Five years ago Hanoi might rightly have been viewed as Washington D.C.: a place of politicians and bureaucrats, conservative and a bit dull. But in recent years, thanks to a new pride injected by 1,000th-birthday celebrations in 2010,
an influx of entrepreneurial Vietnamese returnees, expats and a creative Internet-enabled population, the city’s pulse has quickened. With a number of construction projects threatening older neighborhoods, and an exodus of residents from the city to suburbs like West Lake, Hanoi is changing fast. But right now, it feels poised over a sweet spot, its tree-lined lanes and graceful old architecture, traditional culture and fantastic street food complemented by a contemporary arts scene that’s managed to survive bouts of censorship, idiosyncratic boutiques and increasingly sophisticated dining and night life.
1. Coffee With a View | 5 p.m.
2. Nostalgic Dining | 7:30 p.m.
Vietnam has been awash in a sort of wistfulness for bao cap, the lean years preceding doi moi, the government’s economic reform measures initiated in 1986. At State-Run Food Shop No. 37 (dinner for two, 485,000 dong; reservations recommended), that nostalgia is embodied in whitewashed walls hung with battered enamel lunch pails and a transistor radio emitting crackly period tunes. Diners’ orders are written on reproduction ration coupons. Luckily, austerity is not on the menu, which leans to northern home-style dishes, which you’d have a difficult time finding outside, well, homes. Highlights include salty-sour pickled mustard greens stir-fried with fat-limned strips of pork, and a tomato and pineapple-packed canh chua (sweet and sour soup) with tiny local clams. “Fried rice” is a surprise: an upturned hollow dome of crispy browned rice to crack into pieces and dip into mam tep, a pungent marriage of shrimp paste and minced pork.
3. Music, Dancing | 10 p.m.
Opened on a quiet side street in the Hai Ba Trung District by the music promotion company behind Hanoi’s annual Asean Music Festival, CAMA ATK (door charges vary, cocktails from 150,000 dong) hosts international bands and D.J.s and, unusually for bars in Hanoi, segregates smokers. It also has a menu of crafty cocktails like an old-fashioned made with bourbon hickory — smoked right behind the bar. In West Lake, Madake is set in a white-painted brick loftlike structure and hosts everything from karaoke nights to swing dancing. Live music happens until the wee hours in a somewhat dungeonesque space downstairs.
4. Street Food | 8:30 a.m.
There’s a lot more to Hanoi’s street specialties than pho, so skip the hotel breakfast in favor of a serious street food graze. The Vietnamese-Australian duo behind Hanoi Street Food (streetfoodtourshanoi.blogspot.com; $75 per person) lead private tourgoers down narrow alleys and up rickety back stairs to find gems like hien luon xao, a black pepper-infused stir-fried mélange of small eels, rice vermicelli, sweet caramelized onions and Vietnamese mint, and bun rieu cua thit nuong, crab noodle soup floating clouds of roe and rafts of smoky barbecued pork. If you’d rather get your hands dirty, book a class at Hanoi Cooking Center ($59 per person). After a tour of Chau Long Market, you’ll prepare dishes like prawn and green rice in wild pepper leaves or caramel sauce pork and finish with a feast.
5. Urban History | 1 p.m.
Delve into the city’s history at Thang Long Cultural Park, a leafy patch in the city center that until 2010 was used as a military base. The park’s primary attraction is its Unesco World Heritage-designated citadel, built in the 11th century to mark the relocation of Vietnam’s capital to Hanoi. Climb the stairs to the top of its imposing main gate for a view over gardens to a listing red brick flag tower. Nearby, an underground bunker used during the Vietnam War includes a tunnel, a War Operations Room and related artifacts. Don’t bypass the two yellow French colonial villas set cater-corner to each other behind the main gate. One houses black-and-white photos of old Hanoi; the other, rotating exhibits; a recent show displayed architectural drawings sketching the city’s evolution, and future.
6. Art Break | 3 p.m.
Hanoi’s small but increasingly robust independent art scene is on display at Manzi, an exhibition space and cafe-bar opened by a former lawyer, an IT specialist and an arts graduate in a gorgeously refurbished early-20th-century villa. Works by emerging and established Vietnamese artists like Nguyen Huy An, who paints on silk, are displayed throughout the villa’s airy two stories; a shop sells affordable artworks and crafts. Grab an espresso at the bar, then head to the Old Quarter, where the longtime Hanoi resident and pioneering collector Suzanne Lecht exhibits contemporary works in a new two-story gallery space, Art Vietnam, near St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
7. Urbane Dinner | 8 p.m.
At Pots ‘n Pans (dinner for two, 2,250,000 dong), exposed brick, polished concrete and butter-soft leather banquettes in the bar set an urbane stage for dishes showcasing seasonal Vietnamese ingredients. The third-floor open kitchen is staffed mostly by alumni of KOTO, a Hanoi-based nonprofit that prepares former street kids for careers in the hospitality industry. Expect inventive fare like lotus seed falafel and hummus and young green rice tabbouleh to accompany slow-cooked lamb shoulder and silky bay leaf-scented soy milk panna cotta with mulled wine cherries and basil cream.
8. Literary Nightcap | 10:30 p.m.
9. Western Breakfast | 9 a.m.
Hanoi’s growing Australian expat population has resulted in a mini explosion of comfortable cafes serving great coffee and wholesome bites. Occupying a three-story tube house with original tiles, an interior open courtyard and an inviting outdoor terrace, the Hanoi Social Club (breakfast for two, 440,000 dong) is one of the first such cafes in the city. Breakfast might be warm quinoa and polenta porridge with pistachios, dried apricots and cream, but your server won’t look askance if you go for the divine flourless chocolate cake instead.
10. West Lake | 11 a.m.
Since Hanoi finished paving its ring road in 2010, boutiques, cafes and other businesses have joined the traditional pagodas and patches of greenery along West Lake’s banks. The 20-mile stretch is perfect for exploring on two wheels, so start at the Hanoi Bicycle Collective, where you can rent a fire-engine red upright (100,000 dong) or a mountain (200,000 dong) or touring bike (400,000 dong) by the half day. Work your way around the lake counterclockwise, stopping first at Phu Tay Ho, a pagoda complex at the tip of a peninsula that’s thronged with worshipers on the first and 15th of the lunar month. Just beyond the temple’s entrance open-air shops all in a row serve snail specialties; try the bun oc, snails and rice vermicelli soup, and oc xao chuoi dau, starchy green bananas with tofu, scallions and herbs in a turmeric-seasoned sauce. A rambling modernist villa in the lake’s northwest corner is home to Chula, where the Barcelonans Laura Fontan and Diego Cortizas design and sell dresses splashed with bold geometrics and tongue-in-cheek tableaus. Stop at the quiet Thien Nien Tu temple to admire its carved timber doors and eaves, before sipping Vietnamese iced coffee waterside at the retro Café Xua Ven Ho, where the audiophile owner might spin Perez Predo or Neil Diamond on a vintage turntables. Before returning, detour to Clom’s Closet, which stocks classic knits and tailored silk and cotton dresses by the Japanese designer Oda Tsubasa.