We hadn’t planned on being in Hanoi for Tết — the Vietnamese New Year. In creating our Southeast Asia itinerary, it just worked out that way. Serendipitous. And so, there we were in the Year of the Monkey, happily exclaiming chúc mừng năm mới to all and sundry.
Vietnam’s capital is a gorgeous old city. Trees line its French Quarter’s wide boulevards and the gently crumbling colonial architecture makes it even more romantic. From the grand dame Metropole Hotel to the Hoa Lo Prison (AKA the Hanoi Hilton) this is a city with loads of history and a million stories. Its Old Quarter is its soul. Originally organized and protected by the Chinese, it was the center of all commerce for centuries and saw workers’ revolutions and the clandestine beginnings of the country’s Communist Party. Today it is a bustling colorful kaleidoscope of daily live. It was the perfect place for our band of intrepid travelers to base our stay.
We booked the Essence d’ Orient Hotel, a totally charming 4 star boutique property in the heart of the Old Quarter. The rooms are surprisingly spacious, a touch of exotic décor gives a sense-of-place, and the beds are super-comfy. Bonus: they have a notable restaurant serving exquisitely presented traditional Vietnamese dishes. They serve a great breakfast too—tropical fruits, an expansive buffet, house-made yogurt, eggs cooked to order, French pastries and dim sum.
But wait, there’s more. Our well-traveled group was in total agreement that we’ve never received better service. Anywhere. Kudos to this bright young well-trained staff. They were professional, friendly and solicitous.
The hotel's compact lobby has sliding glass doors that frame quite a picture, step out and you're part of the action. The Old Quarter is a warren of narrow winding streets and alleys dating back to the 13th century’s trade guild days. The ancient guild houses with hidden, often elaborate courtyards, are interspersed with merchants’ tube houses fronted with shops and restaurants, balconied European-style buildings and intriguing Buddhist and Daoist temples and pagodas. Throngs of people are hurrying and jostling, tourists and residents alike are strolling, shopping, getting-in-and-out of cyclos and eating —the street food scene is amazing. It was fascinating to see cone-hatted hawkers balancing shoulder poles and plying their wares, all while weaving amongst fashionistas straddling their sleek motorbikes.
Chaotic for centuries, the Old Quarter in Tết 2106 was a stunning mélange of sights, sounds and smells. Many Vietnamese travel to Hanoi for the holidays, gathering with family, feasting, and visiting the temples. Dressed in their finest, some, including children are in traditional attire. Their enthusiasm was contagious and the streets were filled with shouts and laughter. Bouquets of fragrant peach blossoms—Tet’s floral symbol—where everywhere and you could follow your nose to markets selling spices and steaming pots of phở. This brothy-soup with its rice noodles is Vietnam’s national dish, relished for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. There’s no shortage of vendors ladling up it up and it seems everyone has an opinion on where to get "the best."
Sisters all dressed up for Tet
It’s great fun to just wander and explore, peeking down alleys and into courtyards and looking for that perfect souvenir. Stop for a coffee or a “cold one”— the local Hanoi beer is terrific. And if you’re hungry, you are in the right place. We came upon a crouched vendor artfully grilling frogs splayed on a hibachi, but if that’s not your cup of tea, go for a Bánh mì, essentially a baguette filled with your choice of something yummy (love the pork) and don’t spare the sauce. Pull up one of the ubiquitous little plastic stools and you’ll find the people watching as good as the food.
One evening, we walked down to the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake to join in the New Year’s celebration. The lake, like a scene from a painting, has a rich lore and is central, in every way to the life of the city. Visit in the morning and join in the tai chi. Another don’t-miss is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater—now world-famous. This ancient art form conceived in North Vietnam’s flooded rice paddy fields portrays Vietnamese folk tales with humor and traditional music.
As mesmerizing as the Old Quarter is a multitude of sights to see beyond its parameters. Private guides and drivers are reasonably priced and can guide you through the excellent exhibits at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum where the revered leader rests in a glass sarcophagus. Alas, “Uncle Ho” as he is fondly known to Hanoians, was off on a trip to Russia for maintenance when we were there. I think a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison—now a museum—is on most everyone’s list as it's where now Senator McCain and other U.S. pilots were incarcerated. Plan at least an hour for the self-guided audio tour and for, well, a different perspective of what in Vietnam is called the American War.
Exploring the city via a 3-wheel cyclo is great fun, a unique opportunity to view the legacy of French colonial architecture and the perfect excuse for a selfie. For a glamorous step-back in time, visit the storied 5 star Hotel Metropole. Their elegant poolside Bamboo Bar offers a light lunch menu, house-made ice cream, and creative cocktails—go for their signature Graham Greene Martini. Don’t miss the photographs of all the famous and infamous former guests lining the walls. Charlie Chaplin honeymooned here, world leaders including Chairman Mao were fêted as were a host of celebrities from Joan Baez to Mick Jagger. And of course, Jane Fonda (know, and not fondly by some back-in-the-day, as Hanoi Jane). A recently discovered 1960s-built bomb shelter below the bar is now open to the public.
A cyclo ride provides a great selfie op even if your iPhone is jostled out of focus.
We wanted more days to see and do— and eat—but a planned and highly anticipated cruise of gorgeous Ha Long Bay was next up on our itinerary. We’ll be back. This city deserves a return visit.
Hanoi is a delicious destination and offers all manner of cooking lessons, foodie tours - including via motorbikes - and edible experiences to enhance your discovery. Let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org if we can help you plan your journey.