I’m not going to lie. Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, located in the North, is gritty, chaotic, and NOISY. People beep their horns incessantly for no reason at all CONSTANTLY. Crossing the road can be a death trap, try dodging an endless stream of scooters, bicycles, motorbikes and cars that zoom past with little regard for pedestrians or traffic lights. Walk on the sidewalk you say? Well, if the very narrow sidewalks weren’t mostly filled with parked bikes I would have stuck to the sidewalk. No leisurely strolls around town, I warn you.
The hygiene situation…it isn’t quite what I’m used to. Maybe it’s the fact that a lot of the hole in the walls I chose to brave because of their outstanding food had open kitchens with questionable food standards and crumpled up used napkins strewn all over the dining floor. Unless you think a woman squatting on the floor with a large basin washing dishes at the front of the restaurant means I have nothing to worry about. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been sanitised from having lived in super clean, first world Vancouver for far too long. Yes, I know, it’s the latter. This is exactly why I need to travel more.
Oh, and the heat. Hanoi is HOT! For 9-10 months out of the year, I was told by a local. So hot that you start sweating moments after stepping out, the heat so stifling, the air so thick like a cloud of warm condensation around you like a hot blanket, that you already want to go back in to get some relief. It wears you down and any air conditioned place you can find are very few and far in between. If any at all. So you take multiple showers until you start to just embrace the heat because nothing can break the Hanoi trance. Its spell is intoxicating and once you just let go, you’ll soon realise that Hanoi just has so much to discover.
Hanoi is dizzying with history, local life, culture and cuisine that it completely owns and serves up exactly as it always has. You’ll see women all over the streets balancing pineapples, melons, portable stoves and cooked food in baskets hanging from bamboo poles. Or pushing carts filled to the brim with food and products to sell. Or on bicycles hauling everything and anything you can imagine. It’s the Hanoi way of life, the preservation of age-old traditions that make the city so beguiling. It doesn’t bend over to cater to the West, it doesn’t attempt to alter or modify flavours or appearances to accommodate the many tourists that come in droves, at least not on the streets. Instead, it does what it does best, with its head down, delivering a wonderful taste of refreshing authenticity which is the exact reason why you need to visit this wonderful city.
If you’re looking for a relaxing destination where you walk by perfectly manicured gardens and hop from luxury store to another in air-conditioned bliss, you’re not going to get that here. What you will get is an adventure, wonderful memories from the incredibly warm and hospitable Vietnamese people, an education on a nationalistic people with fresh memories of its war-torn past yet harbour zero bitterness for its colonial and vicious invaders. Most importantly, you will enjoy a lot of incredibly simple, honest and delicious food, and that is why I am sitting here with so much to write home about.
We frequented quite a few places with alluring architecture, fancier restaurants with clean bathrooms and non-laminated menus. While they offered a lot in the tourist experience satisfying our French Colonial fantasies, we found the real culinary gems to be the local shops void of any attempt at any interior design, all specialising in one dish only. Everyone will have their favourites like Anthony Bourdain notably does. He even famously took Obama to his favourite Bún chả joint and now they have the “Obama Special” on their menu. While we didn’t go there, I did take the time to research other favourites online, cross-referencing against the recommendations from local friends like Daniel and Marc, and, of course, our extremely helpful and knowledgeable hotel staff. If that interests you, read on for my 72 Hours in Hanoi 2017 Guide.
VIETNAMESE FOOD BASICS
Before we begin, here are some Vietnamese food words to guide you with your ordering. Most places will have an English menu, but you never know if you might end up at a place without one.
Banh: You’ll see this in words like Bahn Mi or Banh Cuon. Bahn means anything made out of flour. You’ll find this in the name of items such as bread, pastries, snacks, noodles and even dumplings.
Bún: This means rice vermicelli noodles. The noodles are thin and round and very similar to cellophane noodles but are white in colour because it is made from rice flour. The most famous Bún dish is perhaps Bún chả.
Ga: This means chicken. Hence, Pho Ga means chicken pho.
Cá: This means fish. The most iconic dish from Hanoi is Cha Cá La Vong.
For a more extensive list of Vietnamese food terms translated into English, click here.
Visit a Tailor. Hanoi may not have the glitz and glamour of the high couture culture that Paris does, but it does offer talented local seamstresses that work out of their humble shops skillfully custom making any garment from suits to dresses in as quickly as 48 hours. Hang Gai Street (Silk Street) in the Old Quarter is where you’ll find them and our local friend, Marc, sent us to see Mrs. Hahn at Đức Lợi Silk. Prepared, we had brought with us clothes that we wanted her to replicate and photos for her to fulfil our Shanghai Tang dreams from her selection of cotton and silk fabrics.
Đức Lợi Silk
Bún Chả at Bún Chả Nem Cua Bể. You can’t go to Hanoi and not enjoy this delicious Vietnamese classic of grilled pork served with rice noodles, deep fried spring rolls, a mountain of fresh herbs and greens, and Nuoc Cham dipping sauce. Obama famously dined with Anthony Bourdain at Bun Cha Huong Lien enjoying his Bun Cha with a bottle of Hanoi beer (no glass) sitting on a plastic stool just like everyone else making headlines the world over. We went to another local favourite that had a branch just down the road from our hotel. With used tissue strewn all over the floor and an herb or two on my plastic stool, I think we would have made Anthony Bourdain proud. And yes, I cleaned the chopsticks (like we did everywhere else) with my handy wet wipes in my bag.
Bún Chả Nem Cua Bể
Giang Cafe for the birthplace of Hanoi’s famous Egg Coffee or Cà Phê Trứng. The Egg Coffee was an invention that came out of necessity. During the French War, there was a shortage of fresh milk so the owner Nguyen Giang used a fresh egg instead. The rest is history.
Explore the many art galleries around the Old Quarter, mostly located on Hang Gai Street. Vietnam is home to many talented artists and while there are masterful copies of the works of famous artists like Van Gogh and Picasso, we were more interested in the local original artwork that are incredibly creative and affordable. Two galleries that we particularly loved for their original, contemporary art selection were Apricot Gallery and Ngan Pho Gallery.
Ngan Pho Gallery
Homeware hop along the shops that sell indigienous textiles and laquerware, also located along Hang Gai Street. One shop we fell in love with was Chie selling a range of traditional, handmade products by local ethnic groups. We found 2 branches along Hang Gai Street and purchased beautiful cushion covers and runners in indigenous fabrics made by the Hmong people.
Sneak in a glutinous rice snack of Xôi at Xôi Yến in between your afternoon gallery hopping and shopping. Xôi Yến, without a doubt, is the only place you should go for a bowl of glutionous rice and your choice of chicken and/or pork and other delicious toppings like peanuts and crispy shallots. I drool just thinking about it. All you need to do is google Xôi online and Xôi Yến is the clear favourite in Hanoi. Talk to any local and they will tell you the same thing. I implore you to go on my behalf because, sadly, we didn’t have time (and room in our stomachs) for this must visit on my list. That is the problem with Hanoi. So little time and so much to eat. Sigh.
Pho. Pho varies from region to region and in Hanoi it is less fussed. The broth has a noticably lighter color, a cleaner taste, and it is served without the bells and whistles of additional condiments of vegetables and herbs. We asked local friends and people we met along the way in Hanoi and Phở 10 Lý Quốc Sư seemed to be everyone’s favourite for Pho Bo or Beef Pho. Don’t expect service with a smile here, but do expect a reasonably priced, comforting bowl of Hanoi-style Pho surrounded by hungry locals sharing a table with you, slurping their noodles down quickly so that the next customer can take their seat.
Banh Cuon at Thanh Van Banh Cuon. There are many Banh Cuon places, but everyone collectively agreed both online, our hotel and local friends that Thanh Van Banh Cuon serves up the best. Banh Cuon are steamed rice rolls filled with a mixture of minced ground pork, wood ear mushrooms and minced shallots served with a dipping sauce of nuoc cham, a fish-sauce-based dipping sauce, fried shallots and fresh herbs. It is commonly eaten for breakfast so a lot of places around the Old Quarter will start making it in the early morning. Daniel, our local guide who was there with us in spirit (aka instagram) emphasized that we had to eat it fresh off the stove which makes all the difference. Oh yes, Daniel, it absolutely does.
Thanh Vân Bánh Cuốn
Cộng Cà Phê for the popular Iced Coconut Coffee. This local chain is edgy, kitschy, and communist-inspired with multiple locations across town. We went to their location by Hoan Kiem Lake which had a lovely, hidden and shaded (key word being SHADED) patio providing a relaxing relief from the heat.
Cộng Cà Phê
Tour the sights with Hanoi Kids, an organization of local university students that will guide you around town for free in exchange for the chance to practice speaking English. We visited the Women’s Museum and learned first hand from them about their grandparents’ experience during the war and how revered women are for the role they played during that time. Many women fought in the war, and those that stayed behind took on the role of parenting while toiling in the fields with their babies on their backs. We also walked around the lake and stopped for a coffee to chat about the local life and their views on their past and future. If you truly want the local lay of the land, I highly recommend booking a tour with them.
Contact them in advance to book a tour with their highly knowledgeable and charming students. They sent over 2 lovely and extremely knowledgeable girls, Hang and Phuong, who were very eager to share their history and culture with us.
Fine Dining at Cầu Gỗ. There are many beautiful and trendy restaurants in Hanoi that you will read about online and perhaps will even be suggested to you by your hotel. I find that they all too well cater to the Western perception of the Vietnamese experience and the food never quite compares to the food quality and authenticity of the local street food and hole in the walls that are plentiful all over the city. This place is the exception. It has beautiful, modern Vietnamese-inspired interiors, an impressive roof deck patio, excellent cusomer service, a wide variety of Vietnamese food to sample, and an unbeatable, breathtaking view of Hoan Kiem Lake with all its magnificence and splendor. It elicits wows and jaws dropping upon first glance and even at a second and third and probably every time.
Last minute fitting at the tailor. We returned to Đức Lợi Silk to try on our dresses for last minute adjustments and we were asked to return at the end of the day to pick them up.
Bahn Mi at Bahn Mi 25. It’s all about the bread here. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, and it doesn’t matter what filling you choose because it will be amazing. Bahn Mi 25 has become so popular amongst locals and tourists alike that they’ve expanded into the shop next door just to accomodate people opting to sit on proper seats and tables rather than the ubiquitous tiny outdoor plastic stool. The choice is yours.
Pottery Shopping at Bat Trang Ceramic Village. About a 40km cab ride from the Old Quarter, you’ll discover the source of where many of the pottery sold across the world comes from. At a fraction of the prices sold overseas, the items still bear the logos of familiar foreign brands. Be prepared to be shocked and to leave with a few boxes if you’re a pottery lover like myself.
Bat Trang Ceramic Village
Ice Cream at Kem Tràng Tiền. It’s the universal way to beat the heat and this is where the locals go. In fact, they drive in on their bikes and motorcycles into the largest ice cream mess hall I have ever been to. They serve 4 types of ice cream: mochi, soft serve, ice cream on a stick (popsicle) and scooped ice cream in a cone. Try the coconut, sticky rice and taro flavours. Or heck, try them all like Marc did, who spent one afternoon sampling each and every kind in every flavour.
Pick up custom made dresses at the tailor. One last fitting and we left with 5 dresses each, astounded at how little we had spent compared to what we would have paid overseas, and how quickly Mrs. Hahn was able to turn them around.
Chả Cá (aka Chả Cá La Vong or Chả Cá Thang Long) at Chả Cá Thăng Long. This is an absolutely delicious grilled fish dish that you have to try when you’re in Hanoi. Flavoured with turmeric and dill, this iconic dish can be found in shops all over the city and this place came highly recommended. A skillet of fish is brought to the table and served over a gas burner where the server sears and sizzles the fish in front of you, topping it with mounds of fresh dill that wilts in the heat over the perfectly crispy fish. You assemble and enjoy it with an array of condiments brought to the table such as peanuts, fresh herbs, fish sauce and rice noodles.
A few tips:
1. Beware the cabs, many will scam you with tampered meters or take you for a ride on longer routes. Take your hotel up on the offer to arrange for a cab to pick you up from the airport even if it might cost you a little bit more. And if you need a cab to leave the Old Quarter only hail or call one of these cab companies:
Mai Linh (green and white vehicles or just plain green)
Tel: 38 61 61 61
Taxi Group (white vehicles with a red chevroned stripe on the side)
Tel: 38 56 56 56
2. Bargain, bargain, bargain. When shopping or having clothes made, don’t be afraid to bargain. You’ll be surpised at how quickly they will drop their prices with a little nudge.
3. Change your money at the many shops selling gold located on Ha Trung Street. Shop around for the best rate before changing your money but don’t change too much at once because it will be difficult to get rid of your unused Vietnamese Dong.
4. Get in touch with any friends from Hanoi or who have recently visited. Ask them for their recommendations and their most memorable meals. Our friend Daniel was our most valuable resource and guide. While he wasn’t physically with us, he was omnipresent eager to share his favorite haunts and tips on what to order and what not to. Marc, a local friend, was most helpful as well, practically on call with advice on where the locals go for everything from massages to where to have clothes made. If you don’t know anyone living in Hanoi or has recently been at least you have this guide!
To truly enjoy Hanoi, it requires the right companion who will brave the chaos of the streets with you, not hold you down in the unyielding heat, will eagerly embrace the local street food culture, and has an equally foracious appetite as yours. The ideal companion will want to try everything with you with unabashed fervor, and is equally passionate about learning about the local culture and history as much as you do. Lucky for me, I have my sister. I couldn’t have asked for a better adventure companion to share all the wonderful memories with. There is no question that we will be back!
What are your favourite things to see and do in Hanoi? If you have any food recommendations, please share them with me!