Hanoi In A Weekend: 5 Things To Eat, See And Do

Xin chao, HANOI! So nice to finally meet you! (Left: Hanoi Opera House; right: Hilton Opera Hanoi-- both right smack in the Old and French Quarters-- the area I would recommend you to stay if you were visiting as a tourist-- everything is so easily walkable!

I recently spent three days (and four nights) in Hanoi, and fell in love with the place. It was my first time in Vietnam’s capital city— I had been to Ho Chi Minh with my family previously in 2010– and really loved its charm, romance and nostalgia. Spacious thoroughfares, tree-lined lakes, a compact historic center that’s best enjoyed by walking– both complement and contrast the fast-paced motorcycles aplenty (I always say that the goal in Vietnam is not to die while crossing the street as in here!) and just-as-good-as-in-France baguettes being sold for cheap on the streets. Plus, the weather! Being up north, it’s slightly cooler, and when I was there, the weather ranged from a beautiful; 18 to 26 degrees– nice and nippy.

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Large, spacious tree-lined sidewalks that circle Hoan Kiem Lake make for relaxing, leisurely strolls.
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The gorgeous French colonial architecture of the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, the city’s most famous hotel, which opened in 1901. Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda, George H. W. Bush, François Mitterrand, Isabelle de Valvert, Jacques Chirac were some of the hotel’s guests. (Source: Wikipedia)
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Bikes x cafes, where locals converge and sit on little 1-foot high chairs snd tables.. Such a large part of Vietnamese culture.
French baguettes in Hanoi by St. Joseph's Cathedral- Vietnam
Chanced upon a vendor calling out “Banh mi! Banh mi!” by the steps of St. Joseph’s Cathedral. 5,000 dong (PHP10) for 2 ridiculously toasty, flaky large pieces of baguette.

I didn’t buy a single thing while I was in Hanoi— so sorry this post won’t be helpful if you’re looking for places to shop!– but I came home with a wealth of experiences, lessons and memories. I’d like to share with you some of my most favorite ones for when you visit Hanoi next:

1. Go on a walking tour with Hanoi Kids.

I always love it when locals show me around their city because it allows me a deeper immersion into their culture. Hanoi Kids came highly recommended by Charisse Vilchez of Agoda. They are a voluntary English club that has been conducting free tours since 2006 to give travelers an insight into Vietnamese culture. You aren’t obliged to pay them– you just pay for the entrances to museums, transportation, meals, etc. of your entire party–  although it’s nice to give a pasalubong/ present from your country of origin. But should you wish to give monetarily, the money will go directly back to the organization, and not the students themselves– no matter how much you insist! You can select the places you want them to take you to and I chose Temple of Literature, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hoa Lo Prison— and they recommended Quan An Ngon nearby for lunch. Hanoi Kids is TripAdvisor’s #1 most recommended activity to do in Hanoi, and I HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend as well! 

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The Temple of Literature was founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and dedicated to Confucius, honoring Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary establishment. Vietnam’s first university was established here in 1076, and today remains to be a rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture. (Source: Lonely Planet)
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The Hoa Lo Prison Museum was initially built by the French in 1896 for political prisoners (its entrance reads Maison Centrale), and later, and later by North Vietnam for US Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War when it was sarcastically known to American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, though the gatehouse remains as a museum. (Source: Lonely Planet and Wikipedia)
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Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) is the epicenter of old Hanoi within the Old Quarter. That’s theThap Rua or the Tortoise Tower sitting on an islet by the southern end of the lake.
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Had the best time with Hanoi Kids’ Frankie and Giang who showed us around their city :) Here we are at Hoan Kiem Lake by the Old Quarter.

2. Experience Vietnam’s amazing coffee culture– specifically, the famous ‘egg coffee’ and ‘coconut coffee!’ 

Egg coffee has been a staple in Hanoi since the 1950s. Giang Cafe is the institution most  known for serving it. Made from egg yolks + condensed milk + sugar + butter + cheese + coffee, it is literally liquid tiramisu– sooo sweet! As I like my coffee black with a dash of almond milk, this is personally for me better as a dessert than a wake-upper.

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Hanoi’s famous egg coffee from Cafe Giang. Made from egg yolks + condensed milk + sugar + butter + cheese + coffee, it is literally liquid tiramisu! Soooo sweet! Personally, for me, it’s better as dessert than as a waker-upper. It’s so famous, I made a friend literally at the entrance of the cafe!

Cong Ca Phe is another popular coffee shop in Hanoi, with military-inspired decor and Communist memorabilia. (Well, surprise, surprise since the Cong in its name refers to the communist Viet Cong.) And most importantly, the coffee is amazing. I had the iced drip Vietnamese coffee mixed in with frozen coconut yogurt, which was almost like a smoothie. They have wifi, too, so it’s a nice place to take a breather and upload photos on Instagram. 😉

Cong Ca Phe- 46 Trang Tien, Hanoi, Vietnam- Iced Drip Coffee with Frozen Coconut Yogurt
Iced drip Vietnamese coffee mixed in with frozen coconut yogurt at Cong Caphe on 46 Trang Tien

3. Unearth little gems on quiet side streets like Binh Minh Jazz Club and Amato.

The beauty of Hanoi is that the Old Quarter and French Quarter are so compact and together that you can walk– enjoyably– everywhere and delight in the little surprises. Without doing any research, I stumbled into two hidden gems on a street behind the Hanoi Opera House— Binh Minh Jazz Club (which I later on found out is an institution) and Amato (just a few months old).

Binh Minh Jazz Club is owned by Quyen Van Minh, one of Vietnam’s most eminent musicians (that’s him on the saxophone) and I spent my after-dinner evenings here, unwinding in their easy atmosphere. (Click HERE for a quick, 15-second listen.)

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My nightcaps in Hanoi were spent unwinding at Binh Minh Jazz Club. It’s owned by Quyen Van Minh, one of Vietnam’s most eminent musicians (that’s him on the saxophone.) It’s right behind the Hilton Hanoi Opera and the Hanoi Opera House.

Amato is just a few steps down, which I discovered one evening when I was looking for a place to have a pre-dinner glass of wine, and was so warmly welcomed by the guys that run it– Ben from Perpignan and Callum from Glasgow. It’s a super cute restaurant-bar that just opened 6 months ago, that serves a good selection of wines by the glass and legit cocktails, and also little plates.

Amato- Hanoi- Vietnam
I was looking for a place to have a pre-dinner glass of wine, and I stumbled into Amato, which just opened in the latter part of 2015– literally behind the Hilton Hanoi Opera (very close to the Opera House), and was so kindly welcomed by the guys that run it. You wouldn’t think from the outside this quaint little space has 3 floors!

4. Bike around the stunning West Lake (Tay Ho). 

The city’s largest lake. West Lake or Tay Ho is 17km in circumference. Locals have told me it’s the “expat” area of Hanoi, and it is surrounded by upmarket restaurants and hotels. THE Donald Berger of Don’s Bistro had suggested to bike around the lake (you can rent Japanese retro bikes like the one I’m using from his restaurant)– and soooo glad I did! Being one with all the buzzing motorbikes and cars was both thrilling and sometimes scary (especially when we merged into the highways!), and I’ve also never gotten so many stares in my life.. overdressed for a bike ride, maybe? Lol. I don’t have any of those action biking shots as you guys know that in Vietnam, it’s literally do or DIE as soon as you get on the streets! But it was one of the most precious experiences I had this trip, what an experience!

Cheryl Tiu Biking Tay Ho (West Lake)- Hanoi- Vietnam
Biking around Tay Ho or West Lake, Hanoi’s largest lake which spans 17km, was one of my most precious experiences this trip <3
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Had to stop and take a quick photo of a temple I spotted along my bike journey…
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..and likewise the stunning sun setting behind Tay Ho :)

5. EAT!!! 

While street food plays a dominant role in Vietnam, I must say that my two favorite dining experiences were: Madame Hien and Don’s Bistro.

Set in a restored 19th century villa, Madame Hien is French chef Didier Corlu’s (he was aptly described by Stephanie Zubiri as their local David Thompson) tribute to his wife’s Vietnamese grandmother. The space is so pretty and the set menus (I recommend 36 Streets Menu) have such flavorful dishes that are so delicately well-balanced. I loved everything we ate, especially the second course, which was assortment of starters in one plate: nem, banh cuon, papaya salad w/ dried beef, mortadella.. It’s one of my favorite restaurant experiences to date.

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Madame Hien is set in a restored 19th century villa in Hanoi’s Old Quarter <3
Madame Hien, Hanoi, Vietnam- 36 Streets Menu- nem, banh cuon, papaya salad with dried beef, mortadella
Loooved everything we ate at Madame Hien last night, especially this.. Second course from the 36 Streets Menu is an assortment of starters in one plate: nem, banh cuon, papaya salad w/ dried beef, mortadella!
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The fourth course is the Bun Cha- savory pieces of caramelized pork served with vermicelli, greens and fish sauce, served so prettily here on clay and copper plates.

The 1st time I attended Asia’s 50 Best restaurant awards was in 2014, and there I met chef Donald Berger through celebrity chef Bobby Chinn. (Sadly, he was overseas during my visit!) His Don’s Tay Ho was #47 on the list in 2013, the only restaurant in Vietnam to have made the list. (Folks in the Philippines, you might remember Iron Chef Vietnam winner chef Nguyen Van Tu who recently cooked in City of Dreams Manila’s Red Ginger– he’s the executive chef there and is a notable TV personality in Vietnam!) Well in Vietnam, Don’s is an institution– everyone knows who he is!! So happy and grateful to have spent my last dinner in Hanoi partaking in his special Canadian seafood and wine feast menu which runs for a few months.

So nice to meet Iron Chef Vietnam winner chef Nguyen Van Tu, who is the executive chef at Don’s Bistro!!! He cooked at City of Dreams Manila’s Red Ginger last year and enjoyed his experience very much :) *Don’s is three floors and has beautiful indoor seating; we just opted to sit on the rooftop al fresco so we could admire and enjoy the lake!
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Succulent Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia cooked 4 ways- bloody Caesar oyster shooter, baked in edible shell, shucked with green lemon, and cornmeal breaded in mustard leaf and chili nuoc mam… Paired with a not too cloyingly sweet Flourish Riesling from Niagara Peninsula.. overlooking the serene Tay Ho / West Lake!
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Wow, check out these gorgeous winter truffles, personally shaved by Chef Tu on my plate of hand-rolled fresh pasta topped with Canadian lobster, that was paired with Le Clos Jordanne “Le Grand Clos” Pinot Noir 2009 from the Niagara Peninsula

*Cha Ca La Vong will probably be the #1 most recommended restaurant from friends who have visited previously but sadly it has deteriorated when I went. But regardless, here’s my experience and if you want to check it out, please do so by all means– still a Hanoi institution!