ARCHITECTURAL ENSEMBLE | The Hanoi Museum, completed in 2010 in the Tu Liem District. Aaron Joel Santos for The Wall Street Journal
IN AND AROUND Hanoi stand thousands of years of history. The spiral-shaped Co Loa citadel complex is thought to date to around 200 B.C. A delicate pagoda perched atop a white column in the heart of the city is from the 11th century. But no era may have shaped Hanoi more than the years of French colonial occupation, 1883 to 1954.
The Vietnamese capital was refashioned into a French-style metropolis, with broad avenues lined with trees, European-inflected buildings and Paris-style cafes. Despite the oppression that took place during the colonial years, and the devastating war and dramatic political changes that followed, it's a time—or at least a feel—that's often romanticized. And the French legacy is still evident in almost every aspect of Hanoi, from architecture to art to food.
But this city isn't stuck in the past—in recent years, steel and glass buildings have claimed their place in Hanoi's skyline; clothing designers with an eye to Paris and Milan have been showing their collections at Vietnam Fashion Week; and new galleries and artist studios have blossomed.
Just as destinations have different sides, so do travelers. This pair of itineraries lets you spend a visit delving into Hanoi's colonial past or exploring its buzzy, fluid present. Or, blend the two lists for a best-of bespoke guide.
SEE // Arches, Embellishments
Architecture is the most visible legacy of the colonial period in Hanoi. Styles that emerged more than a century ago still influence current designs, but for the real deal, head to the old French quarter and the embassy district. Take an architectural tour with a local company like Hidden Hanoi—or let "Vignettes of French Culture in Hanoi," a slim paperback produced by the group Friends of Vietnamese Heritage, guide you. (It's available on Amazon.)
Early colonial buildings, like the post office at 1 Le Thach St., had tall, arched windows and slate mansard roofs. Plans—and even materials—were usually imported from France, and the structures trapped heat in summer and water during torrential rains. But designs quickly evolved—the Palais de Justice, finished in 1906, had peaked roofs to shed rain; the 1919 Lycée Albert Sarrauthad hallways along outside walls as a buffer against the heat.
The Art Nouveau, neoclassical and Machine Age styles that later became popular in France also migrated to Hanoi; they can be seen in mansions that now house embassies and government offices in the relatively quiet Ba Dinh District. Villas along Ba Huyen Street and the north side of Chu Van An Street boast Machine Age hallmarks like flat roofs, porthole windows and geometric window screens.
Perhaps the most architecturally significant buildings were built in the 1920s by Ernest Hébrard, a scholar and archaeologist who merged French building styles with Asian details. The roof of his University of Indochina building is edged with Asian-inspired patterns; part of it is tiered like a pagoda. Mr. Hébrard also incorporated traditional details such as carved screens and the roof beams seen in temples into the facades of later buildings, like the Bureau des Finances and what is now the National History Museum.
Moniq by M Aaron Joel Santos for The Wall Street Journal
SHOP // Prizes from the Past
Intent on feeling at home in Indochina, as they called it, French colonists imported everything from furniture to jewelry from Europe. Authentic examples can be tough to find, but 54 Traditions, a five-story shop that focuses on antiques related to Vietnamese minorities, also offers up colonial relics like silk fans and tribal jewelry that incorporates old French coins. Over time, local artisans also learned to make French-style goods, including embroidered linens. Bach Thi Ngai, the octogenarian owner of Tan My, learned some of her patterns from French customers as a child. Her shop sells bedding, table linens and clothing stitched with traditional white-on-white floral motifs as well as colorful modern designs.
If it's fashion you're after, Thu Madelin at Moniq by M, on the western side of Hoan Kiem Lake, takes cues from overseas vintage stores. You can find 1950s-ish tops, polka-dot dresses and high-collared classics—plus a punky edge.
EAT // Frogs Legs and Foie Gras
European interlopers in Vietnam introduced novel cooking styles and foods—like coffee, baked goods, and even vegetables like cabbage and carrots—that became essential to Vietnamese cuisine. For a literal taste of the French era, join local businessmen at Le Beaulieu, the French restaurant housed in the Hotel Metropole Hanoi, which has been serving classic French dishes like frogs legs and beef Rossini since it opened more than a century ago. Locals of all ages head to cafes for bracingly strong Vietnamese coffee (often flooding it with condensed milk). Café Mai, a no-frills spot open since the 1930s, still serves some of the tastiest brew in town. Near the Hanoi Cathedral, the Hanoi Social Club, a newer coffee shop with tile floors and colorful walls, draws a young, artistic crowd. And for a bite that illustrates how important the French influence has been on local food, it's hard to beat a banh mi sandwich, a Vietnamese standard made up of classic French ingredients—baguette and pâté, ham or egg. They're served at street stalls around the city and at the bare-bones sandwich shop Café 252, which offers a wide variety of fillings served Hanoi-style, without excessive flavorings or garnishes.
PAST PERFECTION | The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, which opened in 1901.Aaron Joel Santos for The Wall Street Journal
SLEEP // In Classic Quarters
When the Greek Revival-style Hotel Metropole opened in 1901, it quickly became the preferred address for fancy visitors, from European royals to celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward. Its boulangerie sold French pastries, the bar offered French wine and the hotel hosted jazz nights and showed films. Now the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, it looks much the same on the outside, with square columns and a scalloped metal awning, and still exudes old-school elegance. The lobby, the bar (which serves some of the best cocktails in the city) and guest rooms in the original wing boast period-appropriate details like teak shutters, ceiling fans and traditional Vietnamese porcelain.
SEE // Au Courant Art
Hanoi has been a cultural center as far back as the Bronze Age; to really get a sense of its modern persona, explore it through art rather than architecture. (An exception: the Hanoi Museum in the Tu Liem District; the 4-year-old inverted pyramid by German architecture firm gmp, gives visitors the sense of floating over the landscape.)
In the 1980s, Hanoi artists began treating Vietnamese subjects with Western techniques like oil painting. "It was the first generation in hundreds of years…pretty much allowed to do what they wanted," said Suzanne Lecht, owner of Art Vietnam Gallery, which shows contemporary work. Galleries independent of the government emerged in the 1990s. Vu Dan Tan and his wife, Natalia Kraevskaia, founded Salon Natasha, in their pink home in the Hoan Kiem District. Ms. Kraevskaia now uses it to exhibit the work of her late husband, including his masks made from cigarette boxes. In 1998, artist Nguyen Manh Duc opened Nha San Studio, in his traditional Muong stilt-house in the Ba Dinh District. It now showcases the Nha San Collective, a group of contemporary artists that includes Mr. Nguyen's 29-year-old daughter, Nguyen Phuong Linh. (Works like the "Dust Project," vials of dust collected around the world, have earned her an international reputation.) Manzi gallery and cafe shows creations from the past decade, such as Nguyen Minh Thanh's serene self-portraits.
FUTURE FOCUS | Rue des Chats boutique Aaron Joel Santos for The Wall Street Journal
SHOP // Forward Fashion
Though tour promoters would have you believe that all Vietnamese women bike through the city in slim-cut ao dai dresses and conical hats, it's not quite the case.Rue des Chats, in an upscale area in the Hoan Kiem District, offers silk tops, sheath dresses and flowery prints by designers Anhuong Tran and Le Minh. The team behind Boo Skateshop in Hang Gai, draws from current American trends.
A dish at La Verticale restaurant Aaron Joel Santos for The Wall Street Journal
EAT // Fusion of the Future
Just as French ingredients have influenced Vietnamese dishes, Vietnamese ingredients and techniques are inspiring a generation of French chefs cooking in Hanoi. At La Badiane, in a refurbished French villa, Benjamin Rascalou serves foie gras with roasted mango slices, and crab rémoulade with ginger oil and local asparagus. Didier Corlou of La Verticale offers up slices of duck carpaccio and melon, flavored with five-spice. Taste a twist on traditional ha cao dumplings—shrimp-and-pork ravioli in fish stock—at Pots 'n Pans, a collaboration between Australian and Hanoian chefs in a brick and concrete space.
SLEEP // A Modern View
Even as Hanoi becomes a contemporary capital, it looks to its past for inspiration. At the Meliá Hanoi hotel, murals of local temples share space with contemporary art. Guestrooms look out onto Chinese, French and glass-and-steel buildings, all mixing together in the heart of the city.