I think Hanoi is a bit under-rated. I got to spend two separate nights and one afternoon there. Ho Chi Minh tends to steal the limelight but I liked Hanoi and could have done with a couple of days there. Anyway, here’s what I loved about my brief stopover at Hanoi:
The Water Puppet Show facing Hoan Kiem Lake perched on the edge of the Old Town. It’s a lovely visual spectacle and only lasts about an hour so you don’t need to set aside a whole evening for it. Don’t expect little glove puppets a la Punch and Judy. The puppets are big and are operated from big sticks. And don’t worry about understanding the story – you get a little synopsis on a handout at the beginning and the show illustrates little folk tales. And you don’t have to be a kid either. I didn’t even see any kids in the audience. They have several showings through afternoon and evening. I just turned up and bought a ticket 30 minutes before the show – about 6 dollars as far as I can remember. Make time for it.
I ate very well in Hanoi. Check out the New Day restaurant on 72 Ma May. When we turned up it was packed but they made room for us three floors up. I went in with my new friends so I wasn’t eating solo. If you are travelling solo it might be slightly intimidating to go into such a crowded restaurant but it’s worth it and you’ll probably meet people there as you’ll be in such close proximity to others. Probably not for you if you like your space but I loved it. (We had to walk through the kitchen to get upstairs – very exciting.) I don’t think it matters what you order but if you’re craving vegetables, their sides of veg are delicious. I had mustard greens with my noodles but everyone else’s veg looked great too. It’s also quite good for vegetarians but I didn’t really care about them at that point as I was enjoying my beef noodles far too much. Huge portions so don’t get carried away by ordering too much. Incredibly good value and a wonderful buzz about the place.
You could also eat in 16 Nguyen Sieu; I can’t remember the name of it but my budget hotel recommended it and I had a nice lunch there, very reasonably priced. I also had a great dinner – really cheap – at Bun Bo on Hang Dieu. Benches, plastic seats, low tables. Everyone squished together. I was alone but I felt very comfortable and got talking to other diners while there.
Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan – a real treat if you love good coffee. Now, you’ll have to work a bit to find this place; you won’t just stumble across it but it’s so worth the effort. You’ll go through an obscure little door and down a narrow, dark corridor before you get to the kitchen and then it’s upstairs to the cafe which retains its original 1950s interior. They’re famous for their egg coffee or ca phe trung. So basically, you get coffee with cream which has been whipped stiff and there’s some egg in there. It’s very rich and sweet, and looks rather like a tiramisu but I didn’t mind one bit. You may need a sweet tooth and a love of desserts to enjoy this but if that’s too much for you just go there anyway and get a regular coffee or read their website for some Giang Cafe history. http://www.giangcafehanoi.com/
I stayed in the Hanoi Old Town Hotel on Hang Chieu for about 14 USD per night. It’s a very clean, basic budget hotel. I felt very safe and comfortable there. The staff were very helpful and booked my Halong Bay cruise for me. (Minh, one of the receptionists, could be working for a 5 star operation in the States because she is so professional and polished. She looks about 18 but she could run her own hotel with ease.) You have to pay for breakfast but they serve a decent menu of American breakfasts which is a change from the usual noodle and soup breakfasts. As I stayed for two separate bookings I got a good room on the first stay and a rather grotty room on the top floor for the second. It really needed a make-over and was quite shabby. The lock on the door was, well, fragile. However, it WAS clean and it was only for one night so no complaints.
I didn’t go to Hanoi to shop but I ended up buying quite a few gifts there because they were different from those on offer in Ho Chi Minh and possibly cheaper. There are lots of lovely, cheap embroidered textiles, souvenirs, fans and straw theatrical masks which look very striking and are light enough to pack or mail home. The Old Town Market on Sunday night is huge but, to be honest, I thought you had to wade through a lot of cheap tat to get to anything decent. A friend bought some chopstick sets in ornate, lacquered boxes and got them very cheap with some gentle haggling.