With only 23.5 hours (and a woefully poor sense of direction) how much of the traffic-congested, chaotic Hanoi would Nathalie Bonney get to see, and is it possible to truly get a feel for Vietnam’s capital in such a short time? The clock’s ticking…
1600 hrs: No messing around with buses and finding the best deal, I duck straight into a pre-booked taxi to get to my hotel as quickly as poss. (Note: ask your hotel to pre-book taxis so the rate is set, they can let you know how much it should be to your exact destination but as a rough rule expect to pay about 644,000 Vietnamese Dong or £20 to get from the airport to city centre).
1700 hrs: I arrive at the historic Hotel Metropole. Open since 1901, distinguished guests include authors Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin, as well as the many journalists and dignitaries that set up camp during the French and American wars. There are two entrances: one to the colonial-looking original hotel, full of dark woods and oriental porcelain vases, and the more modern Opera entrance, which is flashier in appearance but can’t compete with the glamour and prestige of the original. The hotel offers tours with its own historian, taking in the Metropole’s very own bunker as well as a quick whiz through Hanoi’s, and Vietnam’s, history.
1900 hrs: It’s easy to find good street food in Hanoi; (i) find a street, (ii) find a food stall, and place your order. If you want to discriminate any more, go to the stall with the longest queue/most diners. Out of a pink plastic bowl, I eat a dish of shredded green papaya topped with crispy pork and beef jerky, sprinkled with a generous handful of crushed peanuts and fresh Asian basil leafs. Diners sit on blue plastic stools that are so low my western 5.ft 10 frame has to seemingly concertina into itself. But it’s worth the knee cramps.
2000 hrs: Unashamedly touristy, the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre puts on performances day and night to meet visitors’ demands. Extending back some 1000 years the origins of water puppetry can be traced back to rice farmers working in flooded fields. Now puppeteers, each trained for a minimum of three years, hide behind a screen in a tank of waist-high water so they can operate the puppets from behind a screen. Some of the wooden carved animals are mesmerising with their fluid movements but the human figures lack this same liquid motion and at times it’s a bit like watching a bad Punch and Judy show on Margate pier. Glad to have seen once though.
2200 hours: There are so many great places to get (good) coffee in Vietnam but for an end of day treat find Cafe Pho Co. To get to the cafe you have to walk through a clothes shop and a narrow alleyway, which opens up into a large courtyard. Framed prints, pot plants and bird cages decorate the area and customers place their order before climbing the staircase up to the covered rooftop.
The iced yoghourt coffee feels ever so slightly more virtuous than the more typical condensed milk version but any calorie control is undone with an order of the silky smooth egg white coffee.
2300 hours: Lights illuminate the lake and its surrounding trees and plants, turning the whole area into a fairy tale kingdom where its subjects practice dance. I witness salsa, the waltz…and the Macarena. A potential Prince Charming asks if I’d like to dance with him but there are no Cinderella moments for me: my mint green Juju jelly shoes stay firmly on my feet as I stroll back to the hotel before midnight.
5.30 am: Back at the lake for an admittedly murky sunrise, the sun wrapped up in the clouds like a child cocooned in a king size duvet, I watch Hanoi residents practice Tai chi, yoga and more energetic aerobics sessions (once again it’s Macarena time).
7am: After a gentle start to the day, the city comes to life with a bang and I am on high alert as I play what feels like a game of chicken, crossing the roads. Squeezing myself in and around all the motorbikes parked on the pavements, my map reading lets me down (it was always going to happen at some point) and instead of making my way to the Temple of Literature I find myself in the maze of streets that make up the old quarter. A friendly waiter at Cong Caphe points me in the right direction; there are a few branches of this popular military-themed cafe across Hanoi. The strong iced coffee, served in a glass tumbler with plenty of ice cubes, feels like a soothing whisky after my navigational woes.
8.45am: I finally make it to the Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius. The smell of smoke and incense wafts in the air. Row upon row of school children sit patiently through a special school assembly, gazing jealously at the tourists are free to wander the temple grounds without risk of getting detention.
11am: After making it back to the hotel for breakfast in Le Beaulieu restaurant (while instagramming my pastries and jam I ashamedly realise Graham Greene probably sat under the same lampshades drafting The Quiet American) I can’t resist a dip in the heated outdoor pool.
Noon: I’m now allowed to get lost, wandering the French quarter with its jazz cafes, art galleries and distinguished buildings. Finding myself back at the old quarter, I have to weave in and out of the vehicles and other pedestrians who are all jostling for space on the roads because so many scooters and bikes are parked on the pavements. Glinting with pink, gold and silver, various roads are sprinkled with glitter, shed from the Chinese new year decorations. It’s chaotic, it’s crazy and I love it.
1500 hours: Coming to Hanoi and not drinking bia hoi is like going to the seaside and abstaining from fish and chips. The freshly brewed draught beers are incredibly light and drinkable even to non beer-drinkers (like myself). Because they are microbrewed they don’t have a long shelf life and are best enjoyed straight away – and at just 15p a pint in some cases there’s no need to sip it out. I wash mine down with bun ha nem cua be dac kim (‘barbecued pork with vermicelli noodles, herbs, bean sprouts and broth’ to you and me), a cult dish in Hanoi.
And that’s it. Back to the airport! Ticking off all I’ve managed to do in my short time in Hanoi, rather than feel able to say I’ve ‘done’ the city, my taster of the city just makes me want to come back for more.
Nathalie stayed at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel. For more information, visit www.sofitel.com. For more information about Hanoi, including what to see and do in 24 hours, visit www.vietnamtourismhanoi.com.