Hanoi's designers choose the antiquated setting of the Old Quarter to showcase their work. See the best of Vietnamese style in clothes, jewelry and homewares on the streets of Nha Tho and Ly Quoc Su on the western fringe of the Hoan Keim Lake. Some shops feature updates of traditional Vietnamese aesthetics, some are trendy and cool, all are original products, distinctly local, if a little pricey. Quaint boutiques like Song are packed with elegant garments and soft furnishings in natural fabrics like cotton and silk. Designer Valerie Gregori McKenzie employs independent local female seamstresses to do handstitching. Mosaique is a home decor treasure trove of beaded cushions, lamps, and throws. Glass-fronted labyrinth Tan My Design on Hang Gai is a great spot to try on the collections of local designers such as Minh Hanh and Ha Truong.
No pressure over "ca phe"
Hanoi’s coffee joints may be Parisian in style, but those glasses of "cà phê" are as quintessentially Vietnamese as the "non la" conical hat. This is after all, the capital of a country that is second only to Brazil in the coffee production rankings. Moca, with its exposed brickwork and classical movie stills, is a great place to take some time-out and people-watch while discovering Hanoi’s robusta bean buzz. The food is not bad, but not great either, with a mix of Western and Vietnamese dishes.
The city’s hipsters can be found reclining amid old gramophones and a jumble of 1960s kitsch at Bar Betta from morning cuppa to night cap.
The ever-busy Avalon Café’s balconied lake-view lounge and sky garden is a great place to rise above the street-level motorbike melee.
The streets are your restaurant
Going local is the best way to eat in Hanoi's Old Quarter. The most popular joints are open to the streets, with low tables and seats spilling out onto the pavement. Cha Ca La Vong claims to be the oldest restaurant in Vietnam, purportedly serving since 1873. Their specialty is "cha ca," a butter-coated fish sautéed with dill, turmeric and spring onions with sides of peanuts, vermicelli noodles and assorted leafy greens. The cramped, grimy but good Bun Bo Nam Bo does a roaring trade in southern-style beef with noodles. For bun cha, the charcoal-grilled pork patties with vermicelli noodles and herbs, try Bun Cha Dac Kim and head to Ngo Phat Loc, a small lane along Hang Be, to try bun dau, bite-sized bits of fried tofu served with packed rice noodles, herbs and your choice of sauce.
Sugar cane juice, or "nuoc mia," is a standard pick-me-up and mobile vendors patrol the streets all day long.
But for something with a little more kick, head to the corners of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien streets, affectionately know as bia hoi corner, a hub for home-brewed “draft beer.”
The Old Quarter has trinkets in spades. Gifts and conversation-starters for the folks back home are all on sale here. The more traditional the gift, the better. Vietnamese street signs in the Old Quarter reveal what craftsmen originally sold along each thoroughfare 600 years ago. While few of the streets have stayed true to their original trade, these still hold on: Head to Hang Manh, "bamboo blind" street, for traditional handmade Vietnamese instruments. The owners at Thai Khue are happy to let you try before you buy, and while 16-string zithers and dan gaoI, a fiddle with coconut shell resonator, are a great challenge for musicians and do look cool on the wall, it is easier to learn to play the four-string dan tu.
Traders along the aromatic Lang Ong street, named for an 18th-century physician, still purvey every kind of herb and spice, heaped everywhere in buckets and bins and encased within hundreds of tiny drawers within vast, dark wooden cabinets lining the walls.
Hanoi’s frenetic buzz wearing you down? Try some well-roasted tao nhan, or Chinese apple seed, to soothe raw nerves and promote sleep; or dan sam, “the soothing stick” reputed to reduce anxiety and stress without drowsiness.
Hang Gai, or "silk goods" street still is home to shops stacked to the rafters with multi-colored rolls of fabric. It is a good place to shop for silk scarves and clothing.