What was Vietnamese Emperor Ly Thai To’s “Rising Dragon” is now, almost a millennium later, Vietnam’s political and cultural centre, observes Gemma Price
FEED ON ART
For an insight into Vietnam’s cultural diversity, the excellent Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (www.vme.org.vn) offers an introduction to 54 ethnic minority groups, and an opportunity to climb into lofty communal stilt houses to sample traditional tea blends and sticky sweets.
54 Traditions (www.54traditions.com.vn), in Hanoi’s old quarter, stocks unique antique and contemporary minority artefacts ranging from new US$25 prints of old woodblocks to ancient paintings and ornaments priced in four figures. Ebullient collector Mark Rapoport is always happy to spin entertaining yarns of Vietnam’s far-flung minority groups and help with the shopping.
In recent years, Hanoi has also honed its contemporary edge, and modern museums and art galleries have popped up on almost every street. Art Vietnam (www.artvietnamgallery.com) showcases Vietnamese creativity in the naughties, where paintings, sculptures, lacquer, photography, videos and prints are exhibited over three floors. The renovated colonial villa home of Bui Gallery (www.thebuigallery.com) is devoted to emerging and established artists from Asia, Europe and South America.
Despite the fact that French rule ended in 1954, the legacy of the colons can still be seen everywhere, from locals picking up paté along Hanoi’s broad leafy colonial boulevards to meeting at continental-style cafés. Vietnam is second only to Brazil as the world’s largest coffee producer, and enjoying cà phê (coffee) is as quintessentially Vietnamese as the traditional conical hat. Moka (tel 84 4 3825 6334) with its exposed brickwork, wrought iron lamps and classical movie stills is great for chilling out. Or up your social quotient by mingling with Hanoi’s movers and shakers as they lounge on plush leopard-skin-print chaise longues at the ultrahip I-Box Café (tel 84 4 3828 8820), west of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Dine with Didier
The French influence is also firmly entrenched in the city’s culinary culture, and Hanoi is replete with restaurants serving up refined traditional Vietnamese cuisine alongside Gallic menus. Green Tangerine (tel 84 4 3926 1797) has an eclectic menu of experimental concoctions (shrimp in a Coca Cola reduction or duck with orange candy floss, anyone?) and French specialities with an Asian twist. At French five-star diamond chef Didier Corlou’s La Verticale (www.verticale-hanoi.com), East meets West in a tantalising exploration of fresh local produce. Corlou’s spice blends also make nice souvenirs or gifts.
VINE Wine Boutique Bar and Café (www.vine-group.com) is one of the city’s biggest importers of fine vintages. Within its lavishly decorated crimson baroque interior, you’ll also find an outstanding international menu of familiar comfort foods and innovative fusion dishes. For a similarly upscale but uniquely Vietnamese eating experience, Wild Lotus (www.wildlotus.com.vn) boasts a contemporary Buddha and lotus-themed Asian decor and impeccable service. Talk-of-the-town Sofitel Metropole’s Italian steakhouse and bar Angelina (tel 84 4 3826 6929) offers a luxe decor, fully stocked bar and nightly DJ, while its elegantly nostalgic Le Club concocts Indochine-themed cocktails.
Watching the sun slip down a burnt Sienna sky in stereo from the InterContinental Westlake’s Sunset Bar (tel 84 4 6270 8888) makes for a romantic interlude. Alternatively, head to Funky Buddha (tel 84 4 3292 7614) in Hanoi’s emerging bar district for laser shows, pumping dance beats and drinks specials.
HAGGLE LIKE A HANOIAN
Looking for affordable locally handcrafted goodies? Nha To Street, which runs from the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake to St Joseph’s Cathedral, is crammed with boutiques selling embroidered clothing, accessories and soft furnishings and home decorative items. At Song (tel 84 4 3928 8733), natural fabrics and colours are de rigueur – lilacs, pistachio greens, pastel pinks and lemon yellows complement the linen and cotton materials of Valerie Gregori McKenzie’s upmarket sophisticated contemporary apparel and homeware designs. Italian designer Valentina Bottari’s furnishings and ornaments at La Casa (tel 84 4 3828 9616) are rustic yet modern, warm and inviting, and crafted in fine woods and silks, ceramic, horn and other materials by artisans from northern Vietnam.
For bargains, swing by Cho Dong Xuan, where you can haggle like a Hanoian. The original building constructed in 1889 was destroyed by fire in 1994, but its successor opened shortly after in 1998 and today stocks everything from live seafood and local produce fresh from the fields, to household essentials and electronics goods. The lively market’s narrow aisles throng with customers from 7am till dark.
Dong Xuan is also ideal for picking up kaleidoscopic bolts of wool, cotton and silk, which any local tailor can turn into a red-carpet creation. There’s also Hang Gai (“Silk Goods” Street) for stylish and skilfully made bespoke clothing, or Vietnam Quilts (www.vietnam-quilts.org) where women from some of Vietnam’s poorest village communities showcase their hand-stitched craft.