Hanoi, like most of Vietnam, is a bountiful spot for culinary exploration. Vietnamese cuisine is defined by its fresh ingredients, use of herbs and fast cooking times. It is unlike any other Asian cuisine, and sampling its many variations is one of the true pleasures of visiting Hanoi. The ubiquitous pho noodle soup served with slices of beef (bo) or chicken (ga), fresh bean sprouts, and various spices is available everywhere around the city.
Although there are many fine-dining eateries, a more democratic and authentic way to dine is to eat at the many street-side restaurants, sitting on tiny plastic stools. Here travellers can sample inexpensive classic dishes such as banh cuon, steamed rice pancakes filled with finely chopped pork; nem ran, fried spring rolls, and bun cha, flame-cooked pork often served in a noodle soup. A well-known street-food establishment is Cha Ca La Vong on Cha Ca Street. Here patrons can find the iconic North Vietnamese dish cha ca, which is fried fish and dill patties with noodles.
A lot of these restaurants only serve one dish, which they've perfected. So travellers should put aside their expectations of good service, pleasing decor and a varied menu, and try a different spot every day. Afterwards, they can visit a cafe for some ca fe (coffee) and a pastry, or a bia hoi (draft beer) tavern for some low alcohol lager.
Hanoi offers a less frenetic and commercialised shopping experience than Ho Chi Minh City in the south of the country. Traditional arts and crafts are more popular here than mass produced goods, and night markets are lively social occasions not to be missed.
The old town is where most of the art galleries are situated. A lot of up and coming artists exhibit here and if travellers can spot quality and bargain skilfully, they can pick a truly unique and worthwhile memento of their Hanoi visit. Popular souvenirs also include paraphernalia from the communist and war eras, including Chairman Mao branded goods, medals, bullets, and Zippo lighters, the latter invariably of modern provenance and not found in a former battle zone as claimed by the salesman.
Other souvenirs include silk garments, wooden carvings, shoes from silk or bamboo, ethnic weaving, rice paper notebooks and paintings, and the distinctive conical hats that have been worn for centuries and are still much in evidence today. Visitors should look out for hats made in Hue, which each have a unique poem inside the rim. Shoppers should avoid buying gemstones unless they have the skill to tell the difference between jewels and polished glass.
Hanoi is a city with an abundance of choices for night-time entertainment. After dark the Old Quarter takes on a new life, and is where visitors can find crowded sidewalk spots to sip on cheap draughts of beer while perched on a stool. Bia Hoi Junction has a mixed patronage of locals and tourists who congregate around drinks for prices as low as 5,000 VND. The Old Quarter is also a prime location to devour street food by night, providing a wealth of tasty, quickly prepared options. For more experienced culinary navigation through the countless options, travellers can sign up for a night-time street food tour.
Hanoi has no shortage of nightclubs, trendy bars and live music venues scattered around the West Lake area and Hoan Kiem district. For a more cultural experience, travellers can head to legendary Binh Minh's Jazz Club, located in the French Quarter or visit the historic Hanoi Opera House, which still hosts live performances every so often. Visitors can also tap into Hanoi's growing contemporary art scene with a visit to Manzi Cafe and Art Space. Local art exhibitions and film festivals are also quite common around the city.