Hanoi hosts a variety of pleasant little watering holes and even a few rowdy dance spots that stay open far past when the Communist cadres deem decent (thank goodness for kickbacks and corruption). Apocalypse Now, the city's notoriously seedy nightspot is back open (for now). A growing number of expat residents means that options abound. You have your pick of the real-deal Irish pub or local draft beer for pennies a pitcher at the popular streetside bia hoi stalls, where patrons hunker down on squat stools for the long night of boozing and chat (this is the top choice for connecting with local folks).
Hanoi is the best place in Vietnam to experience traditional Vietnamese arts such as opera, theater, and water puppet shows. Invented during the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), the art of water puppetry is unique to Vietnam and a highlight of any visit to the city. The puppets are made of wood and really do dance on water. The shows feature traditional Vietnamese music and depict folklore and myth. Book tickets for the popular puppets at least 5 hours ahead. Check the listing below for more information.
Theater & Performance
The Hanoi Opera House (Hanoi Municipal Theatre), 1 Trang Tien St., Hoan Kiem District (tel. 04/3933-0113), hosts performances by local and international artists. Check with any hotel concierge to see if any performances coincide with your stay, and be sure to book in advance. The Hanoi Traditional Opera, 15 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Ba Dinh District (tel. 04/3943-7361), has shows on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8pm.
Central Circus, on the north end of Thong Nhat Park (formerly Lenin Park), across from the Nikko Hotel, Hai Ba Trung District (tel. 04/3822-0277), has shows at 8pm Tuesday through Sunday. It's a real circus done on a small scale, so see it only if you're desperate to entertain the kids. As in so many isolated Communist blocks in the world, the circus was once the only game in town. But now, with the proliferation of televisions in homes, online gaming, and movies, young Hanoians have myriad options in the entertainment realm, so visiting Russian troupes don't draw a crowd. It's sad that the art is dying (be sure to check with your concierge to see if shows are running), but many foreign visitors to this circus report being saddened by the rather brutal treatment of trained animals.
Who knew you'd be watching a Spanish film and chatting with an elite group of cineastes in a courtyard cafe in the middle of Hanoi? Life is a mystery. This little theater is more or less kept a secret -- not for long, though. Popular with expats, the tiny screen of the Hanoi Cinematique imports some interesting work from all over the world and holds showings nightly. It's down a little alley and is kind of a secret; to see a film here, you have to follow some funny rules. The government forbids charging money to see foreign titles (information that is beyond the censor's grasp), so the theater is, in fact, classified as a club and part of the adjacent cafe. Tickets aren't bought; they're invitations that come with a suggested donation of 50,000 VND. The best part about the Hanoi Cinematique is meeting up with Hanoi's growing bevy of wild-eyed artists and the likes of hotel general managers all mingling in one space -- all for the love of the cinema. And very good cinema, indeed. Showtimes vary. Call tel. 04/3936-2648 or just stop by the cafe, which is at the end of a long, narrow alley off of 22A Hai Ba Trung (in the area south of Hoan Kiem Lake).
Bia Hoi, Bars & Pubs
Nightlife in Hanoi is more raucous than you might imagine of a town known as an austere Communist outpost. Midnight is the generally held strict closing time, but a few choice places rock until dawn. Traveler cafes in the Old Quarter are known to burst out in wild parties (I once enjoyed a rollicking Christmas Eve dinner and dance party in a travel agent's office), and there are lots of little restaurants and bars open late.
One good way to connect with local expats and be guaranteed a swilling good time is to contact the Hash House Harriers (www.hhhh.wso.net), a drinking fraternity for folks who like to work up a bit of a sweat before hitting the suds. The Hanoi group is quite family friendly, however, and they have fun runs every Saturday.
The best place to have a wild night -- local style -- is to pull up a little plastic squat stool on a street corner or in one of the many open-air bars serving the local brew, bia hoi, translated as "fresh beer" and otherwise known as draft beer. The kegs flow as long as folks are drinking, and sitting among locals in these cozy little joints is an infusion of local culture, where you can make friends and get close to Hanoi street life. You'll find bia hoi just about anywhere in Vietnam, in even the tiniest hamlet, but in Hanoi your best bet is on the corner of Ta Hien Street and Luong Ngoc Quyen, in the heart of the Old Quarter. Try the stalls where you see foreigners frequenting, and you're most likely to meet willing English speakers, both staff and patrons. One glass costs just a few thousand dong, so why not have another? How about one more? Stay away from the local rice whiskey unless you have an iron gut.
Bao Khanh Street -- For nightlife geared to the expat or tourist, busy little Bao Khanh Street is a good place to start. Tucked behind a block of buildings down a short lane in the northwest corner of Hoan Kiem Lake (look for Le Café des Arts listed in the restaurant section), the street is home to lots of popular bars and late-night spots. Some are a bit seedy, but there are a few comfortable laid-back places, and the street is lined with lots of open-air eateries, cafes, and bars geared to locals.
Most popular on Bao Khanh Street is the Funky Monkey at 31 Hang Thung (tel. 04/3928-6113); they have music, pool tables, pizzas, and a cool black-light menu. Also check out Polite Pub, at 5 Bao Khanh (tel. 04/3825-0959; open 5pm-2 or 3am), a popular gay men's hangout, but pretty "straight friendly," too. All of these spots are open late, and the street's always hoppin'. There are lots of nearby dining options as well.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.