In Hanoi, transformation is sewn into the sidewalks, the city's horizons constantly contracting and expanding between its ancient temples, French colonial buildings and skyscrapers. A sidewalk isn't a sidewalk: it's a restaurant, a chicken coop, a bike parking lot, a dish washing spot and a motorbike repair shop. From these tight spaces, creativity pushes out.
Walk down a city street and the world rushes past you - you're lucky if you catch a glimpse of what's going on, from the fluffy white dog poking out the front of a scooter and the soaring shuttlecocks of local kids' badminton games to the sweet scent of sticky rice wafting from a street vendor's receding bike. Deciding where to focus your attention becomes a fine art.
Hanoi's energy is infectious. Shouted conversations on Grab bike rides, giggles over ordering mishaps and points in the right direction from friendly aunties absorb you. And then, there's no looking back, literally - you'll notice mirrors are absent on most motorbike taxis.
The Vietnamese capital exudes a palpable sense of evolution. Across the city, towering French buildings sit between typical tube houses, historic military sites and ancient temples. Icy sweet desserts are swapped for warm chewy dumplings with the onset of cooler weather, and plastic tarps are draped over mechanics' tools to transform a shop into extra restaurant seating as the working day ends. There's freedom in this impermanence. Here, we highlight how to join the metamorphosis, with a guide to where to stay, eat, drink and explore in the city.
Where to eat, drink, stay and explore in Hanoi
Where to stay
Sóng Sánh Stay
Sleep atop an exhibition space and café in this unique Airbnb offering. Feeling like an extension of the downstairs Matca Space - which includes a photo gallery and café - this rooftop-gazing spot sits in a history-rich neighbourhood - you'll find museums and significant sites an easy walk away. Guests have access to a private garden and rooftop, too.
Condo in Hoan Kiem
Pared-back, harmonious interiors provide respite from the vibrant energy of the surrounding neighbourhood's bustling streets at this Airbnb condo. Awash in natural light, it features Japanese-inspired interiors and is enveloped by lush foliage.
Acoustic Hotel & Spa
Situated in the very heart of the Old Quarter, this charming hotel is surrounded by stylish cafés, tucked-away dinner spots and smoothie stalls. Hosting a rooftop bar of its own, evening drinks can be enjoyed with a sunset view over the action below.39 Tho Nhuom, Hoan Kiem +84 243 6805 888 acoustichotel.com
Where to eat
Phở Gà Nguyệt
This packed spot churns out bowls of fragrant steaming chicken phở - chewy noodles with fresh herbs and your choice of pickled garlic, chilli and lime. Enjoy being part of the crowd by taking a table on the street or in the two or three dining rooms (which are opened up depending on the time of day). At night, a motorbike repair shop is absorbed into the eatery, with tarps covering bottles of oil and tools. Take a seat, then pick between noodles with or without broth and the meat of your choice. Vegetarians can opt for dry noodles, which come with crunchy peanuts and fried spring onions - and are just as delicious as the meaty options.5B Phu Doan, Hoan Kiem +84 98 905 5428 facebook.com
Tầm Vị's dark wooden interiors and warm lighting create the perfect setting in which to enjoy the traditional Vietnamese food served here. Fried tofu, chicken cooked in rich spices, garlicky vegetables, and meat-filled cabbage rolls are just some of the fresh, hearty dishes on offer. This spot recently gained a Michelin star, so be sure to make a reservation.4B Yen The Street, Dong Da +84 96 632 3131 facebook.com/nhahangtamvi
Vegan Banh Mi
People often walk straight past this joint, but if the aunty serving trà đá (iced tea) nearby notices, she'll flag them down and point them in the right direction. It's worth circling back to taste Vegan Banh Mi's hearty bánh mì (a short baguette with a thin crust and light, airy texture), ample plates of crunchy tofu, herby noodles and phở. Don't forget to order an iced tea with your meal. Make sure you get the address right: this spot is hard to find, and many eateries go by the same name.66B Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem +84 914 945 610 facebook.com/veganbanhmi
Bánh Trôi Tàu Ngon 77 Hàng Điếu
This street stall slings traditional Hanoi desserts in the midst of a busy Old Quarter street - blink and you could miss it. In warmer weather, try one of the sweet soups (chè), which are packed full of mung beans, tapioca, jellies and ice. If you're visiting in the cooler months, sitting down for a bánh trôi tàu is a treat. This comforting dessert is a satisfying mix of sweet and spicy, with soft glutinous rice balls full of sesame or mung bean in a hot gingery broth.
77 Hang Dieu, Cua Dong, Hoan Kiem
Where to drink
Nhà Hai Sáu
Cafés across Hanoi feel like second homes for younger crowds who settle in to work, study, read, chat and even enjoy a movie with a shared set of headphones. Nhà Hai Sáu is true to its name. Meaning "House 26", this cosy café is a meeting place for friends and family in the city, with its welcoming crew serving up some of Hanoi's best coffee in a minimalist space. Its large glass doors are perfect for watching life pass by on this quiet street over a cup or two.26 Phan Huy Ich, Ba Dinh +84 936 049 869 instagram.com/nhahaisaus
Long Waits Jazz
This evolving jazz parlour hosts a vibrant rotation of tribute concerts, guest musicians and jazz documentary screenings. The space feels like a secret: a dimly lit room bookended by luxurious red curtains and a petite viewing balcony. Find a spot on the balcony or settle in around one of the stage-facing tables and take in Hanoi's jazz scene as you sip a highball. Tickets can be booked online, or head to Tranquil Books Café, tucked beneath the venue, to buy a ticket on the night.5 Nguyen Quang Bich, Hoan Kiem +84 818 981 156 longwaitsjazz.com
Spaces in Hanoi are surprising and transformative. After ascending the winding staircase in this beautiful old building, you'll enter dreamy rooms decked out with Japanese paper lamps, dark timber floorboards and expansive windows with views of stretching tree canopies. Climb up another level and you'll reach Tamai Garden, a lush rooftop where you can gaze at the city over flowers. Achieving serenity in such a bustling city is no easy feat and finding it at Tamai will have you lingering beyond one coffee. On the menu? Cold brew, tea and Vietnamese condensed milk coffee.84 P Quan Su, Cua Nam, Hoan Kiem +84 349 689 091 instagram.com/tamai.hanoi
If you're not familiar with blue-tinted, rough-edged glasses filled with fresh beer, then it's time to pull up a small plastic chair for Bia Hơi. This is a true Hanoi experience; even the glass used was designed in the city for Hanoi Beer. Light and crisp, Bia Hơi - which is a daily brewed, low-alcohol beer - goes down easily, helped by the 40p a glass price point. Look out for "Bia Hơi" signs across the city, pick a spot with some full tables and join in. If you're craving a quieter tipple, head to Truc Bach or Tay Ho.
Locations across the city
What to do
Connect with artists at Líu Lô Arts & Craft
Líu Lô started on the first floor of founder Miên's house, with a group of friends selling their art down the same alley as a wet market. Now standing for over a year in the Old Quarter, this creative hub bursts with ceramics, prints and clothes from 70 emerging artists and brands.
Líu Lô is the Vietnamese word for a bird's chirping, a name Miên chose as a reminder that creatives are always learning, and finding more space in which to thrive. The philosophy within this name runs throughout the consignment-style store, as Miên strives to elevate handmade native goods, uplifting Vietnamese and Vietnam-based artists. If you're lucky, you'll catch a workshop or the store's founder for a chat.19 Chan Cam, Hoan Kiem +84 934 519 488 liuloarts.com
Shop for works by Vietnamese creators
Go home with a treasured souvenir from a Vietnamese maker. Head to An Cư to browse its collection of cobalt-blue ceramics and homewares, find well-made linen clothes at Gian Don, and a great selection of vinyl close by at Dia Than Vintage, including some Vietnamese music.
People-watch in parks
People-watching in a Hanoi park is as rich an experience as a museum visit. Whether it's at Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Thống Nhất Park or elsewhere, each verdant space is a world of its own. First light in the morning or at dusk is the best time to visit. Thống Nhất Park is the biggest in Hanoi and entering through its gates transports you to stretches of grass, water and tiled badminton courts hosting intergenerational games.
Explore the arts
Hanoi is full of smaller galleries carving out space for the arts. Matca Space is dedicated to uplifting emerging photographers, and Hanoi institution Manzi has an impressive collection of contemporary artworks. This includes affordable pieces which will have you flipping through stacks of work from Vietnamese artists. The more traditional Vietnam Fine Arts Museum is also worth a visit, exhibiting artworks throughout historical periods including pieces documenting the war. Check online for opening hours, as some venues' hours vary with projects.