Welcome to my place . . . Hanoi
‘Be prepared to be offered rice wine, the Vietnamese poitín. It’s rude to say no’
Gavin Brennan in Hanoi. He had a ball.
Gavin Brennan is a writer from Claremorris, Co Mayo. He has just returned to Ireland, having spent three years working and travelling around Asia, mostly in Hanoi, where he worked as a teacher. His website is gavisgone.com. The things he misses most about Vietnam are his motorbike and the coffee, neither of which, he says, are particularly healthy.
Where is the first place to go when you visit Hanoi?
The Old Quarter is Hanoi’s Temple Bar: a historic district which is now host to the majority of the city’s trapping of lazy or time-strapped tourists. Most visitors can make their own way around it and see what they need to so I like to take people to the Ba Dinh district on the western edge of the city centre to get a less-touristy and more real sense of the chaos that is Hanoi. There are mazes of surprisingly spacious neighbourhoods here which exist in their own world, and it’s great to spend some time wandering down alleys and getting lost. Enjoy a casual drink and some street food at one of Hanoi’s many hidden lakes, like at 135 Doi Can, for an ideal taste of the city.
The top three things to do there, that don’t cost a lot of money, are . . .
Do some people-watching. Hanoi has an everyday vibrancy that is unmatched by anywhere in Europe. People working, walking, delivering, riding scooters, making food, going to school, eating, drinking, chatting, interacting, arguing, haggling, laughing, drinking beer, playing. Walk around or take a seat and just take in the hum of normal life (be careful of the smog though). And, of course, you might not have ever before seen a young boy doing his homework on the back of a scooter at 30kph. Who doesn’t glance twice when they’re overtaken by another man with a live goat on the back of his bike, as children play in the street unattended and workers bang tools, making improvements bit by bit to the city’s infrastructure?
Cycle around West Lake. The intensity of the city-centre is intriguing, but a break is welcome. Take a leisurely cycle around the 16km circumference of West Lake, just north of the city-centre. The north-eastern side is a beautiful spot for a sunset.
Visit Banana Island. A hidden jungle on an island under the Long Bien Bridge, surrounded by the murky waters of the Red River, it can be reached by a precarious off-shoot from the rusty old-timey bridge, which looks like it is lifted from the dark room of a 19th-century photographer and gives its surroundings a sepia tinge no matter what time of day or year you’re looking at it. Get a feel for the jungle without leaving the city.
Where is the best place to get a sense of Hanoi’s place in history?
The city’s architecture is as striking as you’ll find anywhere, and representative of Hanoi’s 1,000-year past and Vietnamese culture in equal measure. The distinctive ochre French colonial-era buildings have been repurposed into the likes of the Hanoi Opera House near Hoàn Kiem Lake, or government buildings on wide, leafy boulevards near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
St Joseph’s Cathedral sticks out in the Old Quarter as a reminder of Notre Dame Cathedral, while Cua Bac Church is a more interesting mix of western and Vietnamese architecture. The Vietnamese have historically assimilated elements of foreign culture and adapted them to Vietnamese culture to make them their own.
Now, the 65-storey Lotte Tower dominates the city-centre’s skyline as neighbouring skyscrapers are finished by the week. It’s worth taking the lift up (about €10) and taking in the city from this symbol of the country’s ferocious development and embrace of modernisation and capitalism as it continues its powerful economic progress, with young kids in thrall to Korean pop and fashion stars like BTS.
Where do you recommend for a great meal that gives a flavour of Hanoi?
Although Vietnamese cuisine has become popular worldwide in recent years, I’m still a bigger a fan of Vietnamese cooking as found in the Bia Hoi, the traditional beer halls of Hanoi named for the just brewed “fresh beer” they serve, along with group-sized plates of simple but delicious meat, rice and vegetables.
The Vietnamese are masters in home-style cooking using minimal ingredients. Enjoy beef, buffalo and pork served with aromatic dipping sauces and veggies such as morning glory.
Try the ribs at Bia Hoi Tien Dung on Hoang Hoa Tham – delivered fresh by motorbike from down the street once you’ve ordered, and there’s a place on Nguyen Thai Hoc which specialises in amazing duck dishes.
As well as great food, these places really reflect the heart and soul of the madness of Hanoi. The large halls are generally noisy and crowded; furnishing consists of plastic stools and chairs with a cooler pumping out cold beer in the corner; beers are literally shouted for and anything consumable is discarded on the floor after use to be left for the ‘big sweep’ at the end of the night.
Go during a Vietnamese national football match to discover a joyful and raucous atmosphere you haven’t seen since the days of Italia ’90.
Be prepared to be offered rice wine, pronounced ‘zio’, Basically, this is Vietnamese poitín and may be offered at any time of the day or night by locals amused and delighted by your presence. It’s rude to say no.
What should visitors save room in their suitcase for after a visit to Hanoi?
Coffee. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee. To be enjoyed mixed with condensed milk, over ice. A Vietnamese café sua da has the luscious texture of a White Russian with the caffeinated sugary hit of a Red Bull. Enjoy one, just don’t drink two of them. Also, the tailoring is just as good as Hoi An, but with cheaper prices and less hassle.
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