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Hanoi story

February 1, 2014 Travel Deals No Comments Email Email

unnamed (6)JOHN ROZENTALS has a passionate love affair in Hanoi — with the city itself, with the teeming flow of life it supports, and with the food.

WHEN is a footpath not a footpath? When it’s in Hanoi.unnamed (7)

There it can be just about anything else — a motorbike repair shop, a hairdressing salon, a restaurant complete with cooking station as well as tables and seemingly ubiquitous small blue or red plastic stools, a badminton court, or perhaps a haberdashery.

In many cases it’s occupied by the people who live in the adjoining house or above the shop, but who simply prefer to spend most of their time out front where it’s lighter and probably cooler — cooking, unnamed (8)eating, washing up, playing cards, drinking tea or something stronger, or just chatting with friends and passers by.

If a Hanoi footpath isn’t one of these things, then chances are that it’s either a parking station for scooters and cycles, or in such disrepair as to be beyond pedestrian use.

It’s this shambolic sense of organised chaos that at least partly draws me to Hanoi as one of the world’s great cities.

You only have to try crossing the street to realise just how frenetic life in Hanoi can be, but the Vietnamese capital also has a great deal of charm and poise.

I realise that generalisations are generally dangerous, but a few days in Ho Chi Minh City were enough to convince me that the metropolis previously known as Saigon has retained all the brashness associated with the ‘Yankee’ soldiers and business people who for so long occupied it during what the locals prefer to describe as the American War.

More than 1100 kilometres to the north, Hanoi, though, retains a French ambience that melds with the local flavours to create a unnamed (9)heady cocktail indeed.

Not that the French influence was always — or even mostly — a benign thing in Vietnam. You only have to visit central Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison, now a museum complete with its original guillotine, to realise how fervently and cruelly the French could impose their colonial rule.

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Uncle Ho … the writer meets a Vietnamese hero

It was later used by the North Vietnamese Government to imprison shot-down American bomber pilots — John McCain, who ran for Presidency against Obama in 2008, among them — and nicknamed by them as ‘The Hanoi Hilton’.

I couldn’t hold back tears as I walked among the exhibits and felt some distinct pride for my stance in the 1970s as an anti-war protester.

We can certainly be grateful to Ho Chi Minh for his decision to use Hoa La this way. The Americans were never going to bomb their own heroes and its downtown location must have been critical in preserving so much of Hanoi’s grand architecture from destruction.

And talking of Uncle Ho, who really does have a revered place in the Vietnamese psyche, visitors to Hanoi shouldn’t even think about avoiding Ba Dinh Square, location of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the ultra-modernistic and very arty Ho Chi Minh Museum.

Look to spending at least half a day in this precinct, which also includes the One Pillar Pagoda (one of Vietnam’s most iconic Buddhist temples), the Presidential Palace and the modest stilt house in which Ho chose to live.unnamed (11)

For me, the pleasures of Hanoi’s Sofitel Metropol Hotel (www.sofitel.com) still await — a legendary location graced by the likes of Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Catherine Deneuve and Charlie Chaplin.

Over the past couple of years, I have, however, had the opportunity to stay at three Hanoi hotels — all in very different locations and representing extremely different aspects of the city.

The Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel (www.hilton.com) — obviously nothing to do with the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ mentioned above — isn’t far unnamed (12)from the Sofitel Metropol, right in the heart of the city’s chic, elegant French Quarter, where footpaths often are footpaths or at least badminton courts rather than marketplaces.

Taking its name from the nearby Hanoi Opera House, roofed with tiles imported from Paris and once regarded by the colonials as the finest example of French civilisation in Hanoi, it’s an appropriately grand place in which to stay.

This is the area to shop for genuine designer labels, stroll gorgeous tree-lined boulevards and dine in swanky establishments such as the Hanoi Press Club, though, as ever in Hanoi, there are plenty of places to eat very well for no more than $10-20 a head.

I’ve also stayed on “the other side of town” at Hotel Mercure Hanoi La Gare (www.mercure.com), obviously, for those with a unnamed (13)smattering of French, right next to the city’s main railway station — and an extremely safe, comfortable and well established abode.

It’s right in the midst of the Hanoi I first fell in love with, so I have a particularly soft spot for it. Just make sure that the cab takes you right to the door. Pulling suitcases around the streets in this part of the world is fraught.

Hilton Opera and Mercure La Gare are both within walking distance of two of Hanoi’s great, must-see attractions — the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake (“Lake of the Returned Sword”), where the Golden Turtle God surfaced to reclaim a magic sword previously given to the emperor.

The 36 streets and laneways of the Old Quarter are the foundation blocks of Hanoi — and also the unnamed (14)birthplace of the communist/nationalist uprising that emerged in 1907 as the Tonkin Free School Movement.

The area started as a series of workshop villages that took their names from the guilds that occupied them and what they produced — Hang Thiec (tin goods), Hang Mah (paper shades), Hang Cot (bamboo shades), Hang Non (conical hats), etc. And though there’s still a degree of specialisation the delineations are breaking down.

It’s an absolutely fascinating place to wander through, completely safe if you keep your wits about you, though you’re also almost certain to become lost among the bustle and the cacophany.unnamed (15)

Hoan Kiem Lake is where the locals promenade and provides a wonderful location to pull up stumps for an hour, buy a coffee or a beer or three, and just take in the passing parade.

At the lake’s northern end, the Temple of the Jade Mountain on Jade Islet is somewhere you can gain at least some appreciation of the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist unnamed (16)philosophies that are the cornerstones of Vietnamese spiritual life. The temple can easily be reached via the wooden, red-painted, gloriously named Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge.

Indeed, most of central Hanoi lies on flat, formerly swampy, land by the Red River and is highlighted by many lakes, the largest being West Lake, actually located on the city’s northern fringes.

The InterContinental Hanoi Westlake (www.intercontinental.com), my other accommodation in the Vietnamese capital, occupies a prime waterfront position here and provides something completely different — a calm, idyllic escape from the city’s turbulent streetlife.

To have a golf cart pick you up from your room during a tropical storm, take you round to the Sunset Bar for a cocktail, then a while unnamed (17)later to the hotel’s Saigon Restaurant for the most delicious contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, is this occasionally harried writer’s idea of bliss. And it’s all happening within a 20-minute cab ride from a completely different, yet equally appealing, world.

There’s no reason why a reasonably adept visitor can’t handle Hanoi unaided, except maybe for crossing the road, when you just take a leap of faith, walk slowly but assuredly and let the traffic flow around you.

I’m not so sure about heading off with a coachload of people, but I know there’s also much to be said for taking on Hanoi with a small-group tour or as an independent traveller with your own guide and driver.

You experience a lot that you might otherwise miss out on and you certainly save a lot of time — and, in mostly a relatively hot unnamed (18)climate, importantly also energy — being driven directly to destinations.

An operator such as Wendy Wu Tours (www.wendywutours.com.au) is a good starting point. The company offers a range of Hanoi touring options, whether it be as a sector in broader Vietnamese experiences, a specific city stop, or the launching pad for also visiting relatively nearby destinations such as wondrous Halong Bay or mountainous Sapa.

And it will ensure that you find that characterful and character-filled student coffee shop that’s down an Old Quarter laneway, through a bag shop, up some flights of stairs, then past a couple of apartments — great coffee and a memorable moment that helps elevate you from being a tourist to a true traveller.

Dining in Hanoi, as elsewhere in Vietnam, is simply spectacular. Due to the city’s proximity to southern China the food is more influenced in that direction than you’ll find in the spicier, more Thai-oriented cuisine of Ho Chi Minh City.

Street food is generally safe as long as you stick to dishes that are thoroughly cooked immediately prior to consumption. Avoid anything that could contain unbottled or unboiled water.

Here are just a few suggestions for when you want to get off the footpath:

  • Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau Street, Hoan Kiem District — a large and hugely popular eatery among locals and visitors alike, set up like a series of hawker stalls around a central square. Great range of regional Vietnamese dishes, slick service. http://ngonhanoi.com.vn
  • Nha Hang Ngon Restaurant, 26 Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoan Kiem District — another very popular eatery where you get the feeling of Vietnamese street food in a more sophisticated setting. Wonderful pho, great spring rolls, lots and lots of other stuff and still very cheap. Colonial courtyard setting.
  • Madam Anh Tuyet Restaurant, 25 Ma May, Hoan Kiem District — run by a highly regarded chef renowned for the authenticity of her cuisine. Not easy to find this Old Quarter establishment, but well worth the effort. Also famous for its cooking school.
  • Hanoi Press Club, 59A Ly Thai To, Hoan Kiem District — if you need to go upscale and eat predominantly western-based cuisine with clever Vietnamese twists then this grand French Quarter establishment is an excellent choice. http://www.hanoi-pressclub.com

GETTING THERE

There are obviously innumerable ways to get to Hanoi from Australia. The last time I went I took the Cathay Pacific option and spent some time visiting Hong Kong as well — providing myself the opportunity to experience in one trip two extremely different Asian cultures. Cathay (www.cathaypacific.com) offers regular flights to Hong Kong and its associate carrier, DragonAir (www.dragonair.com), connects with Hanoi and Danang.

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