Ho Chi Minh City may be Vietnam’s commercial heart, but the country’s northern capital offers history, culture and abundant charm. With its French-colonial architecture, tree-lined boulevards and atmospheric temples, Hanoi invites travellers to explore at a leisurely pace.
Start your day early in order to get going before the temperature rises and droves of motorcycle commuters clog the streets. There are all sorts of breakfast options in Hanoi, but there’s only one you should consider: pho. Although the origins of Vietnam’s iconic noodle soup are highly contested, most believe that the capital is where it first appeared. Unlike Ho Chi Minh City, where pho comes gussied up with herbs, Hanoians prefer their soup sans garnishes. Don’t let the spartan appearance fool you, though—these slow-simmered broths are deeply flavourful. You’ll have to queue to grab a bowl at Pho Bat Dan, but the rich beef pho perfumed with star anise and cinnamon is worth the wait. After slurping up your breakfast of champions, do as the locals do and get your caffeine fix with a cà phê trúng, or egg coffee. While it might sound odd to the uninitiated, this creamy concoction of condensed milk, sugar, strong coffee, and frothy whipped egg is addictive. Cafe Giang, a family-run business, claims to have invented the delicacy in the 1940s and their exact recipe is still a closely guarded secret. Afterwards, head to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake for a scenic stroll. While you’re in the area, check out the giant turtle at the nearby Ngoc Son Temple.
Afternoon 12pm –6pm
Of all the places that the late, great Anthony Bourdain visited in his travels around the world, Vietnam was always one of his favourite culinary destinations. For years, the chef praised the complexity of Vietnamese cuisine, which marries French traditions with Southeast Asian ones for delicious results. For lunch, follow in his footsteps and head to Bun Cha Huong Lien, a humble street-side eatery where Bourdain once shared a beer and bún chả (a Hanoi specialty of grilled pork and rice noodles) with President Barack Obama. The incident is so prominent in local memory that many here still refer to the place simply as “Bun Cha Obama.” After lunch, visit the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple that is home to the first national university in the country. Round out your afternoon with a stop by L’Usine, a stylish multipurpose store and cafe. Indulge in an expertly made Vietnamese milk coffee or a macchiato that would make an Italian barista proud, then shop for beautifully crafted garments and souvenirs. Whatever else you buy, be sure to pick up a bar or two of Marou chocolate, made by a small artisanal Vietnamese chocolatier using sustainably grown local beans.
When the suns dips towards the horizon, it’s time to start making dinner plans. Especially if you only have one day in town, a meal at Cha Ca La Vong is not to be missed. Located up a creaky flight of stairs, this iconic restaurant has been serving its namesake dish on communal tables for over a century. Chả cá lã vọng consists of skillets of fish stained vivid yellow with turmeric and seasoned with fistfuls of fresh herbs and a dash of umami-rich shrimp paste. Finally, don your finest duds and class it up at Le Club at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, a swank watering hole with craft cocktails and live jazz.