posted by Stephanie in Gypsetters Guide
Why go: Completely opposite from it’s fast paced, energetic southern sister city, Hanoi has a palpable romantic quality to it. The light is different in this city. It’s soft, dreamy… diffused by the haze that wafts slowly over the numerous lakes. Rows of narrow houses embrace the bodies of water ultimately snaking through the chaotic streets of the old city. Haphazard architecture of nostalgic colonialism and shiny new development. Young couples dressed in their wedding finest posing all over the town, postcard perfect. People spill over to the sidewalks. Sitting on low on grimy plastic stools, smoking, peddling, drinking tea, playing chess… Everywhere there is someone cooking. As you navigate through the low-lying crowd, the familiar smells of Vietnam cling to your skin. Pungent fish sauce, tempered by the distinct sweet odor of sugar and fragrant garlic. The soft caramel burn of fried shallots. The bright tangy notes of lime. Leafy mountains of lush green herbs call out invitingly, their grassy scent intoxicating: cilantro, mint, lemongrass, basil… There’s the richness of a boiling pot of Pho, or the welcome smoke from a fired up grill where tender morsels of pork slowly char into deliciousness.
What to pack: Days can be warm depending on the season, but Hanoi has an overall more temperate climate than Ho Chi Minh. As always the Vietnamese are rather chic and being the Political capital, people are a bit dressier than in Ho Chi Minh. We went at the end of October so a lightweight blazer was helpful during cool nights. It’s the perfect way to dress up a pair of denim shorts. For if you’re looking to a night out in the club, feel free to don a little dress.
Love / Lust: We stayed at the Sofitel Metropole that was amazing. They gave us one of the Club Rooms in their new wing but being the old souls that we are, we wish we could have stayed in one of the rooms of the old wing.
Stay: Much of the buildings of Hanoi hails from their colonial times and is epitomised by our hotel the Sofitel Legende Hotel Metropole. Turn of the century French architecture with a timeless chic and the flakiest croissants around. The club floor had by far the best perk I’ve seen so far is that room service breakfast is inclusive. A definite plus when you’re enjoying the plush surroundings.
Eat: Hanoi is full of amazing places to eat and stunning restaurants in old colonial settings. The Sofitel alone has great F&B outlets. We had managed to catch the beginning of their oyster festival as fresh oysters flown in from France were served on the terrace. Washed down with a cool white wine, equally cool notes from a lone saxophone serenading the streets, from which across two old men sat contemplatively on a cyclo aptly named “sans souci” or “with no worries.” The cars whizzed by and I couldn’t help but feel that every night they sat there, just in time to catch a little private concert of jazz.
Dinner at Madame Hien, iconic local chef Didier Corlou’s most recent baby, was simply wonderful. We sat in the soft candle lit terrace of a beautiful villa was served Vietnamese dishes with French finesse. Among the many dishes we ordered, our crab spring rolls or nem cua be were unanimously the best darn spring rolls either of us had in our lives. The rice paper was so thin and crisp, void of any chewiness, giving way to a heavenly filling of crab meat. The Pho Bo was rich and aromatic, the tell tale clarity of the broth assuring us there were no short cuts. Steamed crab with turmeric and lemongrass whose perfume was so alluring, no sauces were needed… A beautiful crisp Rosé, dessert and coffee… All under P3000.00…
Another evening had us feasting on spicy lemongrass cockles and soy steamed fluffy garoupa in a breezy courtyard. The cockles were amazing! Soft morsels in a sticky slightly sweet sauce, adorned with ruby fresh chilis, wrapped with a vietnamese mint leaf then dipped in a mixture of salt and lime… Hai San Ngon offers fish so fresh it’s swimming in the tank in front of you. The staff was unusually friendly, laughing at my comical drawing trying to explain what kind of seafood I wanted. How I wished we were more than us two, there were lots to be tried. Hai San Ngon – 199A Nghi Tàm, Quảng An, Tây Hồ, Hà Nội, Vietnam +84 4 3719 3170
Local food and street food are a must. It is where you’ll find the most authentic and the boldest flavors. You can’t walk the streets of Hanoi without looking enviously at the various snacks, nibbles, noodles, soups, brochettes that the locals eat. A walk through the old quarter will lead you to number 14 Hang Ga street. The home of the most perfect Banh Cuon. Steamed rice rolls transparently parchment thin, stuffed with a mixture of earthy mushrooms and pork, topped with a garden of fresh cilantro and my favorite sweet slightly charred bitter fried shallots. Dipped in that omnipresent Vietnamese dressing laced with some chili… At $1.50 it’ll probably be the best valued meal you’ll have in your life.
The more adventurous should try the grilled quail stand next to Mao’s Red Lounge on #7 Ta Hien. Black mail quails marinated in five spice are grilled on demand and served with lime and salt. If you can avert your eyes from the head that is still attached, the tender limbs are a true delight. We were rather a novelty in the stall as the local looked at us amused that we ate something so local. Don’t be fooled, everyone eats these. In the table next to us, three pretty young ladies dressed in trendy clothing toting Chanel bags daintily nibbled the scrumptious birds.
One mustn’t leave without trying Cha Ca La Vong. A delicious pot of fish simmering in turmeric oil covered in fresh herbs served with rice noodles. A typical Hanoian dish, you can still eat it at the original house where it was created at #14 Cha Ca street. There are no polite niceties at the door, you just say how many and that’s that. You can’t choose where to sit, you can’t choose anything except your beverage but you leave the grimy, crooked seafoam green home happy.
Drink: This city also has a more happening nightlife. While at Saigon, apart from the sleaze bars or clubs, the night scene dies down pretty early, Hanoi has some nice options to offer. We visited the Press Club for some aperitifs but most especially Rooftop on a Friday is the place to be. Young and hip Hanoians, dressed to the nines, move to a surprisingly electrifying mix of 10 old house music and pop. The interiors are sleek and well designed as glass windows open to a nice terrace with a breathtaking view.
Do: Explore, walk and take it all in. Each building is picture perfect, each corner full of life. You could visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and lots of other tourist attractions but us lazy bums find it best to hire a rickshaw and just roam around the sites relaxed in comfort. At the Sofitel Metropole there is a bomb shelter underground where the words “Remember. Forgive. Forever.” are written just outside. Tribute to the pain the country went through. Daily tours are given and the history of the hotel is a beautiful reflection of the history of the country.
Shop: There are many boutiques in Hanoi that sell beautiful quality silks, home décor, accessories… This is not marketware items. Be prepared to pay a pretty penny for these luxurious goods. I bought some spectacular silk pajamas, hammered copper and silver tealight holders, and some beautiful silk and cotton modern ao zais and linen embroidered tunics. Walk around Na Tho Street or “Church Street” and Xuan Dieu Street for a nice selection of well curated stylish stores. The local market is CHAOTIC and more for the locals looking to buy everyday things. Go only if you want to experience it but don’t expect to find that special souvenir piece.
OST: Definitely melt into the soft colonial mood of the city with some classic French jazz…
Reading Material: Get lost in Hanoi’s mysterious winding streets as you travel back and forth through time in “The Beauty of Humanity Movement” by Camilla Glibb read more about it on www.tripfiction.com http://tripfiction.blogspot.com/2012/09/hanoi-set-fiction.html
Season: Hanoi has a very hot and humid summer season, the best time to visit is from September to January where the climate is a little more temperate.
In the know: Hanoi is a feast for the senses. Vestiges of elegant old French villas, the contrast of wide majestic avenues and small winding streets, colors bursting all around. Large leafy trees cast lace like shadows on the bustling streets. Pockets of peaceful living awaiting to surprise you. The happy chaos of everyday life on going around you while you stand like an axis in awe as the world turns. That’s just however where you’ll stay. Don’t be fooled by the idyllic charm of your surroundings as Hanoi is a city bursting with pride. Unlike in Saigon where determination is still veiled in affability and dealings with locals can be tough but still enjoyable, Hanoi population is rather different. A painful past that is all too recent and still vividly imprinted in the collective memory. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum perpetuates the glory of their victory. There’s an obvious mefiance in the air… An evident wall of distance and suspicion to all those who are not from there. Here’s a little anecdote to illustrate what I mean.
In my quest for ceramic bowls, I had many an encounter where I was taken aback by the brashness. “No discount because you are a foreigner.” Is what I had as a constant response. I managed to sweet talk a man into selling me bowls for 30,000 Dong a piece instead of 35,000 and as I was handing over the money, my wares already being wrapped up, his wife stormed out of nowhere, berated him harshly for probably giving in to a smile and proceeded to tell me she didn’t want my business if it wasn’t at her price. She abruptly turned on her hells and disappeared as fast as she came. The man offered a sorry smile and I managed to get a free bowl as a consolation. An hour later, pointing out to my fiancé the grumpy lady. There she sat cross legged, staring happily into the television, smiling from ear to ear giddy like a school girl. A wave of empathy crept up on me. Perhaps she wasn’t so bad after all. I would probably be the same if I had to endure the destructive consecutive wars her country had to go through. There’s a strength that stems from pain. And a hope that is born out of their strength.
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We are two friends who were former magazine editors. Having moved onto other things, we both realized that the creative flow the publishing world used to offer us was missing from our lives. Armed with a common love of travel to the exotic and familiar, a penchant for the bohemian, an obsession with food and a lust for writing, we decided to collaborate our unique and fashionable journeys through life together in one passion project.
We are The Gypsetters.