Take a cyclo ride around Hanoi: see the sites of a modern city that retains its old charms
Just a short flight from Hong Kong, the capital of Vietnam is alive with contrasts, blending the new with the traditional
Just under two hours’ flight from Chek Lap Kok, Hanoi is one of the most intriguing and convenient getaways from Hong Kong.
The Vietnamese capital is a classic blend of ancient and modern, centred around Hoan Kiem Lake and spreading out to encompass temples, museums, multifarious eateries, malls, and bustling shopping streets that have changed little over the years.
The Old Quarter is the most logical place to start exploring as the Opera House, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ba Dinh Square, the One Pillar Pagoda, Bach Ma Temple, Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and Dong Xuan, Hanoi’s largest market, all lie within relatively easy reach of each other.
However, rather than trophy sights, it’s the whole area that’s worth taking time over, in particular the rows of shop-houses lining the roads. These were built at the beginning of the 20th century in a high and narrow style to avoid punitive taxes. Each shop-house’s façade gives way to multiple courtyards inside, with the front given over to trading and the remainder used as storage and living quarters. While one shop-house was designed to contain one family, though perhaps with three or more generations, nowadays it is not unusual to find shophouses shared by several families. Many have been converted into hip cafés, bars, restaurants, bakeries, boutique shops and art galleries which give the Old Quarter a vibrancy that makes it all the more enjoyable.
One of the best ways to take in the city’s sights is by cyclo – the uniquely Vietnamese transport that combines a bicycle with an armchair. Sitting in front, visitors can appreciate the passing scenery and take photos or video, while the driver pedals behind. A number of companies offer specialised tours, sometimes combined with sampling different sorts of street food or watching a puppet show. There’s also the option of touring by motor scooter.
Many visitors find Hanoi is one of the best shopping destinations in Asia, as much for its range of goods as its very reasonable prices. Many allied trades cluster together, so Hang Dau Street is crammed with shoe shops selling both international and local designs, while Hang Gai Street is renowned for its silk, traditional Vietnamese apparel, and home furnishings. And Hang Bac Street’s silversmiths have been producing top-notch jewellery and similar items for several hundred years. There’s also a thriving arts scene in Hanoi, with numerous galleries displaying paintings, installations and sculptures by the country’s most talented artists.
Naturally, there’s no shortage of good Vietnamese food in Hanoi, whether in upmarket restaurants like Chim Sao and Minh Thuy’s, or on the street where the snacks are both superb and very cheap. Anyone looking for an international meal out should try La Badiane’s.
Hanoi doesn’t lack for charming places to stay, starting with the Sofitel Legend Metropole, which first opened its doors back in 1901 and has been substantially renovated in recent years. A recent crop of boutique hotels have granted visitors the chance of staying somewhere truly charismatic while remaining inexpensive, such as the Maison D’Hanoi and the Golden Sun Moment. International brands are also well represented, with the InterContinental Westlake heading the five-star pack.