There’s so much to enjoy in Hanoi and a trio of coastal cities.
Hanoi is unique in that it is a massive city brimming with intimate spaces. This is particularly so in its most alluring area, the Old Quarter, a labyrinthine district of narrow streets and alleys which bulge with history.
As Hanoi accelerates into the future, with new skyscrapers seemingly added by the day, this old neighbourhood stays rooted in the past. It is a place where you can find artisans whose sole job is to hand craft cake moulds or merchants whose family have sold the same noodle dish from one weathered shophouse for generations.
Elsewhere, tourists can delve into military history, explore magnificent Buddhist and Taoist temples, watch an opera or visit a historic walled town.
Further south along the coast lie three very different cities.
Danang is a fast-growing, modern city that seems to have aspirations to become the country’s next major metropolis.
Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam, a relaxed, old-fashioned city which boasts the country’s most impressive citadel.
Hoi An, is the most picturesque city in South-East Asia, an incredibly well-preserved port town lined with gorgeous timber-frame buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries.
When former US president Barack Obama met late TV chef Anthony Bourdain for lunch in Hanoi they went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. What did they eat? Bun cha and nem hai san. Why? Because not only are these two dishes utterly delicious but they’re also strongly linked to northern Vietnam.
Bun cha was invented in Hanoi and every time I visit the city I head to a particular little restaurant in the Old Quarter to savour this dish of grilled pork, herbs and rice noodles. It’s simultaneously sweet and sour, soft and crunchy. Look for a modest bun cha restaurant filled with locals and eat exactly what they eat — you won’t be disappointed.
Nem hai san is less healthy but equally delightful. These deep-fried spring rolls are crammed with crabmeat, prawn, carrots and bean sprouts and then dipped in a slightly spicy fish sauce. Good luck eating only one of these bad boys.
Hanoi, in particular, is a dreamland for tourists who love to shop. The Old Quarter is filled with outlets which sell all manner of traditional Vietnamese handicrafts.
But it is the city’s markets which should really thrill foreigners.
At weekends the Old Quarter is home to a night market so massive it has to be witnessed for it to make sense. It stretches for more than 1km along a street which is closed to traffic. If there’s a product you can’t find here that’s probably because it doesn’t exist.
Nearby Dong Xuan market is a huge indoor bazaar which caters more to locals than tourists but you can still find some souvenirs and clothes here. The same goes for Hom Market, another big indoor option which specialises in fashion and fabric.
In Danang, the indoor Han market has everything from souvenirs to snack foods, tailors and art shops.
Hue’s Dong Ba market is a chaotic, rustic place where tourists can buy cheap clothes and mobile phone accessories, or just watch with fascination the robust bartering that goes on between locals.
Hoi An has a touristy night market and a charming covered central market where locals do their grocery shopping.
When the sun slides from view in Hanoi, a vast array of options become available to tourists seeking some night-time revelry.
In the Old Quarter, an area called Pub Street is lined with no-frills drinking spots which attract mostly tourists and offer great value on beer and basic food.
Travellers looking for something a bit more dynamic can head to a nightclub such as The Bank, a huge venue close to the city’s main tourist district.
For a more family-friendly atmosphere try one of the chic bars and restaurants at five-star hotels such as The InterContinental or Pan Pacific.
Hue, Danang and Hoi An all have far more sedate nightlife scenes.
In Danang it’s highly recommended to seek out one of the quiet local bars next to China Beach, while in Hue there are many cosy drinking spots along its nightly so-called Walking Street.
Hoi An, meanwhile, is blessed with dozens of lovely restaurant-bars along the riverside.
(Top image: Hoi An is an almost impossibly picturesque port city. Picture: Ronan O'Connell)
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