Hanoi is perhaps Asia’s most graceful and exotic capital city – a place of grand old boulevards and ancient pagodas where locals practice their tai chi moves beside tree-fringed lakes. For all of its timeless charm, it’s also a 21st-century metropolis.
The Old Quarter’s narrow, congested streets are thriving with commerce. Some of them are named after the products that were traditionally sold there – these days, P Hang Gai peddles silk and embroidery, while P Hang Quat is the place to purchase candlesticks and flags.
Contrary to his wish for a simple cremation, Hõ Chí Minh’s Mausoleum is a monumental marble edifice. Deep in the bowels of the building, the former leader’s body is stored in a glass sarcophagus. (Dec-Sep; 5 Pho Ngoc Ha; admission free).
Founded in the 11th century and dedicated to Confucius, the Temple of Literature is a rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture. Entrance was originally only granted to those of noble birth – these days the hoi polloi are free to explore inside (P Quoc Tu Gia; admission 30p).
Hoan Kiem Lake – which translates as ‘Lake of the Restored Sword’ – is a popular symbol of old Hanoi. Legend states that the Vietnamese once used a magical sword to drive the Chinese from their lands, before a giant tortoise grabbed it and disappeared into the lake.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is one of Vietnam’s major museums, displaying tribal art, cultural artefacts and textiles. In the grounds are examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture (Nguyen Van Huyen Rd; admission £1).
Eat and drink
Quan Ly is one of Hanoi’s most traditional bars, specialising in ruou, a Vietnamese liquor made from rice, with a number of varieties on sale. There’s also abundant bia hoi – a light Vietnamese draught beer (82 Le Van Huu; glasses of bia hoi 12p).
Invariably packed to the rafters, Quan An Ngon offers Vietnamese street food from all corners of the country, with a series of mini-kitchens arranged around a large courtyard. Try chao tom (grilled sugar cane rolled in spiced shrimp paste). ]Do be prepared to wait for a table during peak periods of the day (00 84 8829 9449; 15 P Phan Boi Chau; dishes from £1).
Highway 4 is the birthplace of a family of restaurants specialising in cuisine from Vietnam’s northern mountains. There’s an astounding array of dishes – from bite-sized catfish spring rolls to pork fillet with shrimp sauce (3 P Hang Tre; dishes from £3).
Set in a handsome French colonial mansion, Ly Club has an impressive dining room featuring elegant oriental light fittings and a menu of Asian and European dishes (4 Le Phung Hieu; meals from £7).
La Badiane is a stylish bistro located west of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. French techniques underpin the menu, although Asian influences creep into some dishes – try the tomatoes stuffed with Vietnamese spices and turmeric rice (10 Nam Ngu; set lunches £10).
Hidden away in the narrow lanes of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Hanoi Elite is a great-value place to stay. Its 12 guest rooms have comfortable beds and its breakfasts are cooked to order (10-50 Dao Duy Tu St; from £35).
The Art Hotel is a new opening currently making a name for itself in Hanoi’s Old Quarter – spacious rooms have spotless bathrooms, while the surrounding area can claim some of the city’s best street food (65 P Hang Dieu; from £40).
Sporting an assortment of textiles, ethnic art and locally made furniture, 6 on Sixteen has just six sparsely decorated rooms close to Hoan Kiem Lake. Breakfast includes freshly baked pastries and robust Italian coffee. Try to bag a room with a balcony as the rooms at the back have tiny windows (16 Bao Khanh; from £45).
A stylish hotel overlooking the St Joseph’s Cathedral, the Cinnamon Hoteldeftly combines original features, such Sleep as wrought iron and window shutters, with more minimalist Japanese aesthetics. All of the six rooms have balconies (26 P Au Trieu; rooms from £45).
A hotel that has been the preferred address of the great and the good in this city for a century, the Sofitel Metropole Hotel has an immaculately restored colonial façade and mahogany-panelled reception rooms. Guest bedrooms in the old wing offer old-world style – the more modern wing of the hotel doesn’t quite have the same character and charm (15 P Ngo Quyen; from £190).
Hanoi has an extensive public bus system – pick up a bus map from Thang Long Bookshop (P Trang Tien). A few cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) drivers frequent Hanoi’s Old Quarter – agree a price before peddling off and be sure to take a map as few drivers speak English.
When to go
Hanoi is at its hottest and rainiest between May and September. Taking place in late January or early February, Tet is the Vietnamese New Year, marked by flower exhibitions and markets, while the CAMA Festival in June features music from Polynesian hip hop to Japanese garage-rock.
How to go
Noi Bai airport is 28 miles north of Hanoi – Vietnam Airlines flies direct from Gatwick (from £800). Thai Airways operates flights from Heathrow to Noi Bai, changing at Bangkok (from £1,050).