Hanoi is caught between two Vietnams: a pre-war village and a modern city rising from the ashes. Depending on the neighborhood, you’ll find old women dumping buckets of snails onto the sidewalk to cook or couples in colorful tracksuits doing calisthenics on manicured lawns. Packs of motorbikes zip around the skyscraper-laden center and into the winding streets of West Lake and the Old Quarter, where ancient buildings abut hip coffee shops and art galleries.
Colorful apartments in French Provençal style shine through thick fog, creating a sense that a discovery might be behind any door. Narrow, winding streets give way to flea markets that sell clothes, spices and silver trinkets; and old men crouched over bowls of steaming hot soup on the sidewalk. A vibrant young crowd—most of Hanoi’s population was born after the American war in 1975—and bourgeoning art scene may have emerged, but a piece of Vietnam’s capital will always live in the past.
Start your day off with a cup of Vietnamese coffee—a concentrated brew, which slowly drips from a Phin filter (a steel, single-cup filter that fits over a glass) into a thick layer of condensed milk. Trust us, this coffee is strong; you’ll need a little sweet. Head to Chat and Date for a twist on the classic made with coconut milk that tastes like a chocolate macaroon. Have it with any one of their French pastries, including chocolate and cheese croissants, or a yogurt smoothie.
Afterward, head down Van Mieu to the Temple of Literature, which honors Confucius and Vietnam’s greatest scholars. Pass under the stone archway through five tranquil courtyards, which are dotted with bonsai trees, bronze bells and gazebos with red sloping roofs that match the temple itself. Inside the temple—built in the 11th century—the smell of incense is baked into the walls and visitors leave fruit and flowers in front of gold Buddhist shrines.
Temple of Literature Photo via Flickr/Andrea Schaffer
For lunch, make your way down Nguyen Thai Hoc, one of the main tourist drags, and turn onto Ly Van Phuc Street, a crowded alleyway better known as Chicken Street. Follow the sweet-barbecue aroma to the last open-air eatery at the end of the road. No need to look at the menu (it’s all in Vietnamese anyway), you want the canh ga, or chicken wings. The chicken is perfectly smoked with crisp skin and a sticky glaze that will leave you licking your fingers for more. Adventurous eaters should try the barbecue chicken feet. The flat, honey-dipped bread rolls, which are served hot off the grill with a side of chili sauce, are also a must.
Continue the hunt for street food in the Old Quarter. This is the heart of Hanoi: tight, winding streets take you back in time, when Hang Duong—Sugar Street—and Hang Vai—Fabric Street—were once the city’s major trading posts. Today, the Old Quarter is one of the best places to sample Hanoian staples, like fresh spring rolls stuffed with catfish, fried pastries with sesame seeds, and glazed pork on bamboo skewers. Follow the crowds to the most popular vendors along Ma May or Tong Duy, and you won’t go wrong.
Escape the noise of the city center and snag a bench near Hoan Kiem Lake. Carved into the urban center, this is the best place for a glimpse into Hanoi’s public life: eager students stop tourists for a chance to practice English, photographers rove the perimeter for subjects and, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a turtle—said to have been living in the lake since the 15th century and considered very auspicious. Cross the red bridge to Ngoc Son Temple, which sits on a small island in the center of the lake. Built in the 18th century to honor the historic military leader Tran Hung Dao, the tiny pagoda’s entrance is flanked by Chinese writing; it doesn’t contain much inside, but for 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (at 21,800 VND to the U.S. dollar), it is worth a closer look if only for the view.
From there, make your way to Trang Thi to reach the deceptively extensive Military History Museum, where war history buffs will enjoy walking up to old, downed warplanes, including a B-52 and an F-111, and weaponry that dates from the Chinese colonization (111 to 938) to the American War in the 1970s.