Monday, July 28, 2008

Walking Vietnam's Capital, in Search of Serenity

July 25, 2008

With its mix of French-colonial heritage, old streets, lakes and tree-lined boulevards, Hanoi is one of Asia's most beautiful cities.

Exploring Vietnam's capital by foot can be, well, a feat. Pavements are often blocked by parked motorbikes and stalls, turning a casual stroll into an obstacle course. The constant wall of noise made by countless motorbikes and honking horns can be exhausting. Street vendors trying to sell you everything from postcards to fruit may test your patience. And your greatest challenge may be just to get across Hanoi's busy streets alive.

But there are ways to discover quieter avenues amid that mayhem. Here is a leisurely walk from the city's elegant French area to the quaint streets of Hanoi's old quarter that includes some stops for shopping along the way.

[Hanoi map]
Anne Smith


If a bowl of pho, a rice noodle soup, at a street stall isn't your idea of a perfect breakfast, then start your day at Au Lac Cafe (57 Ly Thai To St., 84-4-825-7807). The cozy French eatery in the courtyard of a large French villa is known for the best coffee in town and is a favorite with both locals and long-term foreign residents. If it is too hot or rainy, walk to Paris Deli (6 Phan Chu Trinh St., 84-4-934-5269), an indoor cafe in another colonial villa that also serves French breakfast favorites such as croissants and baguettes.


Walk a few meters along Ly Thai To Street until you reach the Hanoi Opera House, built by the French at the beginning of the 20th century. It was modeled -- on a smaller scale -- after the Opéra National de Paris (also known as Palais Garnier) and completed in 1911. By the second half of the 20th century, however, the building was in disrepair. It was closed in the early 1990s, but reopened in 1997, after a three-year renovation. It is now a venue for performing arts, including opera, dance, music and theater, as well as conferences and corporate events. Visitors can check on performance schedules in the English-language daily Vietnam News or the Web site

[See photos]

From the opera house, head toward Trang Tien Street, which looks like the slightly run-down main street of a 19th-century small French town. Most of the off-white and yellow-painted buildings are no more than three stories high and have shops on the ground floor. Some sport Art Deco-style wrought-iron balconies, facades that are decorated with columns and other ornaments, and elegant French-style wooden shutters. A few houses still have French writing on the walls -- alimentation (foodstuffs), for example, or ameublement (furnishings) -- indicating what was sold there when the French were in town.

You can find bookshops, ice-cream parlors and stores selling handicrafts and embroidered table linen here. But most visitors come for the art galleries. Worth checking out are Hanoi Studio (13 Trang Tien St., 84-4-936-0364), Green Palm Gallery (15 Trang Tien St., 84-4-936-4757) and Thanh Binh Gallery (25-27 Trang Tien St., 84-4-825-1532). Life Photo Gallery (39 Trang Tien St., 84-4-936-3886) sells beautiful photos of Hanoi as well as portraits of Vietnam's ethnic minorities.

Art has become big business in Vietnam, and the price of works by better-known artists such as Nguyen Thanh Binh, famous for his paintings of girls dressed in white áo dàis, the Vietnamese national dress, and Le Thiet Cuong, who paints minimalist rural scenes, have skyrocketed since the first commercial art galleries in Hanoi opened in the early 1990s. (A 130 cm x 150 cm canvas by Le Thiet Cuong costs about $5,000 in Hanoi today.) Driven by the commercial success of certain painters, most of Hanoi's galleries exhibit similar-looking works of art.

To find more edgy art, such as works by Nguyen Minh Thanh or painters Dinh Thi Tham Poong and Dinh Y Nhi, all of whom have had exhibitions around the world and are gaining a following among some collectors in Asia, take a taxi to Art Vietnam gallery, owned by American Suzanne Lecht (7 Nguyen Khac Nhu St., 84-4-927-2349). Another gallery is Studio Tho at 78 Ma May St. ( 84-4-240-9877). Take a look at the Web site for the latest exhibitions and other cultural events in Hanoi.


From Trang Tien Street, turn right into Ngo Quyen Street to admire one of Asia's most beautiful historic hotels: the Sofitel Metropole with its trademark green shutters and classic white facade.

In colonial times, it was known as the Metropole Hotel, the finest hotel in French Indochina. Following the Vietnam War -- the Vietnamese call it the American War -- the hotel fell into disrepair. At the beginning of the 1990s, the French hotel management group Accor agreed to renovate and manage the hotel and in 1992, it was reopened in its current splendor as the Sofitel Metropole.

Across the street are more examples of elegant French colonial architecture, such as the former residence of the French governor of Tonkin, the historical name for northern Vietnam. Today, the stunning, large building with its cream-colored facade, wrought-iron fence and Art Deco entrance canopy serves as Vietnam's government guesthouse.


Return to Trang Tien Street and at the end, cross the road to get to Hoan Kiem Lake, which means "lake of the returned sword." According to legend, Emperor Le Loi, who reigned in the so-called Later Le dynasty of the 15th century, used a magical sword to drive out the (Ming dynasty) Chinese. After his victory, he returned the blade to a giant golden turtle living in the depths of the lake. The tiny Tortoise Pagoda on an islet in the middle of Hoan Kiem was built to commemorate this event and is now often used as a symbol of the city.

Walk a few meters along the southwestern shore of the lake until you spot Hapro Cafe, a tree-shaded, open-air cafe.

With its huge parasols that are grouped around a round kiosk, the cafe is easy to spot. It's a little oasis in the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and a great place to people-watch. Locals love to come to the lake for a stroll or a chat, to practice tai chi or play badminton in the early morning. Hapro Cafe serves many kinds of coffee and fruit juices, including fresh coconut juice, ice cream, cakes and other snacks.



From Hapro Cafe, cross to the other side of Le Thai To Street and walk for a few minutes along the lakeside boulevard lined with low colonial buildings.

Turn left onto Hang Trong Street and then left on Nha Tho Street, which means Church Street; St. Joseph's Cathedral sits at the end of the small road. The Catholic church, with its gray facade and square twin towers, was built by the French in 1886 and still holds regular masses.

In recent years, Nha Tho Street and its adjacent roads -- Hang Trong Street, Nha Chung Street and Au Trieu Street -- have become a shopping mecca. You will find lacquerware and colorful Vietnamese lanterns and lampshades, Asian home décor stores as well as a great number of shops selling Vietnamese handicrafts, hand-embroidered bed linen and quilts, and trendy fashion items.

For a special souvenir from Vietnam, go to the shop named P (8 Nha Chung St., 84-4-928- 6588) or Hanoi Gallery (17 Nha Chung St., 84-4-928-7943). Both stores specialize in propaganda posters, many of which are hand-painted and are said to date from the time of the Vietnam War.

Nha Tho Street has a number of pleasant international restaurants. For Italian food, go to Mediterraneo (23 Nha Tho St., 84-4-826-6288), for Spanish fare to La Salsa (25 Nha Tho St., 84-4-828-9052). Cafe Moca, an old Hanoian favorite, serves Vietnamese and international dishes (14-16 Nha Tho St., 84-4-825-6334). All are great places where you can have lunch and soak up Hanoi's vibrant street life. Watch women with conical hats balance bamboo poles with heavy loads on their shoulders, vendors sell fruit from the back of their bicycles or the city's few remaining cyclos -- Vietnam's traditional bicycle rickshaws -- go by.

For an excellent after-lunch coffee, go for the modern ambience of Highlands Coffee (6 Nha Tho St.), Vietnam's answer to Starbucks.


As you face St. Joseph's Cathedral, you'll see Ly Quoc Su Street on your right. Take it until you reach the very busy Hang Gai Street, which turns into Hang Bong Street as you walk westward. You are now entering the city's Old Quarter with its labyrinth of narrow lanes and colorful, frenetic street life. For many, this area represents the true soul of Hanoi. Each of the neighborhood's 36 streets used to be dedicated to a product or trade, and many of them still are.

There was a time when most of the stores on Hang Gai Street sold hemp and ropes, but it is now mainly known for its great number of silk shops. This area, especially along Hang Bong and Hang Gai streets, also has a large concentration of art galleries. Paintings range from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

At the beginning of Hang Gai Street, turn onto tiny To Tich Street, which offers an array of products also found in the area around the cathedral -- often at a much lower price. At the end of your shopping trip, put down your bags, sit down with the locals on tiny plastic chairs in front of small shops along the street and enjoy a glass of juice or yogurt with fresh fruit salad.


Thus refreshed, you might be up for a glimpse of Vietnam's more recent history -- a visit to Hoa Lo prison, better known in the West as the "Hanoi Hilton." The cynical name was given to it by American prisoners of war who were detained here -- among them Republican U.S. presidential candidate John McCain, who spent five-and-a-half years in the prison. You will need a taxi to get there (1 Hoa Lo St., 84-4-824-6358); it's a 10-minute ride.

A small part of the prison, which was built by the French in the 1880s, is now a museum. The rest was torn down in the 1990s to make way for a luxury hotel and office complex. The museum focuses mostly on the brutal mistreatment of Vietnamese inmates during the French colonial rule. A section of the museum also is dedicated to the several hundred American servicemen who were incarcerated here during the Vietnam War. Prisoners from that time, including Mr. McCain, have said they were tortured and that living conditions were miserable. None of this is mentioned in the museum. On the contrary -- displays claim that the Americans were treated well, and photos show seemingly healthy prisoners playing sports and celebrating Christmas.

--Claudia Blume is a Hong Kong-based writer.