The Hanoi tourist crowds move in predictable patterns around St Joseph’s Cathedral, a Neo-Gothic church whose spires loom commandingly over a small square in Hoan Kiem District, also known as the Old Quarter. On weekends, for example, they turn up en masse at places like Cong Caphe, the three-level outlet of a homegrown coffee shop chain. The café and lounge spot is decorated with Marxist propaganda posters — drawings of ruddy-cheeked farmers exalting food security as the path to independence — fulfilling many tourist expectations of the communist country’s capital.
Cong Caphe also stands on a money spot in one of the city’s most popular attractions, so it’s often a tight squeeze here at any given day or time. But the weekend crowds really pack it in when they arrive at 2pm, perhaps full from a $6 lunch of bun cha — grilled pork and rice noodles, served with clear sauces and heaping plates of fresh greens — at the Anthony Bourdain-endorsed, Barack Obama-tested Bun Cha Huong Lien, a short walk from the cathedral. Even if you were dutifully following a hip guidebook, updated with the city’s recent tourism glories (of which the bromantic 2016 Bourdain-Obama chowfest is among the biggest), you would eventually find yourself here, right in the heart of the Old Quarter.
Here you’ll find plenty of illustrations of the city’s robust café culture, one of the many holdovers from the French colonial era. The row of low outdoor seats on the ground floor at Cong Caphe resolutely face the street, making them perfect for post-lunch people-watching while sipping on coffee with coconut cream. The view, one that we’ve come to associate with the frenetic capital, remains constant for the rest of the day: locals on scooters flowing through the intersection in a roaring swarm, vendors in floral tops and conical hats hawking a dizzying variety of wares on foot or on bicycles — from fruits and flowers, to shoes and, bizarrely, toy cars — and wide-eyed tourists being ferried around in the traditional pedal-powered cycles or its newest alternative, the eight-seater electric city tour coach. To say it’s lively is putting it mildly.
But in another corner of the square, three floors above the chaos and in the quiet rooftop garden of Eden Coffee, is a calmer vantage point for beholding the old part of the city and its many charms, including colonial buildings in various states of decay and restoration. The café, for all its eclectic and sometimes strange design calls — some corners ooze Mexicana, others are distinctly Mediterranean — is one of a growing number of hip and fairy-lit pockets of modern but elegant restraint hidden in plain sight, at least for now, within the jumble of the Old Quarter.
“In the last decade, Hanoi has changed dramatically,” says Thao Nguyen, a 30-year-old tour guide. Thao’s most popular tours, not surprisingly, involve eating the almost universally applauded street food and walking around the Old Quarter. “I can see the changes everywhere in the city. If I don’t visit an area for a month, for instance, I’ll always find something new when I return. I can see the massive growth of hotels, restaurants, cafés of all kinds, traditional and hip.”
Among these is the YLang-Gardenista, a coffee-and-garden establishment set on the border of the French Quarter, where tree-lined avenues are wider, not far from the iconic Metropole hotel. The YLang looks out into a government hotel, a saffron-colored colonial building with dark green French windows, often used as the cinematic backdrop for garden weddings. The YLang is barely two months old, but the terrarium-themed café is already a local favorite for the coffee and the calming atmosphere as well as for its seemingly endless Instagram potential.
Slightly older but equally photogenic is the Hanoi outlet of Maison Marou, the Ho Chi Minh City-based chocolatier that has made a global brand out of the locally produced chocolates made from Vietnamese cacao. The elegant space that opened last year feels bigger than the original in Saigon, and as with its original outlet, it includes a viewing gallery where customers can watch the chocolate being made while snacking on mouth-watering cakes and sipping hot brews.
Part of that change is fueled by a new and growing set of creative entrepreneurs, and it isn’t confined to the slew of trendy restaurants and bars that are adding a layer of sophistication to the city’s relentlessly casual dining scene. Navigating the Old Quarter’s retail streets, named after their original merchandise — silk street, jewelry street, ceramic street — might offer shoppers a kind of adventurer’s high, but new curated boutiques do the work of sifting through the offerings, and separating the commercially mass-manufactured from the more lovingly produced.
Travel writer Nga Hoang and photographer Liem Tran met each other while on assignment for Smile and began dating soon after. It was a match made in work heaven — she wrote, he took photos and together they traveled up and down Vietnam, covering the country for various other publications. The course of their work brought them to places like Da Lat, where Liem says he tasted “the best coffee ever”, and introduced them to interesting people, many of whom were deep into a passionate pursuit of elevating Vietnamese crafts. “It was all very inspiring for us,” says Nga. Five years on the couple is still telling the story of Vietnam through a shop of their own called Collective Memory, a gorgeous little boutique of rigorously curated wares made by local artisans from different parts of the country.
For now, Nga and Liem’s goal is to showcase an assortment of well-crafted objects — from tabletop replicas of Hoi An’s ancient houses to sofa cushions printed with black and white images of Indochina, packets of organic coffee beans grown by a farming family on Lang Biang Mountain in the country’s central highlands and bottles of a smoked chili sauce called Saigon Charlie’s, based on a century-old royal family recipe from the imperial city of Hue. But the big dream is for the shop to stock and revive heritage brands by introducing them to a steady stream of tourists who pour in and out from the moment the doors open at 9am until closing time at 8pm. The shop’s prime location is a big boon — a hop and skip from St Joseph’s Cathedral and you’ve found Collective Memory. “Eventually, we would like to create our own in-house line of made-in-Vietnam products,” says Nga.
Earlier to the scene, and no less bent on elevating their trade is the husband-and-wife team of Nghia Cao and Hien Nguyen who met as university students. Five years ago, they set up Hoa 10 Gio, a flower shop that became a pioneer in vintage-style floral arrangements, combining local blooms with imported cut flowers. “My wife is absolutely obsessed with flowers,” says Nghia. “She can spend all day arranging them and photographing the arrangements.”
Beauty is important to Hanoians, and fresh flowers are a big part of local Hanoi life. Entire villages are dedicated to growing the blooms and whole streets in the Old Quarter are given to flower markets. “We need fresh flowers on the table every day,” explains Cao. “It makes us feel like we have something new and fresh.”
In 2014, they moved the shop to its current address, taking over an old two-floor, colonial-style building that once housed a bank. They kept the wrought iron balcony railings, the grillwork on the windows and the building’s original black and white French tiles even as they renovated the space to make room for additional features — a coffee shop, a cozy Harry Potter-inspired library complete with a high-backed brown leather reading chair (“Because I want my daughters to grow up surrounded by books,” says Cao), to a gallery of paintings featuring Hanoi’s seasonal blooms.
Vibrant dahlias are arranged as the shop’s table centerpieces, and Cao takes a moment to explain their significance carefully in English, “It means that the Lunar New Year is coming” — and with it, more new things to add texture to this incredibly colorful, thousand-year-old city.
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Where to stay: Old Quarter boutique hotels we love
The Chi Hotel. One of the newest to the area is also among its prettiest, hippest gems. 13 Nha Chung; thechihotel.com
Damsels Boutique Hotel. The affordable suites are incredibly spacious, and the staff are among the friendliest you’ll meet in the city. 37 Gia Ngu St; damselshotel.com
Cinnamon Hotel. Right beside St Joseph’s Cathedral, this one’s part of a small chain of boutique properties. But for its location and look — large rooms with French doors and small balconies – it’s a local classic. 38 Au Trieu; cinnamonhotel.net
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Where to go: Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake, the district centerpiece, may be one of city’s busiest tourist spots but it also offers a glimpse into contemporary local Hanoi life. On weekends, the street that rings the lake is closed off to motorized traffic and becomes the exclusive domain of families with young children learning how to ride bikes, older men clustered around a game of checkers and women working out in groups under the shade of fire trees.
“The lake plays such an important role in life of Hanoians,” says Thao. “When I was little, it always made me so happy when my parents took me out to the lake. There would be a lovely breeze, and it was always so nice to see couples walking hand in hand.” Hoan Kiem Lake is also party central, especially during big events like New Year’s Eve, so expect a lot of activity in the run-up to Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, after which the city empties as locals go on holiday.
This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Smile magazine.
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