09 May 2016

Hanoi II: A Tale of Two Quarters

I arrived back in Hanoi late on Friday afternoon and had another day-and-a-half in the city before my flight home. After checking into my hotel, I headed straight out for a wander around the Old Quarter, where I was staying, and for dinner.

I had tried to go for pho at a spot called Pho 10 on Ly Quoc Su a couple of times before but never seemed to time it right. Luckily, not only was it open for an early dinner but it was also bustling with hungry Hanoians. I grabbed one of the few empty seats at the communal tables and had a quick scan of the menu, which essentially requires you to decide which cut of beef you would like in your fragrant beef noodle soup. I went for a variety with 'half-done' beef brisket and it was really very good, especially with more chilli and lime layered on top. The cost was 60,000 VND (about £2) and it was a lively place to eat with few frills but plenty of Saigon character.

I decided to treat myself to 'pudding' at the Old Quarter branch of Cộng Càphê, a mini-chain of cosy coffee shops with a light military theme. I say 'pudding' because I had an iced coffee with frozen coconut (cà phê cot dua; 45,000 VND (£2.50)), which was blended together and tasted delicious — a bit like an affogato.

After my coffee break, I headed towards a rooftop bar called Bar Betta, via the Hanoi flag tower, which was all lit up for night time. Bar Betta was oddly quiet for a funky bar on a Friday night, but I enjoyed sitting on the cool rooftop sipping on a decent mojito. The decor inside is even more fun — a mix of retro and shabby chic — but again, it wasn't exactly pumping; maybe I was there too early.

Before turning in for the night, I decided to stroll through Hanoi's extensive night market, which, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, runs a couple of miles north from Hàng Đào. I saw a couple of cheap dresses I liked but my haggling was clearly not on top form as I couldn't get as much of a a discount as I wanted, so I walked away empty handed. It was a fun place for people-watching, though.

Saturday was my last day in Vietnam and I rose early to make the most of it. After breakfast at my hotel, I went in search of coffee. My at Rosie's Cafe in Hoi An had recommended Đinh Café as an authentic Vietnamese coffee spot where a lot of younger locals go to hang out. The entrance is tucked away down a little alley off Đinh Tiên Hoàng, but once you make it to the cafe upstairs, the view from the balcony over Hoàn Kiếm Lake is great. At 17,000 VND (about 50p) for an iced coffee, it is also one of the cheapest coffees I had in Vietnam.

To make the most of a short amount of time in the Old Quarter, I followed the walking tour suggested in my Lonely Planet guidebook. The Old Quarter is a warren-like area filled with busy streets, tiny alleys and hidden markets, temples and ancient buildings. Many of the streets specialise in one particular product: shoes, for example, as well as party goods, herbs, mirrors and even coffins!

I also visited the ancient house on Ma May, which dates to the 19th century and which has been lovingly restored. The house has two central courtyards to allow in light and fresh air. It doesn't take long to look around but the visit was only 30,000 VND (£1). I also passed the city's old East Gate and visited several temples, including the bright, colourful one at 102 Hang Bac, whose blingy interiors you would never guess from the unassuming entrance.

Suffering once more from the heat, I took a coffee break at another hidden coffee shop with a lake view. This time, I went to Càphê Pho Co at 11 Hàng Gai. The entrance is inside a silk shop and then you have to walk down an alley, climb several, increasingly precarious flights of stairs (guarded by an ambivalent ginger cat), before you are rewarded with a wonderful view of the lake. The iced coffee (30,000 VND) wasn't bad either.

Hàng Gai itself is famous for its myriad silk shops. I had already had a silk dress tailored in Hoi An, but I picked up a few silk scarves as gifts and treated myself to a turquoise silk kimono (I knocked about 25% off the price and paid about £6). If you're looking for something a bit more special, Tanmy Design at number 61 has several floors of gorgeous clothes, accessories and homewares. I also bought a reproduction propaganda poster — coffee themed, of course — from Ha Noi Gallery (there are several branches around the Old Quarter; I went to 17 Ta Hien). I only managed to knock 5,000 VND off the price but as the final cost was only about £2, I didn't mind too much.

In the afternoon, I explored some of the French Quarter, which was, unsurprisingly, rebuilt by the French in the 19th century. It is grander and higher-end than the Old Quarter but, in my opinion, less interesting. After striking out with three of my target lunch spots (two of them weren't where I thought they were and the other was too fancy for a casual lunch), I went to a cafe called Ohi Tree, which was filled with cosy, colourful furniture and plants that gave it an urban treehouse feel. Unfortunately, they were out of bánh mì fillings, so I ended up accidentally ordering just a baguette and butter with my pineapple juice.

I ended up having lunch at Nhà hàng Ngon, a branch of which I visited in Saigon. The heat and my snack meant that I wasn't overly hungry and just had some tasty and beautifully presented salad rolls. Aware that my time in Hanoi was quickly running out, I pressed on to the Museum of the Vietnamese History, which covered the country's history from the 1930s to the present day. As ever, there wasn't a huge amount of information given in English, but enough to get the gist. Admission was 40,000 VND (about £1.30), which also gets you into the National Museum of Vietnamese History, which I skipped.

I went for a final amble around Hoàn Kiếm Lake and then went for coffee at Runam, which has a handful of cafes and bistros throughout Vietnam. I was attracted by the huge copper coffee machine that sits on the bar and my iced Vietnamese coffee cost a relatively pricey 80,000 VND (£2.50), but was beautifully presented and tasted good. The espresso drinks looked nice too.

I will outline how I organised my trip and which hotels I stayed in while I was in Vietnam in a separate post but my second Hanoi hotel, the Oriental Central, deserves a special mention because the staff were so lovely. They let me use an empty room to take a shower before heading to the airport — essential after a busy day rushing around in the 34-degree heat — and even gave me a Vietnamese coffee dripper and some coffee as a gift. What great service! Alas, it really was time to go home, then. Luckily, London had decided to welcome me home on Sunday morning with glorious, 25-degree sunshine, which eased my return somewhat.

Hanoi boutiques that caught my eye:
French Quarter: Mây Boutique (170 Bà Triệu); and Magonn (66 Mai Hac De).
Hoàn Kiếm Lake area: Huu La La (30 Hàng Bông); Fox Clothing (8 Nhà Chung); A Mon Avis (32B Nhà Chung); Chim Yen (4 Au Trieu); Midori (48 Au Trieu); and several boutiques on Ngõ Hội Vũ (near the Hanoi Social Club).

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