06 May 2016

Hanoi I: West of the Lake

Travelling from Hoi An to Hanoi was easy. It took about 40 minutes to get from Hoi An to Da Nang airport by car and then it was just a 1h20 flight to the Vietnamese capital. It takes about 45 minutes to get from Hanoi’s airport to the Old Quarter — the historic maze of streets at the heart of the city.

After checking in to my hotel, I headed straight out to explore. First, I ambled down to Hoàn Kiem Lake where locals and tourists alike were relaxing, enjoying the scenery and taking tai chi classes. There were a lot of people taking photographs on the vibrant red Thê Húc Bridge, which leads onto an island that houses a small temple, so I decided to come back in the morning.

Instead, I walked west and had dinner at La Place, which overlooks the grand St Joseph's Cathedral. I lucked out and scored a table on the small upstairs terrace, but the inside dining room is also attractively decorated with its tiled floor and vintage posters. The menu has a mix of western and Vietnamese dishes. I ordered bún cha — rice noodles with pork — which was OK; I’m not sure if this is how the dish is normally prepared but the meat was served as tiny burgers, which I wasn't expecting. The lemon and mint slushie I ordered was excellent, however. I went for a cocktail at Nola, a cafe-bar tucked away down an unassuming alley in the Old Quarter. It is set over several floors so I went up to the rooftop, which has a series of colourful umbrellas hanging from above. I had some kind of gin and lemon cocktail, which was 80,000 VND  (about £2.50) and was nice enough.

In the morning, I managed to make it out of my hotel before 8.30 and walked through the Old Quarter back to Thê Húc Bridge. The Old Quarter was already buzzing and there were people eating bowls of pho on almost every street corner. The bridge itself was a little quieter and I paid my 30,000 VND (£1) to cross over to the Temple of the Jade Mountain and walk around the small island.

I had read a lot about Hanoi’s fêted egg coffees: a strong shot of Vietnamese-style coffee mixed with egg yolk, condensed milk and sugar. It sounds weird but it actually tasted quite nice, although much too sweet for my tastes. I went to the always-busy Giang Cafe, which whips them up for 20,000 VND (about 60p).

I decided to leave most of my Old Quarter explorations until my return from Halong Bay on Saturday and instead focused on the area west of Hoàn Kiem Lake. My first point of call was to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, a huge site about half a mile west of the lake. I knew that I wasn’t appropriately dressed to visit the mausoleum (shoulders and legs above the knee must be covered) but wanted to visit the associated museum. The site isn't especially well sign-posted, so after visiting the museum, in order to take a photo of the front of the museum, I ended up walking clockwise around the whole site, which took a good 20 minutes. By the time I got to the mango-hued presidential palace, it was closed for lunch.

Immediately north of the mausoleum complex is a bridge that cuts across West Lake, which is much bigger than Hoàn Kiem Lake. I wanted to visit a cafe-restaurant called Maison de Tet Decor, which was about halfway up the lake’s northeastern shore. It was a long walk but if you are in the area and like speciality coffee, Maison de Tet is a great place to go. They roast small batches of coffees from various regions and serve Vietnamese-style coffee, pourovers, espresso drinks and cold brew. I was so hot that I gulped down a delicious cold brew in the leafy garden and then followed it with a Vietnamese coffee with ice and condensed milk (again, too sweet for my tastes, but it was a nice coffee). Maison de Tet also has a great lunch/brunch menu and you can sit upstairs overlooking the lake.

I made my way back towards the city centre, stopping for another coffee at Boeing Coffee — yes, a coffee shop designed to look like the inside of a Boeing aircraft. They do espresso drinks but I had another iced Vietnamese coffee while I tried to cool off. I had hoped to have lunch at a small restaurant called State-Run Food Shop No 37, but it was closed, so I pressed on, pausing to pick up a couple of books at the excellent foreign-language book store Bookworm.
Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel of Thang Long occupies a large site a few blocks east of the mausoleum complex. The admission price is 30,000 VND and there is a lot to see. You can climb up to the top of the central building, which has a nice view of the complex, especially the collection of bonsai trees. While I was there, a group of high school students were taking some fun graduation photos. There is a small museum outlining some of the history of the city and the citadel and you can go down into building D67, the bunker where a number of Vietnam War operations were planned.

A few blocks further south is The Temple of Literature, an ancient educational institute (and Vietnam's first university), which dates to the 11th century. Students as young as three studied there — exams were often set by the emperor — and some of the diplomas are carved in stone, sitting on the backs of turtles.

Throughout my trip, I’ve seen plenty of street-side barbers but my favourite is the literal hole-in-the-wall spot on the east side of the Temple of Literature. Who needs a roof, eh? By then, it was almost 4 pm — way past lunchtime — but the pho spot I had wanted to eat at was closed. Instead, I went to Quan Goc Da, a small but busy street-food joint just down the block, which serves all manner of delicious but sinful fried snacks. I tried a few different things, including a spring roll, a savoury doughnut and a shrimp dumpling. It was all very tasty but about the least healthy meal I’ve ever eaten.

I had a bit of time to kill before dinner, so I went for a coffee at Indigenous, a small coffee shop near the cathedral. I had a very good piccolo (35,000 VND) and admired the huge selection of beautiful ceramics, all of which are made near Hanoi. I might have to return to buy one of the gorgeous drippers or maybe some of the handle-less mugs.

I met up with a couple of friends from London for dinner. We went to the Hanoi Social Club, an all-day eatery set over three colourful, funkily decorated storeys. The menu is mainly western but with some Hanoi twists and to counter-balance my lunch, I had a quinoa, chickpea and avocado salad (110,000 VND), which was really good. I also had a tequila–mulberry cocktail (75,000 VND), which was probably the best cocktail of the trip so far. The G&T I had later on while we listened to the live acoustic music on the rooftop terrace was less impressive. The Hanoi Social Club is a fun and lively place to eat, drink and hangout. On the same street, I noticed a lot of interesting fashion boutiques, which were, sadly, all closed.

I returned to Hanoi three days later, after my trip to Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay, so there will be another post about my adventures in the Vietnamese capital coming soon.

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