Unlike most Asian capitals, Hanoi manages to retain its cultural identity, uniqueness and charm whilst embracing tourism and accepting Western ways. Once you’re in Hanoi, you couldn’t mistake it for any other city in the world – it’s hectic but manageable, chaotic but everything works, the sounds and smells, the honks of traffic – they all belong to Hanoi and Hanoi alone. The city has true character.
Central Hanoi is loosely divided into 5 key areas, each with their own idiosyncracies and offerings. Each should be enjoyed individually and without haste. Here is our breakdown of the 5 must visit districts of Hanoi.
HOAN KIEM (THE OLD QUARTER)
The heart and emblem of Hanoi, separated into 36 heaving, clogged streets, the ‘OQ’ is the tourist hub of Hanoi, attracting backpackers and well heeled, experienced patrons alike. Each road sells a different product, often handmade and very uniquely Vietnamese. Think hand woven silk, freshly harvested coffee beans or even gravestones.
The absolute epicentre is the lake itself, now pedestrianised at the weekend, when the streets come alive with families strolling, vendors peddling their wares and the young playing games from Vietnamese folklore.
The OQ is also home to a number of funky bars and more famously, Beer Corner, where it seems all of Hanoi congregate at the weekend to drink fresh ‘bia hoi’, challenge each other to ‘tram phan tram’ and people watch.
TAY HO (WEST LAKE)
Home to an enthusiastic ex-pat community, West Lake is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Hoan Kiem. During the day, the wide open space of the enormous lake offers respite, breeze and unadulterated views which nowhere else in Hanoi can provide. You can actually swing your arms in a full circle without bumping into anyone here.
At the weekend, revellers from the OQ head here for its rowdy, late night nightlife (due to later opening hours in its many bars). Head to Xuan Dieu and To Ngoc Van for the liveliest parties. The drinking vibe is more refined than other areas, think cocktail rather than bia hoi, and prices that rocket accordingly.
West lake offers some fine Western fayre for when you can’t face another bowl of Pho. Da Paolo, Chops and The Republic are well-known, reliable favourites.
THE FRENCH QUARTER
Where the Hanoi glitterati head to be seen, the French Quarter offers high-end shopping and sky bars for anyone wishing to drink without a plastic stool and with a view. You’ll know when you hit it as the streets widen, pavements become walkable and French colonial buildings begin to line the boulevard. Most of our favourite street food joints can be found here, as well as most of Hanoi’s more highend restaurants. If you’re visiting Hanoi for the food, we’d recommend laying your hat in the French Quarter.
Big, urban and off the tourist trail, there is still much to enjoy in Dong Da. Visit the famous Temple of Literature, where students go to gain good luck prior to their exams. The building and grounds are pretty and the area is sacred to Hanoians – it’s said to possess luck giving spirits. Dong Da is also home to the National Stadium and a host of street barbeques. Enjoy Chicken Street, just opposite the stadium, after the sun sets – it’s a riot of beer drinking and grilled chicken eating, and retains a largely local crowd.
Providing the link between Hoan Kiem and Tay Ho, Ba Dinh is the best area to soak up the history and culture of Hanoi in its many museums, galleries and monuments. Ba Dinh is home to a string of excellent coffee shops, most notably Cong Ca Phe. The branch on Dien Bien Phu is great, with a view of Lenin Park, but out favourite is Cong Ca Phe Truc Bach, overlooking a small lake. It’s peaceful, with groovy decor and a hip clientele – an ideal way to spend the afternoon.