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Hanoi, Vietnam 72-Hour Vacation

Heavenly Hanoi
By Robert Mckeown

Vietnam has slowly been opening up to the West since the early '90s—and visitors who come once always seem to return. It’s a curious country with social and political influences from Russia, China, France and even the U.S. in recent times. Hanoi, Vietnam's capital and beating cultural heart, is the choice place for a visit, especially if all you've got is 72 hours.

Gate to the Old Quarter

You still fly into Hanoi over rice paddies and the countryside beyond fades into temples and cliff-strewn land. But it's a deceptively large city of almost four million people. Driving to or from the airport can be a hair-raising experience, as cars, 50-cc motos, ambling grannies bearing live chickens and children on old Chinese bikes all vie for road space. There’s a bustle that is distinctly Chinese, and yet a sense of ancient calm prevails. Budding urbanity is countered by a real connection to the past and land—even in the city's center—that is rare in any metropolis.

At the heart of life here is a rich culture related to food, cooking and 24-hour consumption of all things edible, including snakes and dogs, and one has to experience it all. Markets boom under bridges in the wee hours of the night. Women wade in the middle of lakes to drudge for unique Hanoi snails that are eaten boiled in lemon leaves. The cooler Northern climate means the cuisine is less dynamic than that of the South and Saigon, but it is just as rich. Earthy stews, aromatic noodle soups like the iconic pho, scents of garlic-strewn pork, Gallic intrusions like baguettes and darkly-roasted coffee: These are just a sampling of the tastes on offer here.

To experience the best of it, stay in the Hoan Kiem District, which takes its name from one of the city’s lakes. Generally, lodging is Hanoi’s glaring weakness, and there are just a few places worth checking into. Though a bit worn, the address and historic draw of the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi are undeniable and its restaurants and bars are musts. The Hotel Nikko is a bit further-flung in the Hai Ba Trung District yet offers simple, clean rooms and a tiny Japanese garden for Zen value. If you're seeking something off the beaten path with a touch of the pastoral, Moon River Retreat has a mere five rooms with a mix of antiques and modern fixtures, plus Chinese-style gardens and courtyards.

Day 1: Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake

Fruit vendor

The Old Quarter of Hanoi is where one can still feel the deep sense of reverence this city has for the life of thinkers and artists. You’ll hear many refer to this stretch of the city as Pho Co—36 Streets—and it cuts a rustic and timeless swath in its boundaries: Hoan Kiem Lake, Long Bien Bridge, and remnants of both ramparts and a citadel wall. The name dates back to the 1200s when every form of craft, be it potters or metal smiths, formed guilds and practiced in concert on single blocks.

Remnants of this life gone by are still very much in evidence. On Ma May Street, #87 there's an original “tube” house, built long, thin and tunnel-like to avoid the taxes that were levied according to the width of a storefront. There is a distinct Chinese feel to the set-up with the workshop downstairs and living space, but the detailed stonework is very Vietnamese. Spreading out over Dong Xuan and Hang Chieu Streets is one of the oldest markets in the country. Sadly, it was rebuilt in a brutal concrete mass style after a fire, but a wild cacophony of hawking in produce, clothing and everything in-between still makes a visit a pleasure.

Though many of the guilds are gone, there are still plenty of purposeful streets afoot. Hang Dao (Street of Silk) is a riot of color, silk and fabric, as it has been since the 15th century. Hang Gai (Street of Hemp) no longer sells hemp but does a vigorous trade in ready-to-wear silk products, silvery and crafts. Hang Ma pawns a curious paper art called ma, shaped like homes, bikes, you name it, and then burned as an offering. Hang Quat (Street of Fans) deals in Buddhist relics of all sizes and some lacquer ware and bottoms into a small wooden house honoring Vietnamese soldiers.

Bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake
Ngoc Son Temple

Vietnamese tend to eat all day, but there is a rush come mid-day. Local food is fresh, healthy and clean (this is true especially if you see a crowd) and tends to get parsed into single-dish venues. Old Town staples include bun bo nam bo (wheat noodles tangled up with citrus-scented herbs, peanuts and lime juice) at 65 Hang Dieu and banh cuon (rice flour rolls, silken in texture, wrapped around minced pork, shrimp and vegetables fresh enough to be from California).

Keep exploring the Old Quarter but slowly veer towards Hoan Kiem Lake in the late afternoon. In the mornings, in a veil of mist, this is where locals come to do tai chi, play badminton and take tea. It is the focal point of festivals and the site of evening romance and lots of beery sundowners. Turtles still paddle about the waters surrounding Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the middle. There is a rock in a peach-like cast called Writing Pad, a 30-foot stone with painterly sweep called Pen Tower, and the Three-Passage Gate and Flood of Morning Sunlight Bridge, which one must pass to enter. It’s a moving temple, even more so in dying sunset light. Try to time your visit.

Typical store in the Old Quarter

Afterwards, saunter back to the banks and join the locals for a beer. One local specialty worth trying is oc (snails), sold in the street. They come stewed in beer, rolled in ginger leaves with onion, garlic and mushroom, or steamed in lemon leaves, and are delicious as an appetizer. But save the main meal for Wild Rice, a whitewashed and quite chic Vietnamese restaurant that does local tastes justice. If you prefer French and something within the Old Quarter, Green Tangerine occupies a French Colonial villa and has a menu mixing gutsy Gallic classics and Eurasian departures.


Hotel Nikko
84 Tran Nhan Tong
Hai Ba Trung District
+84 4 822 3535

Moon River Retreat
Bac Cau, Ngoc Thuy
Long Bien District
+84 4 90 450 9045

Sofitel Metropole Hanoi
15 Ngo Quyen St.
Hoan Kiem District
+84 4 826 6919

(Updated: 05/01/07 SF)

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