Hanoi has moved on in the past decade, but it hasn't really changed much. It's still one of the most seductive cities in Asia. It exudes charm, with its crumbling ochre-hued "tubehouses" and colonial mansions, secret alleyways, tree-lined avenues and shady parks. Life is lived outdoors. Sidewalks become badminton courts, hair is cut street-side, mechanics set up on curbs, little restaurants serve delicious-looking snacks and everyone stops for tea at tiny have-thermos-will-serve portable cafes. It's a busy, gracious city, unburdened by overbearing skyscrapers and neon. There are baguettes for sale on every corner, betraying the French colonial influence, and petite women in cone-shaped hats tote baskets of fruit on poles. Surprising numbers of men sport green Uncle Ho helmets, a style that's almost vanished from the south. But then former leader Ho Chi Minh - whose waxy-looking embalmed body, complete with receding chin, can be visited at his tomb in the city - was always a more dominant presence in the capital. It's exactly 30 years since the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and the reunification of North and South Vietnam, and the somewhat oppressive Communist atmosphere that was evident in Hanoi even a decade ago is fading fast. Economic reforms have brought wealth to Vietnam. Today, the percentage of the population living in poverty has dropped from 85 percent to 15 percent. And it shows. Most of the money has been concentrated in the south, leaving Hanoi as something of a backwater, where time has not exactly stood still but change has been slower and subtler (the mad bicycle traffic, for example, is now mad motorcycle traffic - but it's still two-wheeled, toot-happy and laden with unfeasible quantities of goods, produce and people). As a result, Hanoi's rough edges are smoother. The Old Quarter streets around Hoan Kiem Lake seem more groomed. The food is better, the beers colder, the bars and restaurants hipper. And the shopping... ah, the shopping. What to Buy There are those who gush about the bargains in Bali and Bangkok, well, let them rave. Hanoi is more compact than Kuta-Legian-Seminyak, and easier to get around than congested Bangkok. The European designer label invasion hasn't arrived yet (although Louis Vuitton has established a beach-head at the Sofitel Metropole), and neither have the in-your-face copies. There may be less choice than somewhere like, say, Bangkok's Chatuchak market, but - shiny lacquerware aside - neither do you have to wade through piles of dreck to find the good stuff. The tie-dye factor is lower in Hanoi. Its shops are tiny gems, filled with beautifully made local crafts, ceramics, bright silks, paintings and embroidered linens. There's a simplicity about the Vietnamese aesthetic that appeals to 21st-century tastes - or perhaps there's a savvy about Vietnamese shopkeepers that has accommodated modern preferences. Whatever, there's some truly lovely stuff to buy, and it's cheap, cheap, cheap. Although there is good shopping elsewhere, you can stick to the stores clustered in the small streets around St. Joseph's Cathedral in the Old Quarter. There, on a Sunday morning as mass is broadcast to the crowd spilling out of this dirty-faced mini Notre Dame, Hanoi opens for business. Little Nha Tho Street, next to the cathedral, has been dubbed "the Hanoi equivalent of Paris' Marais district" by handbag queen Christina Yu, the Hong Kong-born woman behind the city's closest thing to a designer label, Ipa-Nima. There are plenty of cheap embroidered purses and bags around, but it's worth dipping into your dong for Ipa-Nima's embroidered, buttoned, beribboned and feathered totes in all shapes and sizes, each proudly emblazoned with a "Made in Hanoi" label. A mid-sized bag costs about US$55 (prices are ubiquitously quoted in US dollars, although you can pay in dong). Ipa-Nima's main outlet is on Hai Ba Trung, but there's a decent selection at little Tina Sparkle on Nha Tho, opposite Moca Cafe (a great dumping ground for bored men, with decent coffee, cold beer and aircon - vital in 36-plus degree temperatures). A few doors down, May has a small selection of embroidered bags and funky purses a cut above the average, as well as velvet and silk cushion covers and lovely, good-quality linens. Expect to pay about US$10 for a cushion cover, $65 for a king-sized duvet cover with pillowcases. Nearby Song is justifiably famous for its gorgeous silk - little reversible dresses in orange and turquoise, lovely embroidered sarongs, trousers and skirts - and romantic velvet and silk comforters. It's not the cheapest on the strip (embroidered cotton trousers are about US$55), but the prices are reflected in the quality and designs. For homeware, La Casa has Asian-inspired objets d'art and furnishings, and nearby Red Door Deco is two floors of funky old and new furniture. Mosaique avoids the shiny lacquerware trap - other than some nasty candy-pink vases - and sells tastefully stained matt bamboo bowls and plates in groovy colors (about US$4 for a mid-sized bowl). Just behind the cathedral, on Au Trieu Street, is a row of girly clothes shops. Oce Gallery sells exquisite handpainted silk tops and funky takes on the traditional ao dai (long, flowing tunics worn over wide-legged trousers). And when you're gasping for a lime soda or Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (nems), there are several little restaurants to choose from on Nha Tho. La Brique at No.6 (928-5638) is a rustic little spot with raw brickwork and good French-Vietnamese food. Mediterraneo at No. 23 (826-6288) serves Italian, and La Salsa at No. 25 (828-9052) has tapas. Ready for more? Around the corner from Nha Tho is Hang Trong Street, which has a proliferation of art shops where talented locals can knock you up a copy of the "Mona Lisa," "The Girl With a Pearl Earring" or any number of ubiquitous Hanoi street scenes of girls in ao dais and red-leaved trees. Further along is the not-to-be-missed Hanoi Moments, which sells delicate porcelain in funky shapes and glazes, exquisite hand-beaten metal candleholders and darn useful pannier baskets. Nearby Tropical - one of two branches in the city - has more girly silk clothes, accessories and flatware. Sapa is handbag central: a larger-than-average place stacked floor to ceiling with embroidered bags and purses. ArtTunnel has a large selection of lacquerware, stylish bamboo tableware, and horn and mother-of-pearl cutlery - go upstairs for the full range. Finally, The Warehouse is an off-license that sells decent wines and champagnes for little more than half the price of Hong Kong supermarkets - a good stop for loading up on Moet et Chandon, or simply for cooling off in some of the most effective air-con on the block. Where to Stay The French colonial Sofitel Metropole , built in 1901, is Hanoi's grande dame. It's a white confection of a building, all gracious proportions and dark green shutters, with both old and new wings. The rooms themselves aren't exceptional - although the old wing is currently under renovation - but the rest of the hotel is. Recently renovated, the lobby has a lovely atrium-like entrance, and there's a fabby bar poolside - all giant wicker armchairs and long minty mojitos. The pool is fairly small - and blood-warm in hot weather - but it's pretty and popular with the post-shopping/sightseeing set. It's at 15, Ngo Quyen Street, 826-6919, www.sofitel.com . Where to Eat Spices Garden Restaurant in the Metropole does a great Vietnamese buffet lunch, with freshly made nems, soups, noodles, canapes, and a choice of main courses, such as braised fish in lotus leaf and barbecued pork in bamboo. For dinner, one of the most stylish places in town is Wild Rice (6 Ngo Thi Nham St., 943-8896) in a beautifully renovated old villa, with a modern glass-walled atrium in back - the most desirable spot - and contemporary art. The restaurant made it onto "Conde Nast Traveler" magazine's international Hot 100 Tables list for 2004. The food is Vietnamese, locally sourced and delicious, although the portions are a bit on the small size: try the soft-shelled crab, and fish stew with coconut milk, onions and green peppers. Entrees are US$3-$8. After Hours Hanoi is hardly a party city, thanks to a midnight curfew enforced by a nightly police presence. But don't let that put you off. The best-known nightclub in town is Apocalypse Now (5C, Hoa Ma St., 971-2783). The Luxe Guide to Hanoi - the Bible for a weekend break - describes it as a "cavernous, dark, dance-trancey madhouse complete with raving inmates. Lookers, hookers, dancing queens, and a whole bunch of Quasimodos. Everyone ends up here at some point." Be warned: we suspect there are two. Because the place we ended up at, deep in the suburbs, was cavernous and dark all right, but distinctly lacking in lookers, hookers, and dancing queens... although there were a few Quasis. Our suspicion that we may have been duped was confirmed poolside next day when a couple said they had also been to Apocalypse Now, a funky joint in the city center. You'll be glad to learn there are more chic establishments, such as lakeside bar-restaurant Bobby Chinn (1 Ba Trieu St., 934-8577). The food is "global," but the lounge area at the back is decidedly Middle Eastern in atmosphere, with tent-like swathes of silk, hookahs, the best cocktails in town and Hanoi's beautiful people to watch. Every Shopper Should... • Always, always bargain. And do so with confidence... the slightest hesitation will cost you five percent. • Get the shops to deliver your goodies direct to your hotel. You must have spent at least US$20 on that stack of handbags, why carry them yourself? • Be prepared to glow: the air conditioning is a joke. • Lie. Tell the shopkeepers you live there - it saves you hard currency. • Refrain from dong-related wisecracks, they've heard them all before.