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HANOI: VIETNAM’S MOST COMPELLING CITY by Tom Passavant

Karen3 For most Americans, a trip to Vietnam means encounters with both the familiar and the startling. The places that conjure memories of the Vietnam War are all here: Da Nang, the Mekong Delta, China Beach. The hammer and sickle still flies over government buildings, and Ho Chi Minh’s modest stilt house and his mausoleum are on every tour itinerary.

(Photo by Karen Glenn)

But Vietnam is also full of surprises. It is far bigger (nearly a thousand miles in length) and much more crowded (with almost 85 million people, it’s the 13th most populous nation on earth) than most visitors imagine. From the air, its beaches and mountains look positively bucolic. Once on the ground, you immediately notice that seemingly every square inch has been settled and cultivated.

These contrasts of extreme beauty and bustling some would say maddening commerce mean that choosing a Vietnam itinerary is a balancing act. While Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) has a frenetic modernity, Dalat its misty mountains, Hue the royal tombs and Nha Trang a famous beach, for me the country’s single most compelling destination is Hanoi.

Karen2

For starters, it merges the capitalists-on-motor-scooters pace of life in Ho Chi Minh City with a much more peaceful vibe Hanoi’s Washington, DC, versus Ho Chi Minh City’s New York. Hanoi boasts broad, leafy

(Photo by Karen Glenn)

boulevards that date from French colonial days; at the city’s center is Hoin Kiem Lake, whose tree-lined footpaths make for ideal strolling after dinner. It is also cooler than Ho Chi Minh City; when my wife and I arrived last November, a cold snap had locals bundled up in down jackets as nighttime temperatures plunged into the 50s.

Hanoi1 Hanoi lets you dip your toe into many different aspects of modern and traditional Vietnamese life. First, try to stay in the old wing of the beautifully maintained Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, built by the French in 1901. The pool, the wonderful breakfasts and the afternoon all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet (for a mere $8) are just some of its pleasures.

Hanoi2_1 For less than a third the price, try the new 26-room Church Hotel on a street lined with cafe and boutiques that could double for Greenwich Village.

Once you’ve settled in, a cultural buffet awaits outside. The Fine Arts Museum and Vietnam Museum of Ethnology are must-sees for some excellent Buddha figures and hill tribes exhibits, respectively. In the impossibly chaotic Old Quarter, each street reflects its mercantile purpose: Wooden Bowl Street to Roasted Fish Street. All of life plays out on the pavement; at night, wizened men wearing headlamps clean earwax with rusty steel instruments, while whole families squat on tiny plastic stools eating grilled meat on sticks. Though cyclos bicycle rickshaws are considered hopelessly touristy, we found them a perfect way to explore the Old City without worrying about being impaled on one of the many speeding motor scooters.

Hanoi lives in the present, too. Vietnamese cooking is famous for ultra-fresh ingredients and lavish use of herbs and spices. Stylish restaurants, many in converted town houses, offer expertly prepared classic dishes. At the colonial-era Emperor, the spring rolls are definitive, while Brother’s Cafe has excellent buffets. There’s even an up-and-coming art scene in Hanoi. At Suzanne Lecht’s Art Vietnam Gallery, the contemporary paintings, photographs and sculptures vie for attention with the serenity of the tall, very narrow traditional "tube house" architecture of the building that houses the gallery. Just another Vietnam surprise.

Rates at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi begin at $139. Rates at the Church Hotel start at $55.

This story first appeared in Diversion.

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