Photo: Flag shop on the streets of Hanoi.


Hanoi, one of the most beautiful of the colonial Indochinese cities, is often the start or end point of a trip to Vietnam, and what a great welcome or farewell it is. Oozing with charm, Hanoi has gone through wholesale changes since Vietnam swung open its doors to tourism, but it remains true to its essential personality and is an amazing city to experience.

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Though considerably quieter than big sister Saigon, Hanoi still retains a vibrant atmosphere. From the early hours until late at night, the fig-tree shaded streets swarm with careening motorbikes, often with four, five or even six people aboard. A cyclo is available on most street corners, but unless you are making a particularly long trip, the best way to explore Hanoi is by foot.

It seems that in Hanoi, no two streets meet at 90 degrees and there so many one-way thoroughfares it sometimes feels like you can't get there from here, nor here from there. Count on getting lost. But a day of dodging traffic and elbowing your way through overcrowded footpaths is exactly how most people spend their time in Hanoi, and it's more fun than any purpose-built tourist attraction. Keep a map close at hand though, so when you find something that tickles your fancy, you can mark it down -- otherwise you risk never finding it again.

Hanoi has a number of lovely parks and museums where you can while away the hours of a warm summer's afternoon -- Lenin Park, south of Hoan Kiem district and just north of Bay Kau Lake are among the most popular, especially on holidays, when it's packed with picnickers.

In winter months, you can find yourself a cozy cafe to snuggle up in, or find a streetside restaurant boiling up a pot of something belly-warming and delicious. While Hanoians are certainly happy to be free of the French occupation, they continue to embrace French culinary culture.

Big, fat, fresh baguettes are sold everywhere, good for a pate sandwich or smeared with the ubiquitous Laughing Cow cheese. The coffee is world class -- served strong and rich in demitasses -- with the best blends being smooth and chocolatey. Wine is widely available, though inadequate storage and rotation lead to some bad bottles.

Specialty places like The Warehouse on Hang Trong are good for a wide, reliable selection of domestic and foreign vintages. And, of course, the pasteries beckon too. Hanoi has a plentiful and delicious collection of patisseries spread all over the city boasting decadent but very affordable treats.

Finally, the people of Hanoi are some of the warmest and most approachable in the country. Though English is not as commonly spoken as in the South, many of the older generation have a working vocabulary of French. Regardless of language, people will attempt to have a conversation with you irrespective of whether you can understand them. Many of the city's cyclo drivers speak some English and often have intriguing pasts that they are now willing to discuss with foreigners.

In Hanoi, you may find yourself sitting in a cafe sipping excellent coffee, nibbling a pastry, chatting in French to an old gentleman sporting a beret, while looking out on a vista of French-style buildings in the shadows of fig trees. You may begin to doubt that you got off the plane in the right city. But then, sitting at a streetside restaurant, slurping up a bowl of bun cha with a side of fresh springrolls, watching the 'yoke ladies' trundle by in their conical hats, hawking their wares -- nope, it's not Paris warmed over ... It's full-on Hanoi, a city to be savoured.

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