VIETNAM’S MOST ROMANTIC CITY LOOKS TO THE FUTURE WITH A NEW GENERATION’S EMBRACE OF THE PAST.
When to go
Right this minute. Fall, winter, and early spring find mild and pleasant temps, while summer is blazingly hot.
The place to stay
The Sofitel Legend Metropole is exactly what you came for: a 1901 landmark two blocks from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, with a savvy concierge staff, fantastic breakfasts, and colonial atmosphere to burn.
Where to eat & drink
Come to Hang Sơn 1871 for chef Nguyễn Phương Hải’s fantastic chả cá; stay for updated classics like crab vermicelli and bánh bột lọc Huế (pork-and-shrimp-filled tapioca dumplings). State-Run Food Shop #37 channels a 1970s government-issue canteen, serving simple, craveable dishes (like spicy beef stew with crunchy rice) to an improbably stylish clientele.
Street food is more a sensibility than a strict definition: Many stalls now have indoor tables and air-conditioning, even if they still cook in curbside kitchens. Most vendors specialize in a single dish, prepared as it always was and ever shall be. Start your peregrinations at Bún Chả Đắc Kim, an Old Quarter institution since 1966. Bún chả is really several plates in one: smoky grilled pork belly, pork meatballs wrapped in fragrant wild betel leaf, and double-fried crab spring rolls, all served with a tangle of rice vermicelli, fish-sauce dressing, and a heap of fresh herbs as big as your head. How you devour it all is up to you. At $4 an order, it’s the best bargain—and my favorite meal—in Hanoi. For your pho fix, hit the rough-and-tumble Phở Gia Truyền, where a giant cauldron of beef broth simmers up front. Join the regulars at communal tables, wordlessly slurping noodle soup from dawn till late morning (pho is a breakfast thing here). In an alleyway shaded by a weeping fig tree, Bún Cá Sâm Cây Si is known for delicious nem cá: deep-fried spring rolls filled with wood-ear mushrooms, minced pork, scallion, and tender fish. At the popular sandwich stall Bánh Mì 25, run by the affable Mr. Phuong, you order your banh mi at a sidewalk cart, then take it across the street to his open-air café, where you can get an avocado smoothie or fresh nước chanh leo (passion-fruit juice). Finally, bún riêu is Hanoi’s “other” noodle soup—a brighter, tangier counterpart to beef pho. Shot through with tamarind, tomato paste, and nutty annatto oil, the crimson broth at Bún Riêu 41 has amazing depth. Fill out your bowl with freshwater crab, snails, beef, and fried tofu, and you’ve got a nap in your future.
The shopping scene
Vũ Thảo’s slow-fashion brand, Kilomet109, applies traditional Vietnamese design techniques (natural dyes, hand-woven silks) to beautiful and clean-lined women’s and men’s clothing. Collective Memory has whimsically curated Vietnamese art, handicrafts, and artisanal products. If Hermès had a lacquerware boutique, it might look like Hanoia, with sleek, vibrantly colored pieces showcased in an elegant Old Quarter villa (there’s an outpost at the Metropole hotel). Tan My Design is Hanoi’s oldest embroidery shop and a favorite of local designers and expats, who come here for breezy women’s clothing, housewares, and soft bed linens from Catherine Denoual. Those same expats swear by the tailors at Hoa Fashion, up by West Lake, for expert copies of dresses, tops, pants, and jackets. Best to bring your own fabric; allow for two or three fittings.
What else to see and do
The American art expert Suzanne Lecht has lived in Hanoi since 1994, and her gallery, Art Vietnam, helped bring international acclaim to contemporary artists like the Gang of Five; her private home and collection are open to serious visitors by appointment. The charming gallery-café Manzi has become the art scene’s de facto hub, with rotating exhibits and regular salons. Sophie’s Art Tour is on hiatus while Sophie Hughes is on a research sabbatical, but should be up and running again in 2019 (check sophiesarttour.com). If you visit only one museum, make it the excellent Vietnamese Women’s Museum, for its powerful exhibit on the “long-hair army,” the women who helped win Vietnam’s independence and reunification. There’s also a floor dedicated to Vietnamese fashion, from hill-tribe costumes to contemporary couture.