When scouring the web for the world’s most romantic destinations, you’ll see Paris, Venice, Casablanca and Hawaii on any number of top-20 lists. While their appeal is undeniable, these listings are hardly definitive, and after all, true romance is what you make of it.
A convincing case can be made for taking a trip for two to a less-travelled locale – one that’s just a two-hour flight from Hong Kong. When it comes down to planning your next amorous escape with your better half, you may want to consider a stay in North-Central Vietnam. From Hanoi’s lakeside sunsets to the striking limestone peaks of Halong Bay and the lantern-lit streets of Hoi An, the region is brimming with natural beauty and charm.
First things first, though. You will need to get those ideas of flip flop-wearing backpackers and honking motorbikes clogging the streets of Hanoi out of your head. While those things can certainly be found in Vietnam’s bustling capital, the city also has a subtler side. Hanoi tends to move at a more languid pace than its southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City, but the northern city arguably has more sights worth seeing.
Hanoi’s stunning scenery is reason enough to stop and admire the views while sipping a cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) at a lakeside café. Hanoi is home to more than 100 lakes, the most famous of which are Hồ Tây (West Lake) and Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Lake of the Restored Sword). For a truly idyllic setting, take your beloved for a nighttime stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. The ancient tower in the centre of the lake is beautifully illuminated, as is the iconic red bridge leading to Đền Ngọc Sơn (The Temple of the Jade Mountain), which sits on a small island.
Long Bien Bridge also offers a picture-perfect view, particularly at sunset. Built in 1902, the bridge was designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel, mastermind of the eponymous Eiffel Tower. The bridge was partly destroyed by American bombs during the war and had to be rebuilt, but half of the original structure remains. Head across the bridge by foot and enjoy the view as the setting sun paints the Red River and lush banana trees a rosy hue.
To keep the romance going, spoil yourself a little and head to the InterContinental Hotel for a meal at Café du Lac, followed by after-dinner drinks at Sunset Bar. Accessed via a torch-lit bridge, the bar offers an unrivalled view of West Lake, all in a discrete location. Recommended tipple for two is the signature Hanoi Breeze cocktail – a refreshing blend of dark and white rum, lemongrass, fresh mint and soda.
With your evening itinerary covered, fill your days with a little city exploration. The vibrant, winding streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter are best explored by foot or by cyclo – somewhat akin to a rickshaw. The quarter is home to French colonial architecture and more than 40 traditional streets, many of which are named for the products sold there. Head to Hang Dau for shoes, Hang Bac for silver jewellery and Hang Dao for ready-made clothing. It’s easy to get lost, but that’s all part of the Old Quarter’s charm – embrace the chaos.
Partly due to its French influence, Hanoi also has a thriving café culture and it’s well worth sampling the fare. Try the creamy egg coffee from the famous Giảng Cafe (located at 39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hoàn Kiếm), or a yoghurt coffee from the tongue-in-cheek Cộng Cà Phê (Communist Coffee), a café chain with a war-era theme.
Slightly further afield but well worth the visit is Cafe Cuối Ngõ (located at the end of alley 68 on Cầu Giấy Street in Cầu Giấy District). Literally meaning ‘Café at the end of the lane,’ this well-hidden hub is one of Hanoi’s best-kept secrets. The entrance is accessed via an old, moss-covered archway, and the dimly lit café is filled with antiques, artworks and little artificial lighting – giving visitors the sensation of revisiting a foregone era.
Unlike Hong Kong, Hanoi’s cafés encourage lingering, and the long conversations that unfurl over a cup of coffee or trà đá (iced tea) are partly what make North Vietnamese culture so inviting.
As for accommodation, nowhere has more charm for an amorous pair than the Metropole, a French colonial-style hotel built in 1901. Over the years, the five-star hotel has accommodated a number of high-profile guests such as actor Charlie Chaplin, actress and political activist Jane Fonda, former American president George H.W. Bush, and most recently, French president François Hollande.
Not only is the Metropole within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake and the Opera House, but it’s also close to a number of top-rated eateries and bars. Catch a live performance at the sultry Binh Minh Jazz Club (1 Tràng Tiền), or head to the nearby Tadioto bar (24 Tông Đản) – an artsy hideout and favourite among the city’s literati. For both delicious food and a cosy balcony overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, head to Cầu Gỗ restaurant (7 Đinh Tiên Hoàng). Other dining options that come highly recommended are Asian fusion restaurant Pots ’n’ Pans (57 Bùi Thị Xuân) and French restaurant La Badiane (10 Nam Ngư).
Whether you’re looking for luxurious spas, fine dining, cooking classes or excellent museums, Hanoi has something to offer everyone. Although it’s hard to leave the city, there’s much more to see outside of the capital. It’s advisable to head north to Halong Bay and its majestic islands, or south to the central city of Hoi An – or preferably both, if time allows.
From Hanoi, the most scenic route to Halong Bay is by air. Just three years ago, Hai Au Aviation launched the first and only seaplane service in Vietnam, which includes a stop in the heart of Halong Bay. Departing from Noi Bai International Airport, the short flight to Halong includes a 15-minute scenic flyover of the bay’s teal blue waters and stunning limestone peaks. Most impressively – if a little precarious – the airline’s skilled pilots land the Cessna Caravan planes atop the water before taxiing to land.
Halong means ‘descending dragon’ in ancient Vietnamese, referring to a legend in which a dragon is sent by the Jade Emperor to help the people conquer invaders. Many cruise options abound, including luxury cruise lines Paradise Luxury, Dragon Legend and Au Co. Most offer two- or three-day excursions, and some offer packages in partnership with Hai Au Aviation. For those with time to spare, the less-crowded Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay is well worth a visit.
After returning to Hanoi – either by plane, bus or private transfer – you can then fly to the central city of Danang. The beach is lovely, but it’s a quiet and fairly uneventful city, and your time is perhaps better spent in the ancient town of Hoi An, which has been called the “Venice of Vietnam” for its beautiful canals. Nestled between the Thu Bon River and the sea, this UNESCO World Heritage site can be reached via a 45-minute private transfer from Danang.
Although it was once a major port between the 15th and 19th centuries, ‘Hoi An’ translates to ‘peaceful meeting place,’ and the name couldn’t be more fitting. No cars are permitted in the ancient town, and entering the city feels like stepping back into a simpler time. The town’s cheerful storefronts and riotously colourful temples represent a blend of Chinese, Japanese and European influences. One of the highlights of the town is its wooden Japanese Bridge, constructed in the 1590s to link the Japanese and Chinese communities living there.
At night, the town is illuminated by a dazzling array of lanterns. An especially magical time to visit is during a full moon, at which time a festival is held and floating lanterns are released onto the river – a most serene scene.
The scenery, culture and easy way of life all conspire to lure travellers back to Vietnam, time and time again. Celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain is one of those who have fallen under the country’s spell. As he put it: “Vietnam: It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”
Perhaps there’s some romance to be found in Vietnam after all. What better place for a little pho with your beau or an aperitif with your amoreux.
Text: Emily Petsko