By Jonathan Evans
Photo Credits: Nelson Lim / Shutter Stock
Vietnam’s rejuvenated cultural and political capital is just a 90-minute flight from Macau, and springtime – just after the Tet new year holiday – is the perfect time to make a weekend trip to Hanoi. In this hectic city with so many sightseeing opportunities and outdoor experiences to savour, travellers will appreciate the cooler temperatures from February to April, as opposed to the suffocating heat of the midsummer months.
Photography:St Joseph’s Cathedral
It seems wrong to start a visit to Hanoi anywhere other than the beautiful St Joseph’s Cathedral, which stands at the confluence of three of the city’s most emblematic areas – the French Quarter, Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. Known as Nha Tho in Vietnamese, this dramatic vision has been compared with the Notre-Dame de Paris, with its French stained-glass windows, twin bell towers and Gothic arches. The cathedral holds regular mass and stands west of the lake, surrounded on all sides by shops, boutique hotels and restaurants in an enchanting, walkable corner of Ba Dinh district.
Photography: Old Quarter
To walk through the ever-vibrant streets of the Old Quarter, just a few strides from here, is an entertainment as much as an education, played out in and around the Indochina-era shop houses that dominate its architecture. While the full extent of the area comprises 76 streets, its heart is the maze of 36 “guild streets” where artisans such as metal workers, bamboo craftsmen and copper smiths still ply their trades on appropriately named alleyways, as they have done since imperial times.
Photography: (From Top Left, "Pho" - Vietnamese Rice noodles with meat, BBQ pork with rice paper wrap and herbs, "Bun Cha" - Vietnamese Rice noodles with bbq pork) (From Bottom Left , "banh Mi" - Vietnamese Sandwich, Vietnamese Coffee, Vietnamese Rice rolls)
The Old Quarter also serves up some of Hanoi’s best and most iconic street food such as bun cha, and even has a corner (“Bia Hoi Junction”) dedicated to the nightly mass consumption of mild lager. Here, drinkers sit on tiny stools in the street, quaffing ale and munching on snacks like peanuts, beef jerky and tofu. Just outside the Old Quarter, there’s the tree-shaded thoroughfare of Trieu Viet Vuong, also known as “Coffee Street” for its large number of independent cafés serving the famously potent Vietnamese drip coffee.
In this city of famous waterways – the Red River cuts through Hanoi, straddled by the oft-reconstructed Long Bien Bridge, before emptying out into the Gulf of Tonkin – by far the most popular lake is Hoan Kiem, which provides a scenic backdrop to residents’ activities at all times of the day. The most interesting time to visit is just after dawn, when elderly citizens assemble to practise tai chi with the help of colourful fans. On the Old Quarter side of the lake, cross the elegant red bridge to enter the Buddhist Ngoc Son Temple; while closer to the French Quarter side, the Turtle Tower, closely linked to local mythology, juts out of the green water and is fetchingly illuminated by night.
Photography: Turtle Tower at night
Photography: Lotte Hotel Hanoi Facebook
While Hanoi is undoubtedly better known for its older buildings, the Lotte Center, completed in 2014, embodies the bold modern architecture that’s recently graced the city’s skyline. Also in Ba Dinh district, its 65th-storey observation deck makes the best viewpoint to soak in the urban panorama. When one considers that in the aftermath of the civil war, Vietnam was effectively closed for business until as recently as the early 1990s, skyscrapers such as this – which sum up the rapid progress made in the last couple of decades – can hardly fail to impress.
Photography: Hanoi Opera House
Photography: Hanoi Design House Facebook
Another testament to modernity is Hanoi Design Center, just south of Hoan Kiem – a colourful, quirky showcase for the creativity of local artisans who’ve fashioned products including textiles, ceramics, homeware and kitchenware. Within walking distance of here, a few blocks north, are two of the city’s most iconic buildings: Hanoi Opera House, with its magnificent yellow-and-cream façade rendered in the neoclassical style, and Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel – originally the Hôtel Metropole – a turn-of-the-century, French-colonial luxury address that has entertained many artists and dignitaries over the decades, including Graham Greene, who stayed here while writing his Vietnam-based novel The Quiet American.
Photography: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
For a further history fix, visit the Vietnam Military History Museum, where a mound of debris from planes wrecked in combat has been assembled in the courtyard surrounded by other remnants from Vietnamese conflicts of the last century. Then make a beeline for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, an imposing monument in Ba Dinh Square, as well as the former home of the country’s Communist leader, a modest wooden-stilt residence set in a nearby garden. Going back further in time to the 11th century, make time for the Temple of Literature, a series of immaculately maintained courtyards and ancient structures that once housed Vietnam’s first university.
Photography: Halong Bay
Some of northern Vietnam’s best-known destinations are within driving distance of Hanoi (notably Halong Bay), while the central train station, Ga Ha Noi, offers an overnight service to the northern mountain scapes of Sapa. For weekenders, attractions much closer to the centre of the city include Bat Trang ceramics village, full of workshops producing porcelain and pottery artefacts, while one of the city’s most desirable residential quarters, Ho Tay, sits on the banks of the serene West Lake – a perfect stop for stressed-out urbanites seeking tranquility at one of the many restaurants and bars lining the lake’s shores.