Hanoi is one of those cities — if you haven’t seen it, then you haven’t seen Vietnam. But simply follow the tourist trail or get snared by scammers and you may vow never to leave Ho Chi Minh City for the weekend again. Or, use your time in the 1001-year-old city wisely, and you’ll come back again and again, hooked by its people, its charm and the addictive hunt for that bowl of something you haven’t yet tried.

 

Start early. 5am

Like many capitals, Hanoi is at its most peaceful as it stirs from sleep. It goes to bed early — 10pm–12pm everyday thanks to curfews — and wakes up with the sun. Elders enjoy aerobics and laughing yoga by the lakes. The quirk of morning, along with the smell of street food, will put a smile on your face and make for a good start to a busy day.

 

Go to the mausoleum. 6am

Head to Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh gave his declaration of independence in 1945, to watch the raising of the flag parade. Once it’s done, head to the mausoleum to see the revered revolutionary lying embalmed with his beard still long. Arrive before it closes at 11am and don’t wear shorts or smiles.

 

An die! 9am

Do like the locals and squat on a stool to eat beef or chicken noodle soup (pho Mai Anh, 32 Le Van Huu). Or head to Mr Chi’s Café Kinh Do 252 to sample his homemade sour yoghurt with honey, which Catherine Deneuve ate daily while shooting the film Indochine. Also for breakfast, eat banh cuon (14 Hang Ga) or banh cuon phu ly (half banh cuon half bun cha at 39 Dao Duy Tu).

 

Sample street life. 10am

Get lost in the city’s Old Quarter before lunch. Look down narrow alleys for hidden cafes (Hanoi House, 47a Ly Quoc Su/Hanoi Social Club, 6 Hoi Vu) or join business types and teens sipping strong coffee with condensed milk at St Joseph’s Cathedral on Nha Tho. Grab a cyclo for a pre-agreed rate. Don’t take a taxi — it will cost more than it should and will distance you from life on the Old Quarter’s frantic streets.

 

Eat more. 12pm

Lunch options are endless. So for a bit of everything head to Quan An Ngon (18 Pham Boi Chau). In this French villa and courtyard, locals and foreigners enjoy restaurant renditions of street food staples from all over the country. But for something exclusively Hanoian, find a grilled pork patty with rice noodles stand — bun cha Ha Noi — and swill it down it with iced tea from the northern hills.

 

Tick the boxes. 2pm

See the sites, like Vietnam’s first university, The Temple of Literature. Photograph the Opera House, which was once the flagship of French architecture in Indochina, along with the illustrious Metropole Legend Hotel nearby. Walk Long Bien Bridge, or the horizontal Eiffel Tower, which once symbolized French power. After surviving Nixon’s operation Rolling Thunder it now represents Vietnamese solidarity. And beneath the bridge, sits “Middle Warp”, or Long Bien Island, a vast cross-section of rural life and the ideal teleport from the bustle of Hanoi. Visit the Museum of Ethnology to see how Vietnam has evolved and enter the gardens for a glimpse of life in ethnic minority housing from all over the country.

 

Plan ahead. 5pm

Book excursions for the next day — the mystical limestone islands of Halong Bay and the peaceful rice valleys of Mai Chau are worth a visit. For something different join a microfinance tour with Bloom Microventures, which uses trip fees to fund low interest loans to help women entrepreneurs flourish in rural Hanoi.

 

Down in one? 6pm

Start early with Bia Hoi (the corner of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien for a tourist experience, or 19C Ngoc Ha for a more authentic take), the local, light and extremely cheap Pilsner brought to Hanoi by way of Czechoslovakia. Nothing fancy here; it’s consumed on the street and often served with local nibbles. Expect to make some new friends, and prepare for lots of ‘down in ones’ — just like in the south.

 

Fill up. 9pm

Experience fine dining from chef Didier Corlou at La Vertical in the French Quarter, or relax in the new and trendy resto-bar, Southgate, on the city’s only 24-hour food street, which almost by default became the replacement hang out for those that suffered at the hands of Tadioto’s closure. For 360 degree views of the city’s climbing skyline, take a lift up to the Sofitel Plaza Hotel’s new Summit Lounge. Or to relax, visit OChao Teahouse and sample Vietnam’s best teas while overlooking Hanoi’s largest lake. Check the fliers for events happening at Hanoi Rock City, Hanoi’s largest dedicated music venue on To Ngoc Van. It could be local, it could be international, it could be rock, it could be rap, dubstep or folk. Either way, there is usually some type of talent on show in the vast venue popular with the early morning massive.

 

Hit the strip. 12am

The bars in the Old Quarter’s party strip look more closed than they are. Ta Hien in particular is famed for it’s after-hours with Cheeky Quarter, Tet Bar, Funky Buddha, Mao’s Red Lounge, and Link Hanoi’s Fat Cat all residing in the space of about 50m. Around the corner on Hang Buom, pop music at Dragonfly gets the 9X teeny-boppers throwing peace signs for pictures and just across the road, Temple Bar hits a slightly more mature crowd with pop-house mash ups. Other city nightclubs, mainly geared toward the local, table-service-loving crowd, are the old Apocalypse Now, T-Bar, New Square, Face Club, and Hanoi Club.

 

All Night Dives. 2am

For uninterrupted messiness, head to the city’s famed all night hole — Phuc Tan, over two floors. Reminiscent of a grungy, east London warehouse party, you can expect bass lines, cheap drinks, plenty of space to dance and a outdoor BBQ, not to mention the sunrise views of the Red River and Long Bien Bridge. An alternative is Solace, also on the Red River Bank, but its reputation has declined in recent months and few people now include it as a stop over on their all night party bus.

 

To Market. 4am

If you’re wide awake or in need of some late night munch, head to the frenetic night markets where everything is bought in bulk by street vendors for the next day; fruit and veg goes from under Long Bien Bridge while Vietnam’s best smelling market, the flower market (Au Co Street), is brimming with the scents that will grace Hanoi’s streets from 6am onwards.

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