To experience one of the city’s most compelling curiosities, you’ll need to set your alarm. Head to Hoan Kiem Lake at around 6 a.m. and follow your ears to the laughing yoga group where young and old gather to erupt in sidesplitting laughter as infectious as it is bizarre.
No trip to Hanoi is complete without the breakfast classic, pho noodle soup. A short walk away at 61 Dinh Tien Hoang is a no-nonsense pho thin joint where pots of fragrant broth simmer. Unlike most places in Hanoi, the din of chatter is noticeably absent here — the locals forgoing banter in favor of focused slurping.
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There are few cities in the world that can challenge Hanoi for coffee shop density, and one of the oldest, Cafe Dinh (13 Dinh Tien Hoang), is also one of the best-hidden, squirrelled away above a luggage shop. A visit here is like stepping back in time. The tiniest of tiny stools are lined up against the walls, on which old black-and-white photographs of Hanoi hang. Make like a local and order the house speciality, egg coffee (ca phe trung), a rich and creamy cup of sweet caffeine goodness.
Next, it’s time to brave theOld Quarter, a warren of streets that were once all allied to a guild. Grab a map and weave your way from south to north. If the constant flow of motorbikes isn’t your thing, hail a cyclo and haggle a price (pay what you think seems fair).
Next stop is Manzi, a cafe and exhibition space that plays an important role in Hanoi’s burgeoning contemporary arts scene. Run by the inimitable and welcoming Tram, Manzi has a mellow ambiance, and upstairs, a great shop sells the work of local and international artists.
Reinvigorated, wander to Truc Bach and try the area’s speciality, pho cuon (beef and herbs rolled in thin sheets of noodle) on Ngu Xa Street.
Continue to the shore of Ho Tay Lake along Thanh Nien Street past a monument where John McCain was shot down. The beautiful sanctuary of Tran Quoc Pagoda sits on a small promontory, and the nearby Quan Thanh Pagoda is another atmospheric hideaway.
For dinner, seek out the quirky, railway track-side Ray Quan, but be warned, the rice wine menu is long and lethal. Round out your day at Tadioto, the capital’s most cosmopolitan and probably most dangerous bar, thanks in no small part to owner Duc, a poet, artist and all-round Hanoi arts-scene stalwart. Tadioto attracts a colorful mix of the capital’s denizens, so pull up a stool, fall into conversation, and eek the very most out of your 24 Hanoian hours.
For information on tours of Hanoi with resident photographer and guidebook author David Lloyd, visit Lloydanddeboodt.com.