Many visitors to Vietnam go to Ho Chi Minh or Saigon but hardly ever go to Hanoi. Fortunately, this is my fourth time to visit this lovely and historical place. My first visit was when a local Philippine airline flew direct to the Northern Vietnam city. I was with my good friend Boots Garcia of WomenbizPH and we came to attend the Global Summit of Women in 2008.
My next visit was to while away the Christmas to New Year holiday in 2012. Hanoi is cool in December and one would do well to bring a light sweater or jacket. Temperatures range from 12 to 18 degrees Celsius. There was a slight mist or drizzle on some days.
In 2014, I went to Hanoi twice. First, for the ASEAN Women Entrepreneur’s meeting in the summer and the second time was to be with some friends over the Christmas holidays.
What to do in Hanoi? Here are some suggestions:
SOFITEL METROPOLE. Visit this famed hotel where Somerset Maugham and other famous people have stayed. Built in 1901, it has since been refurbished, but its feel and vibe are still as classic as The Raffles in Singapore: indoor gardens, well-appointed public areas, and good restaurants. I particularly enjoy the Spice Garden where Chef Nicholas Shadbolt has prepared a spread of local specialities like Ban Thang (noodle soup), the famous chicken or beef pho, Ban Cuon rice rolls, and various local desserts like rice cakes and sweet potato or yam soups (which is what they call sweet desserts in a syrup).
QUAN AN NGON. If you want a little more rugged local flavour, go to this spot where locals go to enjoy Ban Xeo – a Vietnamese pancake filled with bean sprouts, ground pork, and shrimps, and served with a garden of herbs and greens all rolled in rice paper. Dipping sauces are the nuoc mam, or fish sauce with some chili and garlic.
NHA HAN NGON. A more organised sister of the Quan An Ngon group, it is set in a French colonial structure with a courtyard that is open on hot nights, covered on cooler evenings. Try the tofu cubes coated with salted duck egg or the grilled pork served with broken rice and shredded turnips. Broken rice is a Vietnamese speciality which is actually from rice grains that have broken in processing, which invloves manual pounding of palay that have been thrown away during the winnowing process. (The locals serve it as a speciality with grilled meats.)
BUN CHA. There are several places that serve this speciality so make sure you try this Northern favourite. It is made of rice noodles served with various greens and herbs, eaten with grilled sausage and grilled pork in a light fish sauce with sliced papaya, carrots, and a side dish of fried spring rolls, too. It is a whole meal that is filling, tasty, and healthy. I like the one called Bun Cha Nem Gua Be Dac Kim on 67 Duong Thanh Street in Hoan Kiem (Old Quarter). You go up the stairs and share tables with locals. It surely is a delicious experience.
CHA CA LA VONG. Located on Pho Cha Ca (or Fish street), go to the original one wth a wooden sign on the façade. There is a copy across the street, beside S-Hope Bakery. Get some baguettes from S-Hope where the dough is freshly made. You can also grab some cheese and ham to eat with the baguettes and French rolls.