FX Excursions

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Hanoi Retains Its Traditional Charms

by Kristy Alpert

Aug 1, 2019

Hanoi skyline © VINH DAO – DREAMSTIME.COM

August 2019

TO THE UNTRAINED EYE, Hanoi appears to move at a slower pace than its neighboring Asian capital cities. People spend mornings practicing tai chi around the many calm lakes of the city while man-powered rickshaws share the roadways peaceably with motorbikes. Locals walk to work along roads filled with street vendors who pride themselves on making every dish entirely from scratch. Despite the appearance of calm and joie de vivre, this former French colony is actually one of the fastest-growing cities in Asia … and it’s about to get even faster.

In 2020 Hanoi will become home to the Hanoi Motor Sport Circuit, a track that will host the Vietnam Grand Prix, the country’s first-ever Formula 1 race and the first new event to be added to the F1 calendar since Liberty Media took over the company at the beginning of 2017. Formula 1, the elite class of single-seat auto racing sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, features speeds of more than 200 mph. The Vietnamese Grand Prix will join an exclusive calendar that includes Monaco, Singapore and Azerbaijan. The event will surely bring increased international exposure to this already booming capital city.

Experiencing substantial economic growth over the past few decades, Hanoi grew nearly 7 percent in the first quarter of 2019 alone, according to the city’s Department of Planning and Investment. The city has been on an upward cycle of growth since 1996, when the country normalized relations with the United States by joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Although Vietnam remains a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, the country’s emphasis on international relations and central planning gave rise to a profitable market-based economic system while decreasing the number of state-owned businesses.

Many businesswomen and businessmen have made the move to Hanoi in recent years to take advantage of the fast-moving economy and diversify their operations away from China. Although Vietnamese is the national language, many in business circles speak English, making it easy to navigate this growing market. The past 24 years brought on an increase in liberal economic reforms, allowing for foreign investment to thrive and decreasing the poverty statistics in this capital city of more than 8 million people (and growing).

The largest business in the city, Samsung employs nearly 100,000 people, and LG in nearby Haiphong proves another major player. Software developers thrive in the Hanoi market due to the city’s heavy focus on technology in schools. A recent finding from Google software engineer Neil Fraser revealed a group of 11th-grade students studying in Vietnam would easily pass parts of the famously challenging Google interview process with flying colors. Apple (Foxconn) operates a significant project out of the city, as does Mobase. Nike, Adidas, The North Face and many other garment industry executives find Hanoi a welcoming environment for business with such a skilled (and plentiful) workforce. Meanwhile, Piaggio and Honda have become essential businesses in the city alongside other motorbike manufacturing and assembly companies. Surprisingly, the agricultural sector remains vital to the economy. Vietnam ranks among the leaders in exporting shrimp, with many exporters and businesses operating out of Hanoi. The country set a goal earlier this year to export $10.5 billion in seafood in 2019 and is on track to do just that.

The city’s infrastructure is changing dramatically as city planners make room for the growing international markets by offering policies to promote new construction and modernized methods of transportation. A new airport terminal and highway opened in January 2016 make access to the city much easier from cities around the world. Hanoi recently completed a much-anticipated metro project, receiving its first air train in early 2019 for a project expected to continue to grow until 2021.

Tree in autumn at Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Tree in autumn at Hoàn Kiếm Lake © VINH DAO – DREAMSTIME.COM

The excitement of the Formula 1 competition coming in April 2020 inspired city leaders to move more quickly to get the city ready for such a world-class arena, proving once again development will only assist business and create more development opportunities in the near future. Despite this rapid change, the city maintains its historic charm and healthy work/life balance. No matter how much the city grows, a regular crowd will continue to practice the slow art form of tai chi in the early morning hours around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. The city’s storied past and rich traditions blend with a bright future to create a vibrant economy on the fast track for growth and expansion in the years to come.

CHECKING IN WITH ANTHONY PETER SLEWKA-ARMFELT

Director of Sales and Marketing, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, and Director of Business Development, Accor Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

What were your initial thoughts about moving to Hanoi?
Essentially, I was assigned to Hanoi by the company. Prior to moving I was not so keen to live in Hanoi, as during my many short visits the city appeared a bit chaotic and the weather somewhat overcast. However, I quickly began to really like Hanoi and was soon totally immersed. There are many reasons for this, even apart from the special beauty of where I work at the Metropole, but the main ones are the amazing close-knit and eclectic expatriate community, the nature of the Vietnamese people, the charm and authenticity of the small streets and old buildings, and the measured tempo of the apparent traffic mayhem.

Is WiFi access ever an issue?
WiFi is good almost everywhere, and I am not aware of any current restrictions on social media.

What time of day would you arrange a business meeting with someone local?
Power breakfasts are uniquely American so are not at all popular here (I never liked them either). Business lunches, however, are popular, and we see them often. Evenings are more for entertaining. I would say for the best outcome, plan business meetings for late morning in a meeting room followed by lunch.

Where are some of your favorite off-site restaurants?
As I am based in Hanoi, I tend to go for something other than Vietnamese food. Authentic Vietnamese restaurants tend to specialize in specific dishes, but for restaurants offering a large selection I recommend Cao Go, overlooking Hoàn Kiếm Lake and Ưu Đàm Chay for vegetarian. There is also Madam Hien, run by former chef Didier Corlou of the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. Home Hanoi Restaurant at 34 Châu Long is also good, and I really like an eclectic Japanese expat restaurant that serves mainly Western food but Japanese-style, called PéPé La Poule in the Xuan Dieu area. La Badiane is a nice French restaurant, and Cousins To Ngoc Van is an expat favorite. For burgers, try either Sun Katz or Chops. For Italian we have Da Paulo Dragoncello and Cucini. And Maison De Tet Décor, a healthy Western restaurant close to the InterContinental Westlake, serves great salads, carrot cake and smoothies.

Any surprising finds in the city?
Actually, the golf situation is a hidden treasure, with many great courses nearby — more than in central Vietnamese resort cities.

Things to Do in Hanoi

In the same way businesses thrive on the growing streets of Hanoi, the streets themselves continue to thrive with the steady hum of Hanoi’s famous street vendors. The street food in Hanoi is often regarded as some of the best in the world, where vendors prepare decadent dishes of phở, bun cha and bánh cuốn on tiny makeshift stoves following centuries-old recipes, often rivaling the complex flavor profiles of the world’s finest restaurants. The street chefs behind Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn (one of the most famous phở vendors in Hanoi) begin preparing phở in the early hours of the day. They sell it to a hungry crowd of locals and in-the-know tourists. It is so popular, they only serve it until they run out, typically around 10 a.m.

Phở from Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn

Phở from Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn © NPHỞ GIA TRUYỀN BÁT ĐÀN

Visitors can join street food tours at all hours of the day to get a taste of the best Hanoi flavors without the hassle of navigating the labyrinthine back streets. Many tours operate by rickshaw, whisking hungry patrons past the tai chi-practicing locals along Hoàn Kiếm Lake before heading to Hanoi’s Old Quarter to sample delicacies at places like Café Duy Trí or shop the stalls at Dong Xuan Market. For a little extra, many tour operators help arrange for a visit to the city’s beloved Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre or include a stop at the Tran Quoc Pagoda.

The excellence in the street food industry elevated the restaurant game in the city as well, and many new restaurants opened to feature favorite dishes prepared in upscale settings and with ingredients deemed safe for Western palates (vegetables washed with bottled water, for example). Home Hanoi Restaurant in the Truc Bach neighborhood sits inside a former French residence and offers truly authentic versions of traditional Hanoi favorites. Its chả cá (turmeric fish with noodles) competes with the original recipes of the old city, while the ambience invites guests to slow down and enjoy a meal with friends in a cozy dining room setting.

The most iconic property in Hanoi just happens to house many of the city’s most beloved sites, where countless novels and songs were born within steps of Hanoi’s first-ever French restaurant, Le Beaulieu. The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi opened in 1901 and has been an icon in the city ever since. It served as a honeymoon hideout for Charlie Chaplin in 1936 as well as a place of shelter for artist Joan Baez when she was in town during the Christmas bombing of 1972. Baez went on to write “Where Are You Now, My Son?” during the raid, and visitors today can listen to the recording, air raid sirens and dropping bombs and all, while touring the recently discovered bomb shelter on the property.

Hanoi Info to Go

Noi Bai International Airport lies roughly 28 miles north of the city center and is the largest airport in Northern Vietnam. A metered taxi ride into the city center — normally about 30 minutes, depending on traffic — typically costs less than $14.

Hanoi: Just the Facts

Time zone: GMT +7
Phone code: Country code: 84 City code: 4
Currency: Vietnamese dong
Key industries: Garment and textile, agricultural products and food processing, mechanical manufacturing, electronics and telecommunications, information technology

COMING AND GOING
Upon entering Vietnam, U.S. citizens must present a valid passport good for at least six months after arrival date and a tourist visa. You can apply for an e-Visa online good for a single-entry visit and valid for 30 days; it costs $25 and takes three working days to process.

OFFICIAL LANGUAGE
Vietnamese

Where to Stay in Hanoi

HANOI LA SIESTA CENTRAL HOTEL This elegant Old Quarter hotel features 27 guestrooms and a rooftop bar offering the perfect perch for watching the sun set over Hoàn Kiếm Lake. 1 Cầu Gỗ, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm $$$

LOTTE HOTEL HANOI Sandwiched between the New Business District and the Old Quarter, this 318- room high-rise occupies the upper portion of the 65-floor Lotte Center. 54 Liễu Giai, Cống Vị, Ba Đình $$

SOFITEL LEGEND METROPOLE HANOI HOTEL The 364 rooms and suites of this grand dame hotel are spread throughout two wings, the historically colonial Metropole Wing and the newer, Neoclassical Opera Wing. 15 Phố Ngô Quyền, Tràng Tiền, Hoàn Kiếm $$$

Restaurants in Hanoi

LE BEAULIEU This elegant French haute brasserie inside the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel puts on its French Colonial charm each Sunday for its famous afternoon brunch. 15 Lương Ngọc Quyến, French Quarter, Hoàn Kiếm $$$$

CHẢ CÁ LÃ VỌNG This 100-year-old restaurant is known for its namesake dish: chả cá lã vọng, a savory fish dish served with turmeric and dill in a DIY assembly style. 14 Chả Cá St., Hàng Bỗ, Hoàn Kiếm and 107 Nguyen Truong To St. $

HOME HANOI RESTAURANT The ambience sets the stage for the delicious Vietnamese home-cooked recipes at this charming restaurant. 34 Châu Long, Trúc Bạch, Ba Đình $

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