Hanoi guide

WGSN, January 10 2005

Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam, has a beguiling atmosphere and lingering French influence that contrasts with the brashness of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. WGSN highlights the best places to shop, eat and stay in a city with an impressive array of regional crafts, clothing and homewares.

Sprawling along the Red River, Hanoi is a mix of old Vietnam, with its temples and monuments, and modern Asia, with looming skyscrapers sprouting up past the shores of Ton Le Sap Lake. Slowly emerging from the conflicts of the past and its residents’ reserved attitude to foreigners, the city is developing a self-assured chic.

Hanoi offers a rich array of interiors goods, ranging from upscale silks, lacquerware, linens, reproduction and antique furniture and lighting through to regionally produced, non-profit crafts shops selling pottery, cushions and clothing.

Many of these goods can often be found on the shelves of well-known Western retailers – and most of the shops in Hanoi have direct links with factories, offering retail and wholesale prices.

But for individual items, prepare to barter hard as the shopkeepers know very well the value of a dollar to the average tourist. Customised goods are also available and many outlets are willing to create personalised furniture and bedlinens.

Although split into seven districts surrounded by outlying neighbourhoods, it is still a difficult city to navigate. Cars are outnumbered tenfold by seas of motorbikes travelling along both sides of the road (often in the same direction) and there are no obvious pedestrian crossings.

The easiest way to explore this somewhat haphazard city is by heading to a starting point in one of the key districts, such as the Old Quarter (Hoan Kiem) or the French District (Dong Da) – which is home to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum – and simply walking around on foot, weather permitting. However taxis are not in abundance and it may be worthwhile arranging for a car and driver.

Hoan Kiem district (Old Quarter)
This shophouse-filled historic district is the must-see area in Hanoi for interiors, fashion and some kidswear and is ideal for a walking tour. Use the protestant St Joseph’s cathedral on Nhà Thò street as a starting point and head down this road, which is filled with shops on either side, many of them catering to wealthier visitors and ex-pats.

On the left, head to the glamorous Mosaique for silk cushions and dresses, jewellery, wooden utensils, modern lacquerware and a vast array of traditional lanterns and lampshades. Many goods such as bedspreads and throws can be made to order.

The store has also opened a hot new bar nearby with restricted entry, occupying an entire house and appropriately called the Mosaique Living Room (see Where to Eat and Drink section) – so be sure to pick up an invite card at the store.

Further down is Nagu, offering simple shift dresses and soft cottons in bold prints with a Scandinavian influence (and Western sizes) for about US$30. The sister tableware store is around the corner from the cathedral on Au Trieu street. Next is Susu jewellery and then mumumu for hats, not forgetting apparel and accessories at Pearly Queen and Nymph.

There are plenty of cafes on this street but make a stop at Cà Phê Môca for an impressive array of coffees, cheap food and backpacker-style banana pancakes.

Next stop should be La Casa, an interior design store created by Italian Valentina Bottari and inspired by Hanoi. Using local materials such as fine wood, ceramic, horn and bone and luscious fabrics, La Casa also has its own range of homewares alongside its bespoke service, with an east-meets-west appeal.

On the same side of the road are various wholesale and retail shophouses selling basic lacquerware, mother-of-pearl work and wooden noodle and rice bowls in a variety of stains and finishes; a dinner service for four complete with bowls and plates can be bought for about US$40. There are also plenty of open-fronted stores selling lanterns and lampshades.

At the end of Nhà Thò street on Hang Trong street is cute kidswear wholesaler Hikosen Cara with an equally cute tagline that reads, “the brand of smiles”. The business has shops in a variety of areas in Hanoi and takes its lead from the cartoon-loving Japanese market, even offering random household goods such as doorknob covers and mobile phone sleeves.

Next door is the tiny apparel boutique Thâp Câm, again producing romantic yet remarkably on-trend apparel with an eye on the Japanese market, such as lace-edged 70s-style chemises, tweedy skirts and satin bombers selling for around US$40 each.

Back on Nhà Thò street heading up to the cathedral, KD Vietnamese Handicrafts and Hoang Hieu are worth a look for silks, lacquer and bamboo goods. Also check out Mây for simply embroidered, crisp linens.

Don’t miss Tina Sparkle by Ipa-Nima, sister shop to handbag specialist Ipa-Nima (see Further Stores), for lots of over-the-top girlie accessories for not-so-grown-up ladies. With slightly more sophisticated aspirations is neighbouring Sông, offering a couture clothing service and upscale home accessories, all in a minimalist style. Don’t miss Red Door Deco for slightly more fun furniture styles and homewares.

Also take a look at more ethnic-inspired style at the bizarrely named La Boutique and the Silk on Nha Chung street back near the Cathedral, followed by Cocoon and Oriental House further down the street for more youthful womenswear.

Doubling back to the cathedral and walking across Nhà Thò street and onto Ly Quoc street is Thâp Câm sister shop Sapanesque for womenswear and Zinj for a more upscale lacquerware offering.

Continue on Ly Quoc street until reaching Hang Gai (Silk Street) and make a beeline for Vanloi near the crossing with Hang Trong. The three floors of repro “oriental style” furniture made by a team of artisans are well worth a look, particularly the tea chests and cabinets that can be joined to form a staircase.

Dong Da/Ba Dinh districts

Temple of Literature

Head to the Temple of Literature on the borders of the Dong Da and Ba Dinh districts as a starting point for exploring the area around Nguyen Thai Hoc street, which is a great place for stylish homewares and bedlinens.

Start on Van Mieu street running to the side of the temple and make a beeline for Craft Link, a not-for-profit organisation of Vietnamese artisans producing everything from traditional fabrics to modern pottery. The store fills two houses and weaves up small staircases and onto outside balconies.

Because many products come directly from the makers, prices are very competitive. Look out for the good value lacquerware and horn cutlery as well as the impressive vases, bowls and other tableware, often incorporating bamboo and with an ultra-modern appeal.

Continue up Van Mieu and turn right onto Nguyen Thai Hoc street. Just off this road is Yen The street, home to Dang Xua which is good for intricate quilting and cosy throws.

Just around the corner of this narrow alley is Dome, which is perhaps the most upscale interiors store in Hanoi. There are three stores in this area, but the Yen The store is quite extensive, showcasing the silk bedlinens, giftware, sofas and beaded lampshades that the company is known for. Bestsellers are the patchwork silk duvet covers and the quilted embroidered silk throws in luscious burgundies and cool blues – although prices aren’t cheap.

Further stores
There are more must-see stores in Hanoi that are not near the main shopping areas. One not to miss is Ipa-Nima, which is heaven for handbag lovers; buyers can customise or create their own bags and pick up a necklace and a pair of shoes to match.

Velvet Underground runs along the same lines as Dome, but is slight more decadent and offers a customisation service for its luscious array of velvet, taffeta and linen bedware.

Customisation is also key at the Vietnamese Craft Guild, which is similar to Craft Link and offers all the latest designs before they are snapped up by larger companies.

Places to eat and drink
There a quite a few good lunch restaurants around the Nhà Thò street area in the Hoam Kiem old quarter, including Mediterraneo for Italian food – with a little second floor balcony – and Paris Deli for baguettes and coffee.

La Salsa offers French food and tapas, while La Place by the cathedral on Au Trieu street is a relaxed café serving up western and traditional Vietnamese food. Don’t forget to sample the baguettes and hot chocolate at Cà Phê Môca.

For the kind of rich Eurasian cuisine that only the French can cook, book a table at The Green Tangerine, nestled away in a colonial house in the old quarter (make sure to get a table inside instead of in the courtyard during the chillier winter months).

It’s not possible to visit Hanoi and miss out on Bobby Chinn’s, on the south edge of Hoan Kiem lake. The cocktails are glamorous and the atmosphere slightly decadent as Bobby hurtles across the restaurant keeping his customers happy.

Also at the top of the upscale eating venues list is Vine in the Tay Ho district. With over three maze-like floors of tables, an impressive wine list and impeccable service, be sure to get one of the more private tables before ordering from a varied Italian-meets-Asian menu. The restaurant also has a delivery service.

Mosaique Living Room opened in November 2004 and is perhaps the most chi-chi nightspot in Hanoi. Like a private house, guests can only access the venue in Hoan Kiem with an invitation card (pick one up at the Mosaique store on Nhà Thò street). Each room is individually decorated with traditional Vietnamese days beds and ultra-modern boudoir looks mixed together; there are also live DJ nights and sophisticated cocktails to boot.

For good Vietnamese cuisine, head to nearby Le Tonkin with nice tables in the courtyard of a large villa; the portions are small but it isn’t hard to order too much.

Places to stay
Accommodation in Hanoi is varied, ranging from towering modern hotels to more traditional favourites. In the latter category is the Metropole, the old lady of Hanoi’s hospitality scene and now owned by Sofitel.

This French colonial-style building is located in the heart of the city near Hoan Kiem lake in the Old Quarter and although it has seen better days, it retains a popular charm due to its excellent service. Make sure to request a room that has been renovated and definitely pay a visit to the hotel’s top French restaurant Le Beaulieu.

A more modern Sofitel hotel is the Sofitel Plaza. Although it’s a short drive into central Hanoi, it overlooks the West Lake in the quiet Tay Ho district, which is full of private villas and close to the Tay Ho and Tran Quoc Temples. The 20-storey hotel is a favourite with ex-pats for both food and leisure facilities. It’s also close to a developing area of antiques and repro furniture stores as well as top restaurant Vine.

Sheraton Plaza

The Sheraton is across the bay from the Sofitel and has spacious rooms with internet access and lakeside views, while lush gardens and peaceful courtyards offer an escape from crazy Hanoi traffic. For a neutral, modern and simple hotel head to the Nikko, with no-nonsense good service.

For a more homely alternative, renting a villa apartment is a good option. The Chesterton Apartments are in a traditional villa right in the middle of the Hoan Kiem old quarter and are fully serviced.

Spas and beauty
The spas in Hanoi don’t live up to the pampering offered in other Asian cities such as Bangkok, but there are a couple worth checking out, especially for a herbal steam bath.

Zen Spa is in a traditional set of wooden houses. Although the massage rooms aren’t private but separated by curtains, it’s certainly good value for money. More upmarket is the streamlined Qi Spa by Japanese beauty brand Shiseido which has a double room for couples, complete with a Jacuzzi tub.

Places to see
Forget the kitsch water puppets theatre near Hoan Kiem Lake and make a pilgrimage to the Confucian Temple of Literature in Dong Da. More a school of learning than a religious temple, it dates back to 1070 and consists of some impressive pagoda buildings, gardens and ponds.

A visit to “Uncle Ho” is at the top of many visitors’ lists. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is a typical communist monument – grey and hard-edged – and visitors come from across the country to shuffle past his embalmed body, although he went down on record as never wanting to be preserved and put on show. But they did it anyway. Behind the mausoleum are his house and the One Pillar Pagoda.

Fact file
Most stores are open from 9.00am to 7.00pm, Monday to Friday, although some boutiques are closed over the weekends or operate on an appointment-only basis so it’s worthwhile calling ahead. Many stores are closed on Sunday but smaller shops and street traders operate 24/7.

It is possible to pay in US dollars almost everywhere, and the currency is often preferable to the beleaguered Vietnamese Dong.

Full address and contacts for this guide are available on www.wgsn.com

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