Hanoi, a city that’s been standing for over 1000 years, has been going through a recent development boom. But even as skyscrapers are springing up, the scene on the ground is still flush with cultural gems and hidden corners. The new is being woven into the old, forming a thrilling tapestry of streets lined with both ancient temples and trendy cafes.
While Hanoi is absolutely worth exploring for its lengthy and layered history, there’s plenty about its modern side to get excited over too. Here are three such spots, all of which are in walking distance from some of Hanoi’s most notable historic sites:
The Old: House Save Niem Hồ Chí Minh
The New: Cafe Pho Co
With the grand architecture and wide boulevards of the French Quarter, many view Hanoi as a relic of the colonial era rather than a bastion of modern Vietnamese history. However, this city has played host to a number of vital moments from the past few decades. Unlike other entries on this list, House Save Niem (48 Hàng Ngang Street) is very overlooked, which is surprising as this is where Hồ Chí Minh drafted the country’s Declaration of Independence. And unlike some of the flashier memorials to him, this museum is a quiet reflection on his accomplishments.
A few streets away, on the third floor above a silk shop, is Cafe Pho Co. Though tricky to find, it rewards you well when you do. Vietnam is famous for its coffee and there’s no shortage of cafes to choose from, but few have the view Cafe Pho Co does. While curling up with one of their signature egg coffees (caphe trung da), you can gaze out over picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake.
The Old: Hỏa Lò Prison
The New: Quán Gốc Đa
Hỏa Lò Prison (technically, only the prison’s gatehouse) was built by the French in the late 1800s to hold, torture and execute Vietnamese revolutionaries. The building spent a short interval as an education center before reverting to a prison during the American War (Vietnam War), when U.S. POWs ironically dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton. Although gruesome and peppered with propaganda, it’s an icon of the country’s last 100 years and shouldn’t be missed by first time visitors.
Unlike most jails, the location of Hỏa Lò is urban and central, which puts it less than a 10-minute walk from Quán Gốc Đa (52 Lý Quốc Sư Street). Tucked in behind St. Joseph’s Cathedral (also worth peeking inside), this tiny food stall has a big reputation. Just about everything on their menu is cheap, deep-fried and crazy delicious, so leave your diet at the door. I highly recommend the fried pork spring rolls (nem chua rán).
The Old: Presidential Palace & Hồ Chí Minh’s house
The New: D.CHIC
Anyone who lays eyes on the Presidential Palace’s yellow-cake architecture won’t be surprised to hear that it was originally constructed to house the French Governor-General of Indochina. Less than 50 years after its completion in 1906, Vietnam achieved independence. President Hồ Chí Minh reportedly refused to move in, though he received state guests there, and he eventually built a traditional Vietnamese stilt house on the grounds. The lush gardens, the contrast between the two residences and the collection of antique cars gifted to Hồ Chí Minh all combine to make this a must-see.
For ladies who want sartorial souvenirs but also want to avoid tourist traps and products made in China, pop into D.CHIC. They have five outlets in Hanoi and it’s the one at 18 Phan Đình Phùng Street that’s en route to the Palace. Launched in 2015, D.CHIC only sells clothes and accessories that were designed and manufactured in Vietnam. The prices are higher than what you’ll find in the Old Quarter, but so is the quality. And their dresses are infinitely trendier than those kitschy elephant pants.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.