You can’t say you’ve seen the real Vietnam if you haven’t walked the streets of Hanoi. Straddling a line between the architectural relics of yesteryear and the current manic race to modernity, the city is a fascinating place to be right now. A city that was once gripped by decades of colonisation and battered by war has now been reincarnated as a historic yet dynamic capital. In such a city as Hanoi, there’s no shortage of places and activities with which to indulge yourself over the course of a weekend.
Also watch: Video: The perfect weekend in Hanoi
5.30am Nighttime curfews put Hanoi to bed early, and thus it is early to rise. Though it might seem unlikely, Hanoi is an exercise-crazed city, and there really is no better way to greet a morning in the capital than by joining the yoga, aerobics or tai chi devotees who throng the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. It is a place where patriotic music that blares from public loudspeakers blends harmoniously with the sounds of “Gangnam Style” that accompany the aerobics classes.
7am The ubiquitous noodle dish pho is — no point fighting it — a breakfast staple in Vietnam, and there’s no better place to try it than Pho Suong (24 Ngo Trung Yen, Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem District), which is hidden down a side lane off Dinh Liet Street. The dish is known for its unmistakably northern flavor: clear broth, clean taste and tender beef. It’s a perfect morning pick-me-up.
8am Only a stroll away is the Old Quarter, a microcosm of Hanoi where remnants of the past collide head on with the booming capitalism of today. Take a ramble through the twisting maze of 36 streets, each named after the wares they purvey: here, you’ll find narrow tube houses crying out for renovation, Hanoi’s remaining artisans working diligently to survive, barbers dozing off in chairs and cyclo drivers steering patiently through the unremitting traffic.
10am For history buffs, the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu, Dong Da District), known as the first university of Vietnam, is a great place to explore. Beautifully laid out as a park, the Temple of Literature lies west of Hoan Kiem Lake is a tribute to the country’s system of ancient education based on the teachings of Confucius, harking back thousands of years to the early scholars revered by former kings. These days, young students can often be found going to the temple and touching the scholars’ statues for luck before their exams.
12pm As lunchtime arrives, pull up a seat and tuck into a hearty bowl of bun cha (char-grilled pork patties with cold rice noodles), a Hanoian specialty. Bun cha is Hanoi’s answer to the West’s bacon cheeseburger. The plumes of smoke wafting from charcoal-red stoves and the aroma of sizzling pork fillet skewers draw in hungry customers from afar.
2pm Walk off your lunch with a visit to Manzi (14 Phan Huy Ich, Ba Dinh District): if you want to tap into the capital’s arts scene, this space can’t be missed. Spread over two floors of a whitewashed French colonial villa, Manzi is festooned both with vintage pieces and edgy contemporary artwork by emerging artists. Helmed by an artist and two cultural activists, it is an unusual cross between a bar, café, exhibition space, art shop and multimedia venue.
4pm Take a stroll along the heavily bombed Long Bien Bridge (or the “horizontal Eiffel Tower”), which stands as testament to the Vietnam War. A few steps down the bridge is the Middle Warp, or Long Bien Island, a world away from the urban hubbub. Middle Warp is a patch of land that juts out over the murky Red River. Once the site of a flourishing village, the island is now home to a wide cross-section of rural life. Brimming with corn and banana trees, vegetable gardens and makeshift stilt houses made from scraps, it is a quiet backwater and a breath of fresh air within an otherwise chaotic city.
6pm Venture out over to Ngu Xa Street off Truc Bach Lake. Traditionally a bronze-casting village, it’s now a stretch of road lined with stalls that serve pho cuon — a modern interpretation of pho, its flat white sheets of noodles are cut into square pieces, wrapped with fried beef and herbs, and served with dipping sauce. It is said to have been created from a combination of banh cuon (steamed rice crêpe) and cannelloni. The dish encapsulates Hanoi itself: the past rubbing shoulders with the present.
7.30pm As darkness descends, get your movie fix at the Hanoi Cinemathèque (22 Hai Ba Trung, Hoan Kiem District). A far cry from your standard movie theatre, this private film club charges a membership fee in exchange for entry, and screens everything from Vietnamese classics to 1930s cinema and award-winning art-house movies.
6am Rise early and head down to Ba Dinh Square (Hung Vuong, Dien Bien, Ba Dinh District), the site of Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of independence, to catch a glimpse of the daily flag-raising ceremony. Follow it up with a pilgrimage to the nearby mausoleum, which pays tribute to the venerable “Uncle Ho”.
8am Breakfast on banh cuon (steamed rice rolls dipped in fish sauce and served with fresh herbs and cha que, or pâté). Just a word of warning: this is slow food. However, good things come to those who wait. Afterwards, cleanse your palate with a local coffee at the hole-in-the-wall Reng Reng Café (3 Phung Hung, Hang Ma, Hoan Kiem District). It has grown from a humble coffee-to-go stall to an established outlet, with cups of joe served out of a small wooden van. Sourcing its beans from a family farm in the Central Highlands city of Dalat, its coffee has a more sophisticated flavor. Beverage in hand, you can linger and watch the world go by.
10am Hone your Vietnamese cookery skills by signing up for a food class and market tour with the Hanoi Cooking Centre (44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh District; +84 4 3715 0088; www.hanoicookingcentre.com), led by the city’s most devoted culinary trainer. There’s a variety of classes on offer, from the Hanoi and the Northern Highlands cooking class to the vegetarian tofu cooking class. The finale of the lesson is being able to taste the fruits of your efforts.
3pm A great way to soak up the slower side of Hanoi is to hire a bicycle and pedal through the seemingly endless lanes that hug the Tay Ho Lake. This part of the city used to be an escape for royalty, who built summer houses near its shores as long as 400 years ago. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sun dip into the water. Tay Ho Lake is an oasis of calm: young couples perch on their motorbikes whispering sweet nothings, teenagers paddle swan-shaped boats and men patiently squat on the shores waiting to catch fish.
Stop off at Cafe Nhac Xua (43 Lo Duc, Hoan Kiem District; +84 91 875 99 38; facebook.com/nhacxuahanoi), an open-fronted living room piled high with assorted old sound systems and hi-fi stereos. The melodrama of the old tracks (“Million Roses”, “Afternoon in Moscow”), along with the tranquility of the surroundings, will delight everyone.
5pm Further down the road is Chula (24 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem District; www.chulafashion.com), a must-see destination for fashionistas. A maze-like open house, it is at once a showroom, atelier and cultural space. The Spanish husband-and-wife owners of Chula, Laura and Diego, had no previous experience in the fashion industry — their background is in architecture and political science — but a fleeting visit to Laura’s brother in Hanoi changed everything for them. They decided to settle in Hanoi in 2004 and went on to develop a clothing line. Chula has grown from a favorite pastime — making clothes for family and friends — into a global label. Their designs are inspired by cultural identities, architecture, photography and, of course, their adopted home of Hanoi. With vivid colors, geometric designs, a hint of the Spanish brand Desigual, a sense of humor and a passion for Vietnamese silk and embroidery, Chula is a standout temple of fashion.
7pm Set in a tranquil courtyard, Green Tangerine (48 Hang Be, Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem District) is a charming restaurant converted from a 1928 heritage house, and a real treat for lovers of French food. Try delicious offerings such as snakehead fish with passionfruit sauce and duck liver mousse, which are feasts both for the eyes and the palate.
9pm Enjoy a nightcap at The Unicorn (2A Hang Than, Hoan Kiem District; +84 90 488 62 66), a pub that’s decked out like a boho camping site and helmed by the city’s most innovative mixologist, Pham Tien Tiep, who’s known for his signature Pho cocktail. You can also enjoy the O Mai, a concoction of gin, apricot, lime, apple pie, honey and ginger. The venue offers mixed drinks at VND50,000 on Wednesdays, live music on Thursdays and VND250,000 cocktail jugs on Saturdays.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Smile magazine.