Before you arrive
Despite dizzying development. Hanoi is clinging on to its old Asia charm, especially in and around the Old Quarter, a den of non-stop trading complete with temples, roving fruit-sellers and scurrying chickens. Close your eyes and think of East Asia and you’ll likely picture something like this, albeit minus the motorbikes. And there are lots of them. Stepping off a plane and onto Hanoi’s streets with jetlag will give your senses a battering. A sea of vehicles leaves visitors lingering kerbside, bewildered at how to simply cross the road. Tip: go slowly and steadily and never make a sudden move.
Hanoi is a foodie’s dream and there’s way more to it than the famous pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). Every street offers another knockout dish, from banh cuon (rice noodle rolls) to my van than (pork noodle broth). This is also a city of caffeine addicts, with what must be more cafes per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
Etiquette abounds in Vietnamese society, but in your first 24 hours basic manners will see you right. While guidebooks will tell you to dress conservatively, in the sweltering summer months this code isn’t followed by the locals. However, respectful attire should be adopted in temples.
To get your cultural bearings, watch Bi Dung So (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid) a film set in Hanoi, which offers a revealing glimpse into modern Vietnam. For music, listen to Hanoi’s own Khanh Ly singing the songs of Vietnam’s musical icon, the songwriter and painter, Trinh Cong Son.
First night’s sleep
Thanks to an over-supply of rooms at all levels here, you will be amazed at the standard of hotel available for relatively small sums here. It pays to sleep central, near Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
Top end: At the high end there is no contest – the grand old Metropole (full name Sofitel Legend Metropole) is rich in history, colonial charm and offers impeccable service. Doubles from $150.
Mid-range: Astounding value by international standards, the central Movenpick provides five-star doubles from only $72. In the heart of the Old Quarter La Dolce Vita has chic rooms from $80.
Budget: Try St Joseph’s Hotel, next to St Joseph’s cathedral. Rooms are smart and clean, some with balconies and cathedral views. Doubles from $35.
First day’s tour
Those up early with jetlag should take a morning constitutional around the undisputed heart of the city, Hoan Kiem Lake. People will be out walking and playing badminton or – more quirkily – patting trees, hula-hooping minus the hoop or taking part in a mass laughing-yoga session.
Next, jump in a cyclo for an Old Quarter tour $1.30 per hour, finishing at St Joseph’s Cathedral. Outside, pull up one of Vietnam’s ubiquitous tiny plastic stools and sip ice lemon tea with the students. For tired limbs, more conventional seating can be found at Marilyn Cafe opposite, which has superb views of the cathedral.
After lunching on bun cha (grilled pork noodle soup), hop in a cab to the Temple of Literature, then join the locals and hire a pedalo on Hanoi’s largest lake, Ho Tay. From here it’s a short stroll past lakeside temples to the lofty Summit Lounge roof terrace for a sundowner to remember.
Stay or go?
Foodies should consider a streetfood tour, while culture-lovers shouldn’t miss the Museum of Ethnology, a fascinating collection offering insight into Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.
Leaving Hanoi, strike north for the rice-terrace-clad highlands. For creature comforts choose the hill town of Sapa (pictured); for a more rugged trip, opt for the jaw-dropping Ha Giang. A trip to Halong Bay is a must, before moving south to the riverside Unesco town of Hoi An.