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DECEMBER 4, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 22

Lakes, Lattes and Learning to Love Hanoi

Illustration for TIME by Satoshi Kambayashi.

Consider this vision of the perfect holiday: frothy cappuccinos for breakfast, a hotel room overlooking a lakeside park where birds sing sweetly and old folks do their exercises; great food and smiling service; artistic preparation of nearly everything; tremendous value for the buck. The place, believe it or not: Hanoi, the no-longer-stodgy capital of Vietnam.

Travelers in the know have been buzzing about Vietnam for years, but even the heartiest have found it tough to wring pleasure from the rather aloof capital. As a result, the tourist traffic that has surged into Vietnam since the country opened up in the early 1990s has largely bypassed Hanoi. But there is a tortoise-and-hare moral to this tale. Ho Chi Minh City, as the former Saigon is now called, is a congested city with little to distinguish it from Southeast Asia's other fledgling commercial centers. By contrast, Hanoi's slow development has helped preserve the city's timeless allure and layered intrigue.

Hanoi retains the architectural grandeur of its colonial heyday, when the French built their colonnaded mansions atop the city's maze of medieval alleyways. Those showpieces, spruced up in art-deco shades of ocher, pink and white, survive around a series of lakes and in lovely tree-shaded neighborhoods. Hanoi is an old city, but a green one. Along the lakes are several cafés, serving fine lattes and tasty local dishes. It's no wonder that one long-ago tourist, French geographer Joleaud-Barral, gushed: "At Singapore, at Saigon, one exists; at Hanoi one lives!"

Lakes, Lattes and Learning to Love Hanoi
The place, believe it or not: Hanoi, the no-longer-stodgy capital of Vietnam.

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Hanoi's hotel industry has been through plenty. The colonial era was a heyday of luxury and pampering.

Travel Watch Archive Browse hundreds of Asian travel tips

The good news is that this 19th-century proclamation is again ringing true. Many visitors will be taken at first by Hanoi's time-capsule evocation of the colonial period. Reminders abound in the main tourist area, especially among the stately government buildings set in the wide open spaces sweeping around Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and down to the dazzling early-1900s opera house overlooking the historic Metropole hotel.

Vibrant as it is, the colonial period is but a mere scratch on the surface of Hanoi's rich history. Almost 1,000 years ago, Ly Thai To, the first ruler of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), put his capital here. For eight centuries, Hanoi ruled the kingdom of Dong Kihn, which Europeans called Tonkin. Hanoi's history shines in a clutter of alleyways in the magnificent Old Quarter, just north of Hoan Kiem Lake. This is the perfect place to start a tour through the heart and soul of Hanoi, a maze of historic mercantile buildings embellished with centuries of detail, from tropical to art deco, Chinese to French colonial. Entire streets are devoted to specific trades and wares: shoes, silk, bamboo, even gravestone carving. You can find the usual collection of trinkets, from conical hats and Uncle Ho T shirts to beautiful lacquerware and baskets. There is fine woodworking at shops like Furniture Gallery (8B Ta Hien Street), which offers authentic pieces as well as reproductions, and will ship anywhere. For fine art and modern paintings, try Hoang Ha Art (149 Le Duan Street) and Trang An (15 Hang Buom Street). The major hotels can recommend reputable galleries and some, like the Metropole, even cater to enthusiasts with special packages.

After a long day of sight-seeing, retreat to Hoan Kiem, Lake of the Magic Sword. In a Vietnamese parallel to King Arthur, Emperor Ly was given a celestial sword, which was later nabbed by a turtle during a boating trip. The sword still hasn't materialized, but Ngoc Son Temple, which sits on an island in the lake, is a great place to soak up a dazzling view of modern Hanoi. Don't miss the daily shows by the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. In this uniquely Vietnamese art form, puppeteers perform behind a curtain, underwater. The movements are mesmerizing, as is the musical accompaniment by a Vietnamese chamber group. Hotels book the shows for $5 per person, or you can buy tickets at the door for $2 (extra if you take in a camera).

Some say Hanoi's best coffee is served at Au Luc Café, a peaceful outdoor spot behind the Metropole (57 Ly Thai To). Club Opera, next door, features great Vietnamese cuisine inside a stylish colonial mansion. Other contenders for the king of java include Mocha Café (14-16 Nha Tho), where attendants roast beans in a groovy two-story brick colonial relic; it's a great place to sip and be seen.

Hanoi has many fantastic restaurants. Don't miss Luna d'Autunno (11b Dien Bien Phu), a pizzeria serving perhaps the finest pies this side of Rome; Emperor (18b Le Than Tong), an elegant yet affordable restaurant offering fine Vietnamese and French fushion cuisine; and Bobby Chin's world-class Red Onion, which blends a New York-style chic setting with an artfully presented Asian-California menu (warm duck salad; spicy Mediterranean sea bass with rice pilaf and yoghurt garlic sauce; salmon with tuna-oyster tartar and caviar). Long left behind, Hanoi is again a heavenly haven. Another latte, please.

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