Hanoi is often touted as the land of motorbikes and steamy pho (beef noodle soup). And that’s partly true.
Whether you’re in the Old Quarter – the city’s beating heart of tradition and trade – or wandering around peaceful West Lake, just to the north, it’s impossible to walk a block without encountering a makeshift noodle stand or an impenetrable wave of Vespas.
But beyond first impressions, the capital of Vietnam has surprises tucked down every alleyway.
To really get a feel for how this Southeast Asia destination is evolving, CNN Travel took to the streets with Hanoi’s top artists – the writers, poets, musicians and trendsetters who keep the city’s creative juices flowing.
They shared their favorite coffee shops and sunset spots, alleyways and restaurants for an insiders’ guide to rule them all.
Mark Lowerson, Hanoi Street Food Tours
Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Mark Lowerson visited Vietnam in 2002 while on vacation.
He tells CNN Travel it was “love at first sight.”
“The Old Quarter seemed so exotic, so old-world, so confusing. I wanted to try and work it out,” Lowerson recalls.
Soon after, he relocated to Hanoi and worked as a teacher. In 2005, he found his way into the blogosphere with Sticky Rice – now one of the city’s longest-running food blogs.
“It was just a creative outlet – a way for me to document and try to make sense of the rich food culture all around me,” says Lowerson.
The blog evolved into another business: Hanoi Street Food Tours, which Lowerson launched officially in 2011 with partner and fellow blogger Van Cong Tu (who pens Vietnamese God).
Even after 16 years and hundreds of tours in Hanoi, Lowerson says he still notices something new every day.
“I take great pleasure in the minutiae or richness of small details around me, wherever I look,” he says.
“Hanoi is a great walking city, much of it is like being in a living museum or observing an ongoing piece of performance art.”
For Lowerson, the most inspiring aspect is the drive and energy of Vietnamese people.
“In local food settings where I’m operating, the feisty but friendly sisterhood of street food vendors, their every toil for little reward and, indeed, their tolerance for me bringing foreign travelers to their stalls – that’s truly inspiring!”
He suggests travelers do their best to “get lost” in Hanoi, rather than following an itinerary or checking TripAdvisor for the best restaurants.
“Do what I do: Be intrigued by places where large groups of locals are gathered to eat or drink,” he says.
Lowerson points to a vendor west of the Old Quarter called Van, who specializes in bun ca – a fish noodle soup.
“This is one of the best in town,” he says. “There are two types of noodles, and then your choice of steamed or fried fish.”
While in other countries, adding salt could be considered an insult to the chef – Lowerson says that’s not the case in Vietnam.
“Here, you are expected to use the condiments on the table,” he explains.
“Add a little lime, vinegar, chili and herbs to achieve the essential balance of salty, sour, sweet and spicy.”
Of course, a trip to Hanoi isn’t complete without trying Vietnamese coffee.
He recommends Cafe Duy Tri (43A Yen Phụ), in the West Lake district, which has been in operation since the 1930s.
“It’s an iconic name in Hanoi coffee culture – they do all of the roasting, sourcing of their own beans and the roasting, grinding on their own,” he says.
“But since it’s such a narrow space and tiny, not everyone knows how to find it – you have to be in the know to find this place.”
Tram Vu, Manzi
A cultural activist and local Hanoi resident, Tram Vu is one of the driving forces behind Hanoi’s burgeoning contemporary arts scene.
Along with two friends, Vu co-founded Manzi in 2012. The indie art space, cafe and bar is on a mission to support the local art scene with exhibitions, installations, live music, talks and workshops.
“Contemporary art is very important. It reflects the currents of society and it brings real life to the work and people need to appreciate that,” Vu tells CNN Travel.
“We try together with other art spaces in town to create some momentum.”
The founders set up their home base in a French mansion near West Lake, on a quiet street that Vu says has hardly changed in the past five years.
For those interested in learning more about Vietnamese art, Vu recommends an informative and experiential tour called Sophie’s Art Tour.
“It is a very intensive tour about local art, starting at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum,” explains Vu.
“Then the guide will take you through all the significant art spaces in Hanoi. Along the way, you’ll learn so much about the history and current climate of Vietnam.”
For something a little more low-key, aside from Manzi, there’s Nha San Collective – where you’ll find contemporary art exhibitions from emerging local artists.
Another option is L’ Espace, part of the French Institute, and the Goethe Institut, which offer a mix of exhibitions and performance arts.
Performance art has a long tradition in Vietnam. For a fresh take on the traditional, Vu recommends a show at the Hanoi Opera House dubbed Lang Toi (My Village).
The contemporary circus combines stunts, dancing and music – poetically recounting Vietnamese village life.
Nguyen Qui Duc, Tadioto & Motosan
An acclaimed author, poet and restaurateur, Nguyen Qui Duc grew up in Vietnam during the decades-long Vietnam War, which took place from 1955 to 1975.
“Like many families who lived through the war, we had difficult circumstances: My father had been a political prisoner, and my mother was stuck in central Vietnam,” Nguyen tells CNN Travel.
When the war concluded, Nguyen’s relatives took the then-teenager to the US, where he studied in Virginia and California before moving to London to pursue a career in journalism.
And, eventually, his career led him back home.
“While on assignment in Vietnam, I discovered Hanoi as a city with a lot of history, great architecture and many wonderful people,” he recalls.
The reporter moved back in 2006 and worked as a radio content editor until opening his gallery and bar Tadioto, right by the Hanoi Opera House.
He also runs Moto-san Uber Noodle, a popular eatery inspired by Japan’s micro cafes.
“The noodle restaurant is a reflection of my admiration of Japanese small stalls and the disciplines of people working in very small spaces,” says Nguyen.
“I also like Vietnam’s sidewalk culture, and wanted to blend it a little with a Japanese style.”
While food is, of course, a crucial part of Vietnamese culture, Nguyen says the most exciting thing about Hanoi is the energy.
“You walk down the street and thousands of motorcycles rush by. People are doing things all the time,” he says.
“Certainly plenty of people sit and drink coffee or drink beer. But there’s always somebody working, doing something – whether it’s a carpenter or a guy selling fruit, selling flowers … people try here.”
“It’s an insistence, to me, on hope. That no matter what the country is going through, whatever regime, whatever government, whatever barriers to progress or to growth, people try. Brick by brick, dream by dream, they build a life for themselves.”
That’s one of the main qualities that compelled Nguyen to move back.
One of his favorite experiences in the city occurs in the early mornings at the vegetable and fruit market near the Long Biên Bridge.