I'm a little embarrassed to say I wasn’t totally smitten with Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi the first time around. I realise now why that was; I'd been so busy rushing from place to place seeing the essential sights, courtesy of a local tour guide from Insider Journeys (then called Travel Indochina) that I didn’t get the chance to take in the charm of the City of Lakes. My only lingering memories of that first visit were having obligatory photos taken on the Red Bridge over the Hoan Kiem Lake, queuing at the Mausoleum to see the body of Ho Chi Minh (try explaining that to a then 5 year old son!), and enjoying a bowl of pho at our tour guide’s favourite Pho Stop. Don't get me wrong, the tour guide was fantastic, the Pho was incredible and I learned a lot. Clearly though that first visit to Hanoi didn’t do the city justice; I suspect that was really down to the short amount of time I had as part of a 16 day first visit touring captivating Vietnam. Each time I’ve visited since, Vietnam’s capital has grown on me.
Hanoi has certainly changed almost immeasurably in those few short years since my first trip in 2010. The Hanoi I returned to just recently was so much calmer with significantly less scooters and more cars. There’s construction work going on all over the city with new hotels going up as tourism increases. I was taken aback to see pedestrian crossing lights on main streets, how different from the days when you hoped the river of scooters would move out of your way when you put your hand up to cross a busy road.
On my recent visit I stayed at the Apricot Hotel, one of the only hotels facing the Hoan Kiem Lake. This meant I was able to wander out early in the morning (building up an appetite before their phenomenal buffet breakfast), cross the road and experience the Hanoi of the locals; strolling past the seniors practising Tai-Chi, joggers and the dog owners walking their tiny dogs before work. As the sun sets the lake becomes a hive of activity again – families are out socialising and drinking coffee, kids are playing, groups of young friends are sitting on ubiquitous low plastic stools and chatting whilst couples walk past in hand in hand. It became abundantly clear on this trip to Hanoi what I’d been missing – to appreciate Hanoi you have to slow down and just walk. So I walked around the Old Quarter until late at night just taking in the life – the views across the lake, the food, the coffee and of course the shops.
The abundance of design and local arts and crafts throughout Hanoi is quite mind blowing. I adore wandering the maze of streets that run off the lake and exploring the galleries, the stores selling local handicrafts from the many craft villages surrounding the city or from Sapa and the North, and the local designer boutiques like Ipa-Nima bags and my friends Chula Fashion. I love to drool over the colourful lacquered homewares in the gift shops – the sculptures, the boxes, bowls, trays and artworks all handmade locally using traditional technique.
A shopping visit to Hanoi isn’t complete without a visit to the eclectic store Tanmydesign. TanMy roots are steeped in the family’s history of embroidery and whilst they still sell many intricately embroidered tablecloths, napkins and bed linen, the modern store is a curated collection of Vietnam’s favourite designers and artists including Chula, Valerie Cordier (coming here soon), Future Traditions and CUSHnART. I could spend hours exploring Tanmydesign and if I need a break I head down to the café on the ground floor.
Another store showcasing the best of Vietnamese designer gifts and homewares is the newer Collective Memory. Founded by a Vietnamese duo of travel writer and photographer Nga and Liem, the concept for Collective Memory emerged from a shared enthusiasm for Vietnamese culture. They’ve opened a delightful warehouse style store showcasing the best creations they found whilst on assignment around the country, very much a bricks and mortar version of Temples and Markets and including colourful Buddhas, crockery, CUSHnART bags and homewares, Future Traditions and Eugenie Darge Cushion Covers.
Away from Hanoi’s centre is West Lake, also known as Ho Tay. West Lake is 15km in circumference and home to many of the city’s expats homes and businesses. It’s a thriving little community and definitely worth the taxi drive out of the city to explore. It’s easy to walk the alleyways and the main lakeside streets around Ho Tay and stop along the way to browse stores like Ali’s Emporium, Chula’s flagship boutique and workshop, and the Future Traditions Jewellery and Fashion showroom inside the stunning Colonial Style Townhouse pictured.
If, like me you visited a city as a tourist and only had time to whizz around the sights at breakneck speed, I encourage you to return to that city and take time to rediscover it at a slower pace. If you can, spend time with the locals and you'll see an entirely different destination. Hanoi, I feel I’ve got to know you so much better than when we first made acquaintances, and I can’t wait to return because I’ve literally only just scratched your surface.
Apricot Hotel 136 Hang Trong, Hoan Kiem Dist - Rooftop Pool overlooking the lake, fantastic breakfasts and old world charm.
Also recommend if you feel like splashing out: Metropole 15 Ngo Quyen Street Hoan Kiem District. Stay where the celebrities and politicians throughout history have laid their heads.
Wrap n Roll 33 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm
Cau Go Vietnamese Restaurant Entrance 2: 73 Cau Go Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. A local's secret. Make sure to grab a balcony table overlooking the lake
Have you travelled to Hanoi or elsewhere in Vietnam and came home wishing you bought all the amazing creations you saw there? We stock many of the favourite designer wares found in the curated shops around Vietnam, so browse our Vietnam Stories collection. If you don’t see what you’re looking for here get in touch, we may be able to track it down for you.
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