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Heavenly Hanoi

Vietnam has slowly been opening up to the West since the early’90s – and visitors who comw once always seen to return. It’s a curious country with social and political influences from Russia, China, France and even the US in recent times. Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and beating cultural heart, is the choice place for a visit, especially if all you’ve got is 72 hours.

You still fly into Hanoi over rice paddies and the countryside beyond fades into temples and cliff-strewn land. But it’s a deceptively large city of almost 7 million people. Driving from the aiport can be a fair-raising experience, as cars, 50cc motos, ambling grannies bearing live chickens and children on old Vietnamese bikes all vie for road space. There’s a bustle that is distinctly Chinese, and yet a sense of ancient calm prevails. Budding urbanity is countered by a real connection to the past and land-even in the city’s center-that is rare in any metropolis.

At the heart of life here is a rich culture related to food, cooking and 24 jours consumption of all things edible, including snakes, cats and dogs, and one has to experience it all. Markets boom under bridges in the wee hours of the night. Women wade in the middle of lakes to drudge for unique Hanoi snails that are eaten boiled in lemon leaves. The cooler Northern climate means the cusine is less dynamic than that of the South and Saigon, but it’s just as rich. Earthy stews, aromatic noodle soups like the inonic pho, scents of garlic-strewn pork, Garlic intrusions like baguettes and darkly-roasted coffee: there are just a sampling of the tastes on offer here.

Te experience the best of it stay in the Hoan Kiem District, which takes its name from one of the citi’s lakes. Generally, lodging is Hanoi’s glaring weakness, and there are just a few places worth checking into. Though a bit worm, the address and historic draw of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi are undeniable and its restaurants and bars are musts. The Intercontinental is a bit further-flung in the Tay Ho District yet offers luxury, spacious rooms. If you’re seeking something off the beaten path with a touch of the pastoral, Moon River Retreat has a mere five rooms with a mix of antiques and modern fixtures, plus Chinese style gardens and courtyards

Day 01: Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake
The old quarter of Hanoi is where one can still feel the deep sense of reverence this city has for the life of tinkers and artists. You’ll hear many refer to this stretch of the city as Pho Co – 36 Streets- and it cuts a rustic and timeless swath in this bounderies: Hoan Kiem Lake, Long Bien Bridge, and remnants of both ramparts and a citadel wall. The name dates back to the 1200’s when every form of craft, be it potters or metal smiths, formed guilds and practiced in concert on single blocks.

Remnants of this life gone by are still very much in evidence. On Ma May Street, #87 there’s an orginal “tubehouse, built long, thin and tunnel-like to avoid the taxes that were livied according to the width of a storefront. There is a distinct Chinese feel to the set-up with the workshop downstairs and living space, but the detailed stonework is very Vietnamese. Spreading out over Dong Xuan and Hang Chieu Streets is one of the oldest markets in the country. Sadly, it was rebuilt in a brutal concrete mass style after a fire, but a wild cacophony of hawking in produce, clothing and everything in – between still makes a visit a pleasure.

Though many of the guilds are gone, there are still plenty of purposeful streets afoot. Hang Dao ( Street of Silk) is a riot of color, silk and fabric, as it has been since the 15th century, Hang Gai ( Street of Hemp ) no longer sells hemp but does a vigorous trade in ready-to-wear silk products, silvery and crafts. Hang Ma pawns a curious paper art called ma, shaped like homes, bikes, you name it, and then burned as an offering. Hang Quat ( Street of  Fans ) deals in Buddhist relics of all sizes and some lacquer ware and bottoms into a small wooden house honoring Vietnamse soldiers.

Vietnamsese tend to eat all day, but there is a rush come mid-day. Local food is fresh, healthy and clean ( this is true especially if you see a crowd) and tends to get parsed into single-dish venues, Old Town staples include Bun Bo Nam Bo ( Wheat noudles tangled up with citrus-scented-berbs, peanuts and lime juice) at 65 Hang Dieu and Banh Cuon ( Rice flour rools, silken in texture, wrapped around minced pork, shrimp, and vegetables fresh enough to be from California ).

Keep exploring the Old Quarter but slowly veer towards Hoan Kiem Lake in the late afternoon. In the mornings, in a veil of mist, this is where locals come to do taichi, play badminton and take tea. It's the local point of festivals and the site of evening romance and lots of beery sondowners. Turtles still paddle about the waters surrounding Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the middle. There is a rock in a peach-like cast called Writing Pad, a 30 foot stone with painterly sweep called Pen Tower, and the Three Passage Gate and Flood of Morning Sunlight Bridge, which one must pass to enter. It's a moving temple, even more so in dying sunset light. Try to time your visit.

Afterwards, saunter back to the banks and join the locals for a beer. One local specialty worth trying is OC ( Snails), sold in the street. They come stewed in beer, rolled in ginger leaves with onion, garlic and mushroom, or steamed in lemon leaves, and are delicious as an appetizer. But save the main meal for Wild Rice , a whitewashed and quite chic Vietnamese restaurant that does local tastes justice. If you prefer French and something within the Old Quarter, Green Tangerine occupies a French colonial villa and has a menu mixing gutsy Gallic classics and Eurasian departures.

Day 02: Uncle Ho, Museums and Vietnamese Art
This city of Hanoi belongs- and probably always will, at least in spirit-to the late leader and founder of the modern country, Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho, as he loved to be called. He never married and claimed the citizens were his family. They've kept him alive via a series of exhibits, museums, a one-time embalming, preserved homes and countries souvenirs you woundn't to miss in Hanoi.

Mornings are the best time for exploring the above and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the natural starting point. The trip there is a picturesque one through tamarind-shaded streets on which French-style villas loom. Once also encounters the kind of brutal and somewhat ominous municipal buildings left over from the Soviet era of influence. At the heart you'll find Ba Dinh Square ( marked by an enormous Vietnamese flag), where the leader read this Declaration of Independence in 1945. Inside the mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body lies in a spare room held in local red=tinged marble. Be aware that in this solemn atmosphere pictures, shoddy dress, bags and the like are forbidden. To enter one must sign in and "buy" a brochure at 08 Hung Vuong Street.

The erea is also host to a glut of museums such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum with its gonzo collection of memorabilia. Photos of nuclear reactors, plastic fruits, depictions hinting at US military failure, murals and highly articulated Russian-style interiors are amongs the gaggle of details worth searching out. The Fine Art Museum offers a good introduction to Vietnam's storied visual culture. This shabby yet lovable building once was the lodge for French female students. Curated by the government, the choice of objects is interesting in its celebration of things agricultural and, of course, related to the nation and Uncle Ho. But there are also rooms full of bronze relics, folk art and laquered items that  would be anchors in any collection in the West. Finally, there is Ho Chi Minh's Residence- complete with slippers, typewriters and well-arranged books.

Counter the obsessive attention to organization at the museums with a lunch back in the chaotic Old Quarter. An institution, which originated what may be the most famous dish next to Pho, Cha Ca La Vong serves a namesake specialty in a gritty old building. Cubes of fish are scented with fresh turmeric and dill and DYI-dipped into a coal-fired pot of hot oil. You then mix them in a bowl with fish sauce, peanuts, several varieties of mint, onion and rice noodles and wrap them in lettuce. Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate the trip to Fanny Ice Cream afterwards for flavors like young rice, tamarind or corn when in season.

Art lovers can and do, spend days immersed in Hanoi's active gallery scene. Be forewarned that fakes, mass production and price padding are common here, so consuit experts like Suzanne Lecht before you buy. She gives advice and also runs Arts Vietnam at 30 Hang Than street and can arrange studio visits. Beeline it to Trang Tien Street for one-stop surveying at Red River (#11), Hanoi sStudio (#13), Van (25/27), Tonkin, Opera, and Kinh Bac (#29 A, B, C ), the last dealing in a mix of antique furniture. On Hang Gai in the Old Quarter is perhaps the most famous of all galleries, Apricot (40B Hang Gai ). The range of work is shocking and can cover European pastoralism, German Expressionism and a Chinese sense of the rustic. But there is something magical about the best Vietnamese works and new artists always in rise.

Set the evening aside for a restful bath or shower and secure a reservation for a touch of Hanoi's high life at Le Beaulieu in the Metropole. Chef here has been knighted by the French gorvernment, speaks fluent Vietnamese, works with a Hanoi born chef to preserve local dishes, and presents a mix of his passions nightly in the most elegant of ways. For something more mordern, Bobby Chinn is the eponymous haunt of a California-trained chef with East-West panache and a cocktail lounge where the local beau monde comes to play.

Day 03: French Quarter, Hanoi Local Life and Church
Hanoi's appeal lies, above all, in the way the locals approach life. Take your final day to soak up the rhythms of street and embrace Hanoi in all its old, new, traditional, modern and quirky ways. Begin the morning along with the Chinese Tai Chi devotees on Hoan Kiem Lake. After days of battling humming motorcycles and honking trucks in traffic, the lack of automobiles will amaze you and so will the fact that the traffic seems to flick on like a light when the last badminton birdie is picked up.

Coffee drinking and cafe culture are an essential part of the Hanoi fabric. Hang Bo Street in the Old Quarter bottoms into a small area where little cafes host mobs of party cadres, artists and students. Vietnamese are very chatty and intellectual, and these are the beehives and outlets for them. Chairs are small, literally child-sized, sometimes blue plastic  or painted wood, The tables are covered with glasses of Ca phe den (black coffee) or Ca phe sua da (Iced coffee with milk), which come with their own picturesque drip top. Something more upscale ? Au Lac by the Metropole has, when quiet, the kind of leafy atmosphere that might have drawn Catherine Deneuve types in times past.

Whether you want local coffee accessories, handsome furnishings or comtemporary versions of Ao Dai ( Long flowing traditional gown ) worn by the fetching Vietnamese women whipping by on motorcycles with white gloves, there's bountiful shopping in Hanoi. Nha Tho Street is an ideal starting block with names like Song, Voi Boutique and La Boutique and The Silk specializing in fabrics and women's ready-to-wear, while shops like Mosaique and Red Door Deco update the Vietnamese aesthetic for the urbanite, This short street with a long shopping list features St. Joseph Cathedral at its end. Loop around to its right and on Ly Quoc Su Street there's another bevy of shops like Zinj, which produces excellent modern lacquerware, and Sapanesque, which sells ethnic tribal fabrics.

The national noodle dish of Pho ( pronounced "fuh") is a beef, pork or chicken stock with star anise, ginger, slightly garlicky aromatics and a showering of herbs. There is barely an hour of the day when locals are not eating this specialty, and most visitors get addicted to it all on their own. Some of the best in town is sols at Mai Anh on Le Van Huu Street, Bat Dan on Bat Dan street, and Tiem Pho on Pho Hue, or Pho Cuong on Hang Mam - places locals and any drivers will know by name and probably by taste. Another lunch alternative is Hoa Sua. Vietnamese chefs, waiters and bakers train here in their youth to pay for their education. The food is hit or miss, but the villa courtyard setting and cause correct any shortcomings

(Source: Luxury Travel Company)
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