Hanoi Style Guide

posted on: Monday, 19 May 2014

Should I go to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi? I've been asked this a few times of late. And with a couple of friends also visiting Vietnam in the coming weeks, here are my thoughts:

If Ho Chi Minh City is the brash, overly made up younger sister at the centre of the action, Hanoi is the less obvious choice, the older sister who isn't looking for attention but going about life with a subtle refinement; a city for the discerning. And while I am clearly biased towards older sisters because I am one and to Hanoi because I lived there a little while back, there is an inherent style and grandeur that can be found within Vietnam's bustling and noisy northern capital if you know where to look...

Spa: QT Spa / 36 Hang Trong Street
I am forever grateful that the shower did not work in my hotel room when I first moved to Vietnam and I went searching for alternatives. QT Spa is a serene and relaxing oasis away from Hanoi's motorbikes and foot traffic. QT offers a range of high quality massages and beauty treatments and has a divine rooftop tea garden. This is always my furst stop when I arrive in town from a long flight.

Cooking class: Hidden Hanoi / 147 Nghi Tam Road
This cooking school is truly hidden. Once you find your way down an alleyway you discover a beautifully calming courtyard that leads into the cooking school. While the school kitchen is lovely, the best part is getting amongst the action and going to the markets to source all the food for the class. The teachers, especially my favourite Ms Thuy, are also divine.

Dinner: KOTO / 59 Van Mieu Street
Part social enterprise, part excellent restaurant, KOTO always, always serves up a delicious twist on Vietnamese street food. The school started by Jimmy Pham to provide hospitality training to Hanoi's street kids makes incredible meals like sesame and ginger tofu, cocktails including tart margaritas, and smooth creme caramel worthy of a five-star hotel.

Shopping: Song and Ipa Nima / Nha Chung Street
Hanoi's French Quarter is great for luxury-style shopping. I love Song with its understated elegance, high quality fabrics and fabulous homewares. The store smells incredible too: apparently they wash the polished concrete floors with a peppermint essence everyday! Ipa Nima is all about glitzy, colourful handbags. Loved by a number of celebrities - Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman are fans of the green, two storey, handbag mecca - it's delicious sensory overload.

Cocktails: Sofitel Metropole / 15 Ngo Quyen Street
The Bamboo Bar at the Sofitel Metropole is old school sophistication at its best. It's a haven with bamboo fans to keep you cool by the Metropole's pool. Perfect for top shelf spirits by day and night, be sure to dress up in Indochine luxe (read: white linen, tan leather and flawless grooming).

Coffee: Oriberry / 25 Xuan Dieu Street
Proper espresso and a beautiful view over misty-green Ho Tay (West Lake), Oriberry is run by my former colleagues who are fastidious about the quality of beans and the fair trade conditions for the farmer cooperative groups they work with in Central Vietnam. They also stock the most incredible hand crafted platters, bowls and tea sets from the renowned Pottery Village.

Life's a balance though isn't it? And I think that if you miss the local action in Hanoi - you miss the fun! Make sure you stop by my favourite local vendors for extraordinary Hanoi style street food. Miscommunication is part of the fun when ordering in another country, but check out my Street Food Rules that can help you be more polite in this culture and as a bonus, get served more easily.

Breakfast: Banh Mi Trung / 55 Hang Giay Street
This street stall is run from a middle-aged lady's front room on the busiest street in Hanoi's Old Quarter, where she whips up deliciously fresh omelettes with fresh herbs on crusty french baguettes for around 50 cents. Seating is teeny-tiny blue stools on the sidewalk.

Lunch: Bun Cha / Phung Hung Street
Bun Cha is often overlooked in favour of pho as the supreme street food, but I think the smoky pork belly and vermicelli noodles in a sweet broth, topped with Vietnamese mint and fresh herbs is Vietnam's best ever dish. It's almost impossible to find outside of Hanoi too, so it's a must get while in town. 

Dinner: Quan An Ngon / 18 Phan Boi Chau Street
If you ever wished someone would bring together almost every type of street food in one place, here it is. There's Banh Xeo (crispy prawn pancakes), every type of pho soup and nem (spring rolls) you could want. All of the different types of foods are cooked in stalls along the perimeter of the restaurant, while you sit in the middle of the stalls with a bird's eye view of the variety.

Dessert: Fruit in a Cup Street / To Tich Street off Hang Quat Street
Yes, there is an entire street devoted to dessert, Hanoi-style. Seasonal berries (could be strawberries, could be lychees) are popped on top of crushed ice in a long glass, with a dash of condensed milk on top. The perfect combination of icy sweetness in the humid weather.

An important note on bargaining:
When I lived in Hanoi, my wage - which was tiny by Australian standards - provided me with an embarrassment of riches compared to my highly-educated colleagues, let alone the average worker in a shop. But one day, caught up in my newly-acquired Vietnamese language skills, I spent considerable time talking a street vendor down into a lower price of a new book. His pained face still haunts me. Because after I left with the book at the price I 'negotiated', I realised he was stuck between the thought of selling the book to me for a minuscule profit, and the prospect of not selling it at all. Which potentially equals no dinner tonight.

When my ethics caught up to my ego I tried to go back to rectify my mistake, but I couldn't find the guy. I've kept my eye out every time I've visited Hanoi (as many vendors remain in the same spot for years.) While I haven't been able to fix my mistake, I can share what I learned: bargaining with someone for a few cents or dollars that can make a big difference to their lives is cruel. And if you can afford to fly to Vietnam and purchase items on our extremely favourable exchange rate, then let's face it, you can definitely afford to be 'overcharged' by a dollar. Please try not to make the same mistake I did and, if a price is well within your expectations, just leave it be.

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