage of mouth-watering morsels on offer in Hanoi, often right on the pavement. A street-food tour with a guide is an entertaining crash course in local culinary culture. Tours start with a typical breakfast (pho - the country's ubiquitous noodle soup, with beef, chicken or pork) or lunch (Hanoi speciality bun cha - pork meatballs in an aromatic broth, eaten with cold rice noodles, mint and other fresh herbs) before moving on to Hom wet market, Hanoi's biggest, where your guide will give you the inside story on what goes into local cuisine while you sample dishes and snacks at your leisure from the stalls and hawkers.
4. Tube houses
A municipal property tax based on the size of street frontages gave rise to the architectural phenomenon of 'tube houses', which can have a width of just 2 metres but a length of up to 60 metres, and which make up much of Hanoi's Old Quarter. The best examples are more like airy compounds than houses, with courtyards, balconies and open areas providing cooling breezes, and ponds and trees adding to the tranquil seclusion. There's a lovely 19th-century example at 87 Ma May, formerly the home of a bamboo merchant, now restored and open to the public.
5. Hang Dao night market
This arterial road through the Old Quarter is home to Hanoi's rag trade and it's a prime place to pick up those brand-name knock-offs you can't get in Mong Kok any more. In addition to the usual designer suspects, there are plenty of unbranded bargains to be had, and no shortage of souvenirs either. It's open Friday to Sunday, evenings only.
6. Military History Museum
To appreciate how far Vietnam has come since what locals rightly call 'the American war', take a motorcycle taxi to Dien Bien Phu, a road named after the battlefield where the Vietnamese gave the French the final shove out of their country. The exhibits cover hundreds of years of history, although what will probably interest most visitors are those devoted to the anti-colonial struggle and the war with the United States. There's an impressive collection of military hardware, including Soviet-built fighters, missiles and captured American aircraft and artillery.
7. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (below right)
If you're thinking it looks like Lenin's tomb in Moscow's Red Square, you'd be right. The final resting place of the father of Vietnamese independence was built with Russian help and is almost identical to that of the first Soviet leader. It's a far cry from Uncle Ho's last wish, to be cremated and his ashes buried in urns on mountain peaks in the north, centre and south of the country. Nonetheless, it's moving, although perhaps not as much as his simple house 100 metres away, where Ho spent the last 11 years of his life, and whose modesty seems to better reflect the character of this unassuming patriot.
8. French Quarter
There's no such modesty in the architecture of the former colonial occupier. This district, which sprawls over a large area to the south of Hoan Kiem Lake, is full of faded grandeur, with elegant mansions falling into picturesque disrepair amid the opulent restorations of foreign embassies and the palatial houses of Hanoi's smart set. It's leafy and more sedate than the city and perfect for a leisurely stroll. The district is home to a crop of fashionable restaurants, an opera house and the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, which, despite being relatively plain, retains an air of Indochine-era languor best savoured over a cocktail served by one of the impeccably turned-out local waiters.
9. Zen Spa
Like Chiang Mai, Hanoi has leapt aboard the spa bandwagon and, as in the northern Thai city's traditional spas, the emphasis here is on being close to nature. Zen, probably the most rustic spa in the city, is also one of the hardest to find - at the end of a long, narrow street amid cornfields in the riverside district of Tay Ho - but it's worth the trip. It's a simple affair offering a wide range of treatments with natural local ingredients. The place is justifiably popular yet never too busy, although booking is recommended.
10. Ha Long Bay
If you only make one foray outside the capital, this should be it. It's northern Vietnam's top natural attraction and a Unesco World Heritage site. Legend has it that to help defend Vietnam against Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons who spat jewels and jade into the sea, forming the protective network of islands that dot the bay (below left). Almost 2,000 limestone karsts loom up from the emerald waters over an area of 1,553 sq km, and although similar formations exist in China and Thailand, the overwhelming number and scale here is unparalleled.