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March 28, 2011

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Hanoi in a hurry

WITH its remnants of French-colonial architecture, lively "Old Quarter" alleyways and streetside culinary culture, Hanoi might just be Southeast Asia's most charming capital city of 6 million inhabitants. It may be the oldest, too.

Here are some suggestions to help you make the most of a 48-hour visit.


6pm - Before diving into Hanoi's bustle head first, you've got to get above the din to see what you're getting yourself into. Head for the northwest end of Hoan Kiem lake and have a cold one at Legends Beer on the second-floor balcony of the "Ham Ca Map" building at No. 1 Dinh Tien Hoang street.

Or have an espresso (or cocktail) at Illy Cafe on the top floor of the opposite building, the one with the KFC on the ground floor. Take in the sights and sounds of a city at the crossroads of quaintness and anarchy.

7:30pm - Grab a taxi and head south to Ngo Hue, a quiet alley between Pho Hue and Ngo Thi Nham street. At No. 65 is the mellow but hip Chim Sao ( where a youthful clientele sit on the floor around low tables enjoying delicacies such as lotus root salad and clay pot fish.

9pm - Stroll over to Trieu Viet Vuong, a street that has built a name for itself as cafe central. Stop for a tropical fruit smoothie or iced coffee.

Or, if you prefer, have a nightcap or three at one of Hanoi's coolest and coziest bars, Tadioto, at No. 113. Run by Vietnamese-American journalist and author Nguyen Qui Duc, Tadioto periodically has live music and literary events.


6am -- If you're up, grab your camera and head down to Hoan Kiem lake or over to Reunification Park, widely referred to as Lenin Park, to watch locals doing tai chi and various other morning exercise routines. Enjoy the cool before the day's heat.

7:30am - "Pho" is the de facto national dish of Vietnam and everyone seems to have their favorite place to eat this noodle soup for breakfast. For clean, classic Hanoi-style, try the relatively upmarket Pho Vuong on Ngo Thi Nham street. Not far away, at No. 13 Lo Duc, is one of the city's best known shops, Pho Thin, where gargantuan broth cauldrons sit on a grimy, medieval-looking stove in the front window.

8:30am - There must be a zillion cafes in Hanoi but Cafe Mai at No. 79 Le Van Huu is a no-frills Hanoi institution known for its sublime joe. Across the street there is a Cafe Mai shop where you can buy Vietnamese-grown and roasted beans for home.

9:30am - Head to Cho Hom to check out a giant indoor market that specializes in cloth or go north where, about 800 meters away, is Hoan Kiem lake. To the north side of the lake is the teeming Old Quarter where the 36 streets are named after the goods and services that used to be sold along them.

Alternatively, angle west of the lake to Nha Tho street, the site of the 124-year-old St Joseph's Cathedral. Nha Tho street and the perpendicular Ly Quoc Su, offer boutique shopping.

12pm - A solid lunch option is Madame Hien, at No. 15 Chan Cam street. This restaurant in a beautifully restored French villa is chef Didier Corlou's tribute to his grandmother-in-law, serving up tasty renditions of Vietnamese home cooking.

2pm - Take in some of Vietnam's lively contemporary art scene. Art Vietnam ( features paintings, sculptures, photos and prints from some top artists. The Bui Gallery ( bills itself as one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Southeast Asia.

4pm - It's time for a drink. For a coffee or cocktail in a manicured garden dotted with vintage Vespas, take a taxi to Soft Water ( on the bank of the Red River.

7pm - If you ate bun cha for lunch, consider Madame Hien for dinner. Otherwise, for a "traditional and experimental" approach to fusing Vietnamese and French flavours, Green Tangerine ( wins big plaudits.

9pm - For after-dinner carousing, try Mao's Red Lounge or Funky Buddah on Ta Hien street in the Old Quarter. Around the corner, on Hang Buom street, is Dragonfly. If you want to get your late night on, grab a cab to the Red River and Solace, a boat turned into a rather grimy bar. A bit south is another colorful late night spot called the Lighthouse, aka Phuc Tan. Watch your wallet and mobile phone here.


10am - If you want to pamper yourself, the Sunday brunch at the Sofitel Metropole is hard to beat. A more casual breakfast choice would be Joma Bakery Cafe on Dien Bien Phu street, which serves quality Western cafe fare.

2pm - The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology ( is one of Hanoi's best, featuring detailed displays of the cultures and traditions of the country's 54 ethnic groups and life-size replicas of some dwellings. Kids love this museum, especially the water puppet shows put on regularly in the garden.

For war buffs, the Army Museum has room after room of photos and exhibits depicting how the Communist forces vanquished the French colonialists and then the American imperialists. There are several vehicles and planes outside, plus a giant sculpture made from pieces of shot-down warplanes.

5pm - The Intercontinental Hotel's Sunset Bar on West Lake offers a comfortable westward-facing spot to sip a tropical cocktail and watch the sun set.


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