A modern city with a sense of history
It might be only 5.30am but Hanoi's streets are humming. In a few hours' time, the cacophony of scooter horns will provide the soundtrack to breakfast. Right now though, traffic is relatively quiet - the dawn chorus comes from the thwock of shuttlecocks in footpath badminton games, the soft strain of classical music accompanying couples swaying beside the lake, the friendly chatter of groups out walking, and the barked orders from instructors of outdoor aerobics classes.
In the soupy days of late summer, it's light from 5am, prompting Hanoians to hustle to the outskirts of Hoan Kiem Lake and West Lake, or to congregate in Lenin Park. There, they practise everything from tai chi to the waltz, weight-lifting and jogging. It's a fascinating sight. And by 7am, it's all over - cooks and carpenters, mechanics and medics hurry off to feast on steaming bowls of pho, squatting at street-side stalls or crowding on to benches in cafes.
You should follow them, of course, to continue your taste of the city. Around every corner are cafes serving pho - the noodle soup that is traditionally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. It varies throughout the country - in the south, pho typically contains bean sprouts and more herbs - but the essentials are tender pieces of beef brisket (bo) or chicken (pho), served in a fragrant noodle broth. You add a squeeze of lime, a drop of vinegar and a sprinkling of chilli then dig in, pausing only to dunk the churro-like doughnuts served alongside.
Hanoi is a modern city on the move. Its residents sip coffee in cafes (Vietnam is the world's second-largest producer of coffee, after Brazil), chat on iPhones, and shop in Western boutiques. At the same time, though, there's a tangible sense of history. In different corners of the city, colonial architecture, ancient temples and respect for tradition conspire to give you a feeling for the way life has always been lived here.
This sense of tradition is very much evident on a visit to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. Set in the centre of Ba Dinh Square, where Vietminh leader Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam's declaration of independence in 1945, the enormous grey tomb was opened to the public in 1975 (its guest of honour died in 1969). Each day, locals and tourists queue up to pay their respects to the preserved body of the great leader. Numerous guards patrol the grounds, and are quick to chastise anyone making too much noise or wearing unsuitable clothing (no singlets or shorts). Once you reach the front of the queue, you troop solemnly past the waxen form of Ho Chi Minh, encased in a glass box.
Many Vietnamese pause in front of the box to pray for a moment or weep quietly, though dithering is not encouraged - guards are quite prepared to push you forward in order to maintain the correct distance between each worshipper. Emerging once again into daylight and breaking free of the orderly queue feels a little surreal. Lingering in the vast grounds, you can witness troops of men in military uniform practising drills, while gardeners in soft grey outfits and conical hats crouch to weed the meticulously tended lawns.
Hanoi is an easy city to explore for tourists - most of its main attractions are within walking distance from the central Old Quarter, and if the heat gets too much, taxis are cheap and plentiful. And while the seemingly solid masses of honking scooters that tear along every road with no regard for traffic lights are a little intimidating at first, you soon learn to simply ignore them and walk slowly but steadily across the road - they'll divert their path to drive around you. (If your nerves aren't up to that, just follow a local across the road.)
South of Hoan Kiem Lake, the magnificent Opera House and Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel both serve as an architectural reminder of Hanoi's past as a French colony. Built in 1901, the Metropole is a beautiful white wedding cake of a building, with smartly uniformed doormen and two classic Citroens parked out front. Entering the cool marble of its lobby, replete with dark wooden furniture, slowly spinning ceiling fans and enormous displays of fragrant white flowers, feels like stepping into a bygone age.
Even if you're not staying at the Metropole, it's worth visiting to take in the beauty of the building and witness the daily parade of young couples having their wedding photos taken outside. If you have time to spare, pick up a wonderfully buttery croissant from L'Epicerie, sip a G&T in the Bamboo Bar or sample one of the hotel's excellent restaurants. Le Beaulieu specialises in classic French cuisine; Spices Garden offers a taste of traditional Vietnamese food; while Angelina (yes, it was named after Ms Jolie) treads an Italian path.
The Metropole also offers guests a historical tour that recounts the hotel's past, from a wall of fame (everyone from Graham Greene to Brangelina) to a visit to an underground bunker, built as a bomb shelter at the height of the Vietnam War (or the American War, as many locals refer to it).
The war remains a relatively recent and intrinsic part of Vietnam's history, but its residents are keen to look to the future. That said, numerous museums and historic sites are still worth visiting if you're interested in the years of conflict. US Senator John McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and parachuted into Truc Bach Lake - there's a small monument on the edge of the lake - and you can also visit what remains of Hoa Lo Prison, where McCain was a prisoner of war for more than five years. The Vietnam Military Museum has several rooms of photographs and documentation relating to the wars the country has been involved in; a large area outside provides a resting place for wartime tanks and aircraft.
Hanoi's cultural and historical riches are fascinating, but it's the city's cuisine that means one visit is not enough for many people. It's hard to go hungry here - at any time of the day locals seem to be snacking, even if it's simply a parcel of sticky rice or a bunch of grapes sold from the back of a bicycle. Each roadside vendor or ramshackle cafe specialises in just one dish, making ordering a breeze for the non-Vietnamese speaker. Simply squeeze yourself on to one of the tiny plastic stools that serve as seats throughout the city and you'll quickly be delivered that place's specialty - from bowls of noodles to barbecued meats and fragrant broths, all accompanied by giant platters of herbs.
If time is short and you want to sample as much from the street as possible, book in for a tour with the Hanoi Cooking Centre. Established by Australian Tracey Lister, the centre runs cooking classes for those keen to learn how to replicate Vietnamese dishes (the Sofitel Metropole also runs excellent cooking classes and local market tours), plus hugely popular street food tours.
Our guide from the Hanoi Cooking Centre, Hung, leads us through Hanoi's Chau Long market and the huge Dong Xuan market, where he teases our cautious Western palates by offering us fertilised duck eggs and wriggling silkworm pupae. We walk past a basket swimming with dried seahorses. There are giant pyramids of star anise, enough cinnamon bark to surround a forest and floor-to-ceiling stacks of nuts, rices and spices. Outside are cages filled with brightly coloured birds, plastic tubs of lazily flopping fish and twitching turtles, and stallholders with cleavers breaking down birds and beasts.
When it comes to sitting down to eat, we happily skip the eggs and insects, and instead tuck into delicious bowls of steaming pho ga, bun cha (pork and noodles), bun oc (snails and noodles), and banh xeo (stuffed rice pancakes). We also spend a happy half hour perched on plastic stools on a street corner while eating fresh spring rolls and sipping local beer poured from a keg on the footpath. Around us, groups of men do the same, over games of cards. Finally we climb a flight of stairs at Ca Phe Du Tri, arriving at a low-ceilinged space where we sip black coffee sweetened with scoops of frozen yoghurt.
Vietnamese food isn't overly spicy, and seems most defined by its freshness. Verdant piles of herbs are served alongside many dishes, while salads and broths are distinctly clean-flavoured. There's the traditional balance of sour and sweet, but the bright, fresh flavours are what you really remember.
What you also remember after time spent in Hanoi is the city's grace. Frenetic and noisy it may be, but there are little vignettes of calm to be found in every day. The sight of a man balancing on one leg on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, practising his morning tai chi; the expert flick of the wrist as an elderly woman turns a rice pancake outside her restaurant; the sense of serenity that envelops you on a visit to the Temple of Literature; the contentment derived from a perfect bowl of pho at 7am. For these moments and many more, a visit to Hanoi is a fascinating and rewarding experience.
For more on where to eat in Hanoi, see Sarah Wall's Street Smarts story in the latest issue of Cuisine, on sale now.
Sarah Wall travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Sofitel.
Sunday Star Times