Hanoi is a strange and delightful mix of the familiar and completely foreign.
Hanoi is controlled. Hanoi is chaos.
It's an intoxicating city that should be on every bucket list.
Hanoi is one of those magical cities that manages to retain its history while chugging forward. Remnants of both French Colonialism and the Vietnam (or American, as it's called over there) War live directly next to modern stores and glass homes. Electrical wires tangle themselves up in trees and sometimes sparks fly into the street. To the western visitor, the brand-new smells and incessant whiz of traffic will sear themselves upon psyches forever.
While in Hanoi, it's impossible to ignore how utterly different everything is from the West. It's definitely not a destination for the cautious traveler — which is why we absolutely adore it.
The city is Vietnam's biggest in the North. It's often regarded as the country's cultural capital while Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) in the south is the diplomatic and business capital. Thanks to its status as a center of culture, it's the perfect Asian destination for a design-minded traveler. (Plus, it's easy on the wallet to enjoy the coolest spots.)
Buckle up. A trip to Hanoi is a trip through an addictive wormhole.
Sofitel Legend Metropole
This legendary hotel is currently favored by the likes of Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain, but in days past it was the place to be for celebs like Jane Birkin, Joan Baez and Mick Jagger.
Not only does the hotel have a serious cool factor, it's serious about its history. During your stay, be sure to take a tour of the hotel's bunkers that were used during the Vietnam War.
Double rooms start at $305 per night.
O'Gallery Premiere Hotel & Spa
We love the O'Gallery for its kind service and staff that consistently go above and beyond.
From its cozy minimalist vibes to its convenient location (in Old Hanoi, very close to Hoan Kiem lake), the hotel quickly becomes a comforting second home.
For excellent views of Hanoi's colorful rooftops, book a room with a balcony.
Double rooms start at $72 per night.
Up To Seconds: If minimalism is more your scene — and you're looking for something that will blend seamlessly into your wardrobe back home — the well-cut, modern pieces from Up To Seconds will easily make themselves at home in your closet.
Lucy's Dream: For those looking to pick up wearable travel souvenirs that absolutely no one else back home will have, make a stop at Lucy's Dream. The boutique buys prints from young designers and translates them onto silks and linens into beautiful tops and dresses. The pieces are vibrant, beautiful and representative of many aspects of Vietnamese culture. If you want to wear your trip on your sleeve, this is THE place to stop.
Vietnam is a communist country — although it's easy to forget that fact when surrounded by western hotel chains and luxury resorts. But the country's economic creates a Catch-22 for its creatives. Although there is a lesser chance of becoming a homeless artist, government censorship of works is still a major issue for many. Although it's impossible to truly understand the culture in just one visit, here are some of the spaces that will help you gain perspective:
Hao Lo Prison: There are two sides to every single story — even history. Even well-traveled people can forget that our enemies tell opposite stories. This fascinating museum is opposing histories incarnate. What was once a French prison for political prisoners was appropriated by North Vietnamese forces to hold American prisoners of war. And while Hao Lo Prison may be a bit heavy on some communist propaganda elements, that is just part of the whole experience. The visit will be especially meaningful if you can bone up on American involvement in the Vietnam War to compare and contrast how stories are told.
Manzi: For those looking for a cool, jack-of-all-trades place, Manzi offers itself up as a part-gallery, part-cafe, part-bar, part-shop space. It's housed in an old French villa, just north of the city's Old Quarter. During the day, it's the perfect place to grab a cup of coffee and check out some new artwork. But come nightfall, the space will transform, often hosting an art opening, film screening or concert.
Vietnamese Fine Arts Museum: VFAM is considered the most important in the country for preserving and maintaining Vietnam's long cultural history. The collection at the museum ranges from prehistoric art all the way to 21st century art. The large collection of lacquer paintings and political works make the intriguing collection one of the world's most unique. However, many of the works displayed in the museum are replicates — countless artworks were destroyed during the Vietnam War.
Fried Pho: Everybody goes on and on about pho (for good reason!) but if you're looking to switch things up a bit, grab a plastic stool and sidle over to a streetside eatery serving up a fried version of the iconic dish. Hint: It goes great with a glass of bià hoi (local beer).
Pho Gia truyen: One of the most godly bowls of goodness we have ever had placed in front of us. Near-impossible to finish completely, the broth is so filling and complete and goooooooood. Although any bowl of Pho you choose to slurp up in Hanoi will be stunning, this one's beauty will seer itself deep in your psyche.
Kem Tràng Tiên: This is Hanoi's oldest ice cream parlor. Located in the French Quarter, it encapsulates Hanoi's colonialist period and the intersection of cultures. Although we're not condoning colonialism, we must say that the culinary result of mixing cultures is always delicious. This ice cream shop — which has flavors like sticky rice and coconut — is kind of like the OG culinary fusion spot.
The Bamboo Bar: If The Metropole hotel is on your Hanoi itinerary (and it should be!) but you don't want to shell out for a stay, drop by the hotel's poolside bar for a taste of history — and, you know, alcohol. The drinks are well-crafted, presented by men in white coats who say things like "Bon soir, Madame," and best enjoyed with one foot dangling in the crisp pool waters.
Tadioto: If you're wondering where Hanoi's creative set hangs out, look no further. It's been compared to Cafe de Flore in Paris, Harry's in Venice and the White Horse in New York. The upstairs part of the bar has been sectioned off and is known to host impromptu literary readings and informal salons. You can sit down for a plain ol' bià hoi or step things up with one of the bar's unique cocktails.
Cong Ca Phe: This is kind of like Hanoi's equivalent of Starbucks—although it's so, so, so much better. There are a few locations around the city, all serving beautifully-crafted drinks (and some snacks). Vietnamese coffee is known worldwide for its condensed milk. If you're looking for a drink where the coffee and milk are mixed together, you're going to order Ca Phe Sai Gon. If you want it separate (our personal preference), choose Ca Phe Ha Noi.
Cafe Giang 39: Don't knock egg coffee until you've tried it. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Whipping an egg around coffee makes it the creamiest, sweetest cup o' joe you have ever tasted. It comes served in a dish of water to keep the coffee and egg from separating while you drink it. But don't worry: You'll probably drink "the Vietnamese cappuccino" so quick, there won't be time for it to separate. For the authentic stuff, go to this hidden spot that's at the end of an alleyway and up some stairs.
The Hanoi Social Club: For travelers looking for a hip and funky side of Hanoi, sit down at Hanoi Social Club. The three-level bar is both a cosmopolitan cafe and creative kid hangout. It's also a place for small concerts for musicians from all over the world, guided sound baths and proper coffee shop food.
TIPS + TRICKS
- Most businesses will pay for a one-way taxi when you visit. Inquire before you go.
- Learn how to say "Hello" and "Thank you" ("xin xhào" pronounced "seen-chow" and "cåm on" pronounced "gauhm uhhn"). You'll be surprised how grateful locals will be — and the better service you'll get.
- THE VISA ISSUE: One of the hardest parts about getting to Vietnam is the visa issue for Americans. In August 2016, the U.S. struck a new visa deal with Vietnam. It is no longer possible to obtain a single-entry visa. You're going to have to shell out $200 for a muti-entry visa that will last you one year.
DON'T trust any online website services. The best way to get your visa is to go directly to the nearest consulate. It's possible to get a Visa On Arrival at the airport, but For more information, visit the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- If possible, try to get a local guide for at least part of the time you are in the city. Not only will it make communication easier, your local guide will reveal the best hidden places to get amazing food waaay off the beaten path. If you're considering a group trip, we recommend heading out on Topdeck Travel's "Vietnam Uncovered" expedition. The trips are organized for people aged 18 to 39, so you're guaranteed to meet plenty of cool people without having to worry about organizing transportation or where to get the best bowl of pho.
- There are no traffic lights in Hanoi, so you'll need to be brave when crossing the street. Walk slowly and steadily while making eye contact with bikes as they move around you.
- To stay tuned to what's happening on the local Hanoi culture scene while you're there, we love Hanoi Grapevine.
- Have an open mind — the Vietnamese culture is (duh) completely different than our own. Don't expect whwat you get back home, and if you can, try not to even want it. Have pho for breakfast. Don't buy the pizza. Get reflexology or a facial massage. Hop on the back of a motorbike. Have a ball.
All travel and accommodation in Vietnam provided by Topdeck
All photos copyright The Local Dive unless otherwise noted.