How to spend 12 hours in Dong Da District, Hanoi

Bui Linh Ha, a native Hanoian and electronic musician, says Vietnam’s capital is “like a big village” — a rapidly growing city that’s holding on to its traditions and quiet corners. And no area of the city better demonstrates that dynamic than Dong Da District, southwest of the Old Quarter and off the tourist radar. The district’s collection of temples, Soviet-style public housing blocks and tranquil lakes lend it a laid-back and local atmosphere, while a growing number of cafés and art spaces reveal how a new generation is shaping the city. Linh Ha, who grew up in adjacent Ba Dinh District, takes us on a tour of the neighborhood she sees as one of Hanoi’s rising cultural hubs.

AM: Take a morning stroll at Thong Nhat Park

One of central Hanoi’s largest green spaces, Thong Nhat Park comprises a lake, walking paths, swan boats and playgrounds. It’s an ideal refuge from Hanoi’s infamous traffic, a popular spot for early morning exercise and one of the few places in the city where Linh Ha says you can escape to nature. “In the park, it feels like everything’s brighter,” she says. “There’s the hustle and bustle out there, but in the park, I can take a break.” Cor Tran Nhan Tong and Le Duan

9.45 AM: Shop at Dong Tac second-hand market

The garments are the draw at the city’s biggest second-hand market, where ceiling-high piles of clothes harbor vintage treasures for as little as a dollar, and more organized shops boast tidy racks of everything from tees to evening gowns. Wander the aisles and you might also find enormous collections of kitchenware and utensils. “The market is another lens to look into an aspect of Hanoi culture and local character,” says Linh Ha. Ngo 6, Ton That Tung

11 AM: Breathe the fresh air at Tropical Forest café

Tropical Forest café, opened in 2017, builds on the Vietnamese love of local coffee — thick, creamy and sweetened with condensed milk is the preferred style — with a design that addresses one of the city’s most relentless frustrations: air pollution. Built to resemble a greenhouse constructed of natural wood, the café is an explosion of plants: on shelves, dangling from the ceiling and in terrariums on the tables. After you finish your coffee (the menu lists the dark and flavorful traditional Vietnamese varieties, alongside fresh smoothies and juices), you can even buy a plant to take home. 89 Ngo 298 Tay Son;

12 PM: Try an old Hanoi specialty at Mien Luon Nam Dong

Bun cha (grilled pork and rice noodles) may be the quintessential Hanoi lunch, but the city offers other options. Mien luon, deep-fried eel with glass noodles, is a particularly popular dish and Dong Da is just the place to try it. “There are schools in the district, so it’s become a hub for good, cheap food,” says Linh Ha, who has been a pescatarian since 2015. Mien Luon Nam Dong offers a few riffs on the eel theme — try it as a soup or order it tron (mixed; a dry, salad-esque version of the soup), with broth on the side. For something warm and comforting, try the mien luon chao (eel porridge). A1 Ngo 119, Ho Dac Di

PM: Seek success at the Temple of Literature

Built in 1070, the Temple of Literature once housed Vietnam’s oldest university and educated bureaucrats and offspring of the elite. Today, the Confucian temple is popular with the school-going crowd. “I came here when I was about to enter university, to pray for good results,” says Linh Ha. To acquaint yourself with others who have joined the scholarly tradition, look for the names of some 1,300 students — inscribed on steles — who earned top results in the royal exams held between 1442 and 1779. 58 Quoc Tu Giam, Ba Dinh;

PM: Explore local art at Hanoi 60S (Sixty Square)

Many of the city’s old French colonial buildings have become government offices and aren’t accessible to the public. Hanoi 60S, however, housed in a time-worn mansion (once a post office during the French colonial period), contains a collection of cafés, galleries and shops established by a group of young Hanoians. Opened in late 2017, Hanoi 60S provides collaborative space to creatives and small-business owners. It’s a model inspired by Zone 9, an art and nightlife destination, housed in a former pharmaceutical factory, that was shut down in 2013. “Hanoi 60S is a hub for young people to express themselves,” says Linh Ha. And visit while you can, because the government has announced plans to build a new post office in its place. “I have hopes for the scene though — one way or another, the creative community is going to get together to do what they love.” 60 Tho Quan;

4.30 PM: Experience the booming craft beer scene at Evenstar Craft Beer Pub

Opened in fall 2017, Evenstar, one of a few craft beer spots owned by locals, offers six local beers on tap and 20 more in bottles. “What the owners are bringing to the craft beer scene in Vietnam is revolutionary,” says Linh Ha. “As locals using local ingredients, they understand what works — they’re expanding beer options for Vietnamese customers.” And the Lord of the Rings-themed decorations make the space a destination on its own. 6 Ngo 21 Pham Ngoc Thach;

6.30 PM: Eat your vegetables at Hieu Sinh vegetarian restaurant

Finding good veggie meals out in meat-loving Hanoi can be a challenge. “If I go to a restaurant and ask for a noodle dish without meat, for example, it can seem a bit weird,” says Linh Ha. “But in recent years there have been more options for vegetarians and pescatarians like me.” To serve evolving palates, there’s vegan-friendly Hieu Sinh and its meat-free versions of Vietnamese favorites, including nem ran (fried spring rolls), goi cuon (fresh spring rolls), noodle soups and desserts. 5 Pho Hoang Ngoc Phach;

PM: Meet local bands at Hub Café

For years, the city’s live music venues have been concentrated in the humming Old Quarter and expat-heavy West Lake. But there’s a different kind of player in Dong Da. “Hub Café is based totally on DIY spirit,” Linh Ha says of the space established by a group of music students in 2014. “I think it’s one of the best music venues in Hanoi now.” A coffee shop, bar and concert venue, tucked into a strip of utilitarian storefronts on a busy street, Hub showcases fresh and established electronic, experimental, rock and hip-hop acts. They also host the regular Hanoi Dub Collective, a jam session that brings together musicians, poets and dancers. The collaborative sessions are held a few times each month — check online before you go — and make for the perfect way to wind down a day in one of Hanoi’s newest creative hubs. 122 O Cho Dua;

. . .

3 more Dong Da cafés to check out

  • Cang Tin 109. Located in a historic quarter of Dong Da, this nostalgic lakeside café occupies a small, old house in the shade of banyan trees. Ngo 198 Xa Dan;
  • Koi Cafe. With a biophilic design like Tropical Forest café, this beautiful space features large koi ponds set in the floor. 646 Duong Lang
  • Thien Son Tra. This elegant, traditional teahouse features an extensive menu and cozy, cushioned floor seating. 65 Trung Liet;

. . .

3 bun (rice noodle) dishes to try

  • Bun rieu cua: This freshwater-crab- and tomato-based soup, often served with tofu and beef, might ruin pho for you.
  • Bun dau mam tom: Bun are stuck together, cut into easy-to-grab chunks, served with deep-fried tofu and herbs and garnished with a bowl of mam tom, Vietnam’s ultra-funky-smelling fermented shrimp paste.
  • Bun bo nam bo: This refreshing mix of noodles, fresh lettuce and herbs, stir-fried beef and — of course — fish sauce is the northern Vietnamese variation on the beloved southern dish bun thit nuong (grilled pork with rice noodles).

. . .

Where to stay

  • Van Mieu I Hotel. A cheerful, basic hotel with free breakfast and an unbeatable Dong Da location; just steps from the Temple of Literature and a short walk from the train station. The hotel’s second branch is also in Dong Da, a few blocks from Hanoi 60S.
  • Dream Hotel & Apartment. One of the pleasures of spending time in Dong Da is the chance to experience daily life in Vietnam’s capital, and you’ll feel like a local as you set up your temporary base in one of Dream’s well-appointed apartments, with kitchens and plant-filled balconies.
  • Pullman Hotel. Up for a splurge? In a place where densely packed streets and narrow storefronts mean that space is at a premium, the Pullman is the holy grail of hotels. Park yourself in one of their luxe rooms, squeeze in
    a workout every day at the hotel’s state-of-the-art fitness center and lounge with a cocktail by the large outdoor swimming pool.

This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Isabelle Taft

Photographed by

Quynh Mai

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