The first thing that will strike you as you emerge at the top of the stairs from the modest restaurant below, is the décor. Inspired by the famous lanterns which illuminate Hoi An’s ancient riverside shophouses, all of the main rooms of Lantern Lounge are bedecked with dozens of colourful lanterns in all shapes and sizes.
Best enjoyed in the evening, these lanterns provide the perfect amount of light to create the relaxed atmosphere which is an excellent antidote to the madness of the Old Quarter streets outside.
The walls depict scenes of old Hanoi, sketched out in black against a backdrop of red. Propped up against them are massive comfy pillows, on top of spongy futon-like seats.
On the third floor, there is a large room hosting a full-size pool table, seating and a meaty speaker system. The second floor is home to the smoking area, where locals and foreigners sit side-by-side enjoying one of the many flavours of shisha on offer, or simply enjoying a cigarette on the balcony, watching the lost backpackers trundling around outside.
The main room is non-smoking, and often full of people tucking into some of Hanoi’s most famous dishes. The manager, Duong Pham, tells me that the restaurant below has been connected with Lantern Lounge from the beginning.
“We’ve always had food here,” Duong explained. “We even have a whole separate menu just for vegetarian food.” He guides me through the menu, proudly pointing out a few customer favourites.
“Foreigners love nem so much, and we have many other traditional Vietnamese dishes,” he says, pointing to other local favourites such as bun cha, cha ca and pho bo.
In a nod to my student days, I order a couple of deep fried dishes to accompany the flow of alcohol. The Hanoi spring rolls (VND85,000) were just as they should be, crispy and not overly filling. After that, the crispy mushrooms (VND65,000) were given zest by the tangy chilli and soya sauce.
With an almost unbelievable Old Quarter price of just VND55,000 for a rum-based cocktail, I wasn’t expecting much from my first drink, the snow caipirinha. Happy to be proven wrong, I had to admit to the pleasant surprise of electric blue crushed ice, delicately flavoured with lime and sugar.
Despite the first drink hitting the spot in all the right ways, and believing that variety is the spice of life, for my next drink I went for an old favourite and cocktail classic, the pina colada (VND85,000).
A no-thrills version, simply made with rum, pineapple juice and coconut cream, it was as pleasant to behold as it was to taste. Served in a hollowed out pineapple, it was the perfect balance of sweet coconut and sour pineapple.
As a restaurant, Lantern Lounge is pretty good. As a bar, it’s excellent. A cool place to hang out, the drinks are reasonably priced and well made, and the comfort of the seats combined with the atmosphere created by the décor and music means you will be in no rush to go home.
Lantern Lounge is located above Cuisine Viet at 80 Ma May, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Open from 11am until midnight, the kitchen closes at 11pm. Photos by Theo Lowenstein