(CNN) — Hanoi is often touted as the land of motorbikes and steamy pho (beef noodle soup). And that’s partly true.
Whether you’re in the Old Quarter — the city’s beating heart of tradition and trade — or wandering around peaceful West Lake, just to the north, it’s impossible to walk a block without encountering a makeshift noodle stand or an impenetrable wave of Vespas.
But beyond first impressions, the capital of Vietnam has surprises tucked down every alleyway.
To really get a feel for how this Southeast Asia destination is evolving, CNN Travel took to the streets with Hanoi’s top artists — the writers, poets, musicians and trendsetters who keep the city’s creative juices flowing.
They shared their favorite coffee shops and sunset spots, alleyways and restaurants for an insiders’ guide to rule them all.
Mark Lowerson, Hanoi Street Food Tours
We hit the streets with a tour that’s educating visitors about Hanoi’s best street food, from bun ca (fish noodle soup) to iced coffee.
Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Mark Lowerson visited Vietnam in 2002 while on vacation.
He tells CNN Travel it was “love at first sight.”
“The Old Quarter seemed so exotic, so old-world, so confusing. I wanted to try and work it out,” Lowerson recalls.
Soon after, he relocated to Hanoi and worked as a teacher. In 2005, he found his way into the blogosphere with Sticky Rice — now one of the city’s longest-running food blogs.
Van Cong Tu (L) and Mark Lowerson (R) of Hanoi Street Food Tours
“It was just a creative outlet — a way for me to document and try to make sense of the rich food culture all around me,” says Lowerson.
Even after 16 years and hundreds of tours in Hanoi, Lowerson says he still notices something new every day.
“I take great pleasure in the minutiae or richness of small details around me, wherever I look,” he says.
“Hanoi is a great walking city, much of it is like being in a living museum or observing an ongoing piece of performance art.”
For Lowerson, the most inspiring aspect is the drive and energy of Vietnamese people.
“In local food settings where I’m operating, the feisty but friendly sisterhood of street food vendors, their every toil for little reward and, indeed, their tolerance for me bringing foreign travelers to their stalls — that’s truly inspiring!”
He suggests travelers do their best to “get lost” in Hanoi, rather than following an itinerary or checking TripAdvisor for the best restaurants.
“Do what I do: Be intrigued by places where large groups of locals are gathered to eat or drink,” he says.
Lowerson points to a vendor west of the Old Quarter called Van, who specializes in bun ca — a fish noodle soup.
“This is one of the best in town,” he says. “There are two types of noodles, and then your choice of steamed or fried fish.”
While in other countries, adding salt could be considered an insult to the chef — Lowerson says that’s not the case in Vietnam.
“Here, you are expected to use the condiments on the table,” he explains.
“Add a little lime, vinegar, chili and herbs to achieve the essential balance of salty, sour, sweet and spicy.”
Pull up a stool.
Hanoi Street Food Tours
Of course, a trip to Hanoi isn’t complete without trying Vietnamese coffee.
He recommends Cafe Duy Tri (43A Yen Phụ), in the West Lake district, which has been in operation since the 1930s.
“It’s an iconic name in Hanoi coffee culture — they do all of the roasting, sourcing of their own beans and the roasting, grinding on their own,” he says.
“But since it’s such a narrow space and tiny, not everyone knows how to find it — you have to be in the know to find this place.”
Tram Vu, Manzi
Tram Vu works to promote emerging Hanoi artists. In 2012, she co-founded Manzi — an art gallery and café located in a renovated French-style house.
A cultural activist and local Hanoi resident, Tram Vu is one of the driving forces behind Hanoi’s burgeoning contemporary arts scene.
Along with two friends, Vu co-founded Manzi in 2012. The indie art space, cafe and bar is on a mission to support the local art scene with exhibitions, installations, live music, talks and workshops.
Tram Vu is a key player on Hanoi’s art scene.
“Contemporary art is very important. It reflects the currents of society and it brings real life to the work and people need to appreciate that,” Vu tells CNN Travel.
“We try together with other art spaces in town to create some momentum.”
The founders set up their home base in a French mansion near West Lake, on a quiet street that Vu says has hardly changed in the past five years.
For those interested in learning more about Vietnamese art, Vu recommends an informative and experiential tour called Sophie’s Art Tour.
“It is a very intensive tour about local art, starting at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum,” explains Vu.
“Then the guide will take you through all the significant art spaces in Hanoi. Along the way, you’ll learn so much about the history and current climate of Vietnam.”
For something a little more low-key, aside from Manzi, there’s Nha San Collective — where you’ll find contemporary art exhibitions from emerging local artists.
Another option is L’ Espace, part of the French Institute, and the Goethe Institut, which offer a mix of exhibitions and performance arts.
Lang Toi takes place at the Hanoi Opera House.
From Lang Toi
The contemporary circus combines stunts, dancing and music — poetically recounting Vietnamese village life.
Nguyen Qui Duc, Tadioto & Motosan
Author, poet and painter Nguyen Qui Duc takes CNN to the tranquil Temple of Literature and a bustling fruit and flower market.
An acclaimed author, poet and restaurateur, Nguyen Qui Duc grew up in Vietnam during the decades-long Vietnam War, which took place from 1955 to 1975.
“Like many families who lived through the war, we had difficult circumstances: My father had been a political prisoner, and my mother was stuck in central Vietnam,” Nguyen tells CNN Travel.
When the war concluded, Nguyen’s relatives took the then-teenager to the US, where he studied in Virginia and California before moving to London to pursue a career in journalism.
And, eventually, his career led him back home.
Author, poet and restaurateur Nguyen Qui Duc.
“While on assignment in Vietnam, I discovered Hanoi as a city with a lot of history, great architecture and many wonderful people,” he recalls.
The reporter moved back in 2006 and worked as a radio content editor until opening his gallery and bar Tadioto, right by the Hanoi Opera House.
He also runs Moto-san Uber Noodle, a popular eatery inspired by Japan’s micro cafes.
“The noodle restaurant is a reflection of my admiration of Japanese small stalls and the disciplines of people working in very small spaces,” says Nguyen.
“I also like Vietnam’s sidewalk culture, and wanted to blend it a little with a Japanese style.”
While food is, of course, a crucial part of Vietnamese culture, Nguyen says the most exciting thing about Hanoi is the energy.
“You walk down the street and thousands of motorcycles rush by. People are doing things all the time,” he says.
“Certainly plenty of people sit and drink coffee or drink beer. But there’s always somebody working, doing something — whether it’s a carpenter or a guy selling fruit, selling flowers … people try here.”
“It’s an insistence, to me, on hope. That no matter what the country is going through, whatever regime, whatever government, whatever barriers to progress or to growth, people try. Brick by brick, dream by dream, they build a life for themselves.”
Inside aN store in Hanoi.
From aN Store
That’s one of the main qualities that compelled Nguyen to move back.
One of his favorite experiences in the city occurs in the early mornings at the vegetable and fruit market near the Long Biên Bridge.
Nguyen Qui Duc
“Sometimes at 2 or 3 a.m., when I’m leaving Tadioto, I’ll go to the flower market, have a bowl of noodles and see the people. I like to sit with them and get away from the image that Hanoi likes to project sometimes now — the big shopping malls, the high-rise buildings, the condos, the big cars,” he says.
“There’s the interaction between the vendors and the farmers, rushing in with carloads and truckloads of flowers. And they work through the mud and the rain to bring joy to people.
“That to me is the energy of Hanoi beyond what most people see in the urban areas.”
Artisan crafts at The Dreamers store.
But that’s not to say that travelers should skip all the modern experiences that Hanoi has to offer.
Nguyen suggests visiting one of the city’s alternative arts and culture venues around town, such as Nha San Collective and Manzi art space — or heading to one of the design-driven boutiques, such as Flora Flora, aN Store and The Dreamers.
“The owners and designers of these shops take obvious care in making unique items from ceramics and clothing to contemporary art and collectors’ pieces,” he says.
“Hanoi is a city full of changes, almost on a daily basis. If you look carefully enough, you will see the old next to the new and, at times, you can imagine yourself in a very different time.”
Donna Bramhall, Haute Culture
Hanoi fashion blogger Donna Bramhall brings CNN on a scenic tour of Hoan Kiem Lake and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.
A fashion instructor and entrepreneur, Donna Bramhall moved to Hanoi four years ago.
The UK native was immediately drawn to Vietnam’s traditional textiles — particularly cultural tribal dresses with vibrant colors and intricate patterns.
“When I came to Vietnam, I was really bowled over by the fact that people still wear their traditional dress,” Bramhall tells CNN Travel.
“In Vietnam, there are 54 ethnic minorities. They still invest so much time and energy of their culture into their textiles and their clothes — they’re all locally sourced, handmade and incredibly labor intensive.”
Bramhall shopping in Hanoi’s markets.
As she traveled across Asia, Bramhall started studying textile techniques and production processes — documenting her discoveries on culture and fashion blog Haute Culture.
Not only is the blog an encyclopedic resource of textile traditions, but Bramhall also offers specialized workshops and tours.
To see how women fit into Vietnam’s society, she recommends visiting the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, near the centrally located Hoan Kiem Lake.
“The Vietnamese Women’s Museum is one of my favorite places,” she says.
“There’s a section on traditional dress that’s very beautifully curated. It shows how women are really the backbone of society in Vietnam.”
After a visit to the museum, Bramhall advises spending time by Hoan Kiem Lake.
“The lake is an important focal point in Hanoi. It’s really beautiful any time of day, all year actually,” she says.
“You’re never too far from a lake in Hanoi and it’s so nice to have a seat and a little walk around, and just kind of breathe in the space.”
And for shopping? Bramhall recommends Hang Bo Street — a shady lane that’s one of the Old Quarter’s 36 dedicated trade streets.
Inside Maison de Tet Decor.
Maison de Tet Decor
“Hanoi is made up of lots of streets which specialize in very specific things and this street is focused on sewing equipment and haberdashery,” she says.
“We can get everything there from ribbons to trimmings, buttons, beads, scissors and needles … It’s a really fun and exciting street for anyone that’s a textile enthusiast to visit when they come to Hanoi.”
As for contemporary fashion, Bramhall says it’s a still undeveloped market — but fascinating things are happening.
“I’m always interested in how traditional textiles are used in contemporary ways,” says Bramhall. “There are a few fashion pioneers here who combine traditional Asian aesthetics with luxury and design.”
A look from Kilomet 109.
She recommends Kilomet 109 boutique, which works with different ethnic minority groups to source materials and textiles.
“(The designer) has a farm where she’s growing cotton and silkworms, producing all her own natural dyes,” explains Bramhall.
“She is pushing ethical, eco and ethnic fashion design in Vietnam.”
Bramhall also spends a fair bit of time at Chula Fashion — part fashion boutique, part cafe and event space — as well as Maison de Tet Decor, a store-slash-cafe set inside a beautiful converted French colonial house near West Lake.
“Maison de Tet Decor occasionally holds different markets and workshops,” she says. “And the food is also fresh and healthy, because they source all the ingredients from their own farm.”
Quoc Trung, Monsoon Music Festival
Record producer Quoc Trung, judge on Vietnam Idol and The Voice of Vietnam, brings CNN on an insider’s tour of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.
Born into a musical family of acclaimed opera singers, Hanoi native Quoc Trung has done it all — he’s been a record producer, songwriter and “Vietnam Idol” judge.
He even launched his own music festival in 2014.
Taking place every autumn at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (an 11th-century cultural complex in central Hanoi), Monsoon Music Festival brings international music to Hanoi and supports emerging local talents.
Trung says he was inspired by his own experience at Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2006, where he performed.
Trung at the citadel.
“I became infatuated with the idea of holding the first ever international music festival in Vietnam,” he recalls.
“In 2014, my dream came true,” Trung tells CNN Travel. “We chose the historical setting of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long to bring these unique musical experiences to local Vietnamese.”
A professional musician since the age of 15, Trung finds inspiration everywhere in Hanoi, particularly near West Lake where he lives.
“My family and I moved to the West Lake area a long time ago and I truly love the peaceful nature of both Hanoi and West Lake area,” he says.
Trung has witnessed Hanoi develop into a busy, ambitious city over the years, but he says travelers can still find tranquil places to relax and explore the city’s quieter side.
“I recommend visiting the local temples and pagodas. The tranquility of these places truly inspire the majority of my songs,” says Trung.
For an introduction to the local sounds, Trung recommends his project Ionah — a show that blends modern dance, theater, circus and music, not to mention dramatic visual and lighting effects.
He also points travelers towards more traditional Vietnamese performances, such as ca tru — a complex form of sung poetry — and cheo singing, a form of Vietnamese opera.
“Try to see a cheo performance at the Cheo Theatre,” he says. “This singing is one of the most appealing forms of local art performances.”
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