We love big cities. Cities are where we seem to feel most at home. We spent over six days in Hanoi, most of them overcast and wet but we still managed to fall in love with this city. Really it was a combination of a very walkable city, a dynamic local scene, a great variety of things to see and do, and of course, incredible food.
Most days Jesse would roughly plot out where the most touted street food stalls were located according to our favourite food blogs and then we would figure out if there happened to be any good sights to stop in at in between. This worked well for us and ensured we covered what felt like a lot of ground throughout the city. But then again, Hanoi is pretty massive and we probably needed to stay for weeks and months really, to be able to fully appreciate all it has to offer. But we did our best in the short time we had.
We were staying in the Old Quarter at a place called “Hotel Charming 2” which really was appropriately named since the staff there were so lovely and helpful and made us never want to leave. The Old Quarter also made for an ideal home base since there was an abundance of food close by. It took us only about 3 minutes walking out of our hotel on our first morning for us to randomly come across one of the foods we’d been looking for since we first stepped foot it Vietnam, Tao Pho – a hot, fresh, sweet tofu pudding. It was like a beacon calling us and we saddled up on some of the tiniest plastic stools ever to gobble up our bowls. Sure the rather grumpy vendor lady seemed to charge us double what the old man sitting next to us paid but we tried to not let us bother us. It was still just $0.50, but tasted like a million bucks. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would turn out to be just the start of a truly epic of a first day of eating in Hanoi.
Happy with our first treat of the day, we then continued to wander through the maze of character-filled Old Quarter streets, where most of the buildings have preserved their original shop-house architecture from centuries ago. We quickly got used to weaving our way on and off the sidewalks as we skirted around parked motorbikes and people eating at street food stalls whose tables and chairs practically spill out right onto the streets themselves. Walking on the puddle-filled streets wasn’t much better though since the traffic was chaotic at the best of times, but then again not much worse than anywhere else we’d visited so far. And while the streets are narrow and congested, they are also bustling and pulsating with life. In some ways a nice balance has been struck between the locals going about their daily lives (shopping, eating, cleaning their shops, gossiping and laughing) and map-wielding tourists trying to steer themselves to their next destination. As always, I was lucky to be able to leave all the navigating to Jesse who had the distinct challenge in this city of dealing with a neighborhood where a street’s name will change at every intersection (e.g. if we continued to walk along the same street our hotel was one, the name changes five times over the span of a few hundred metres!)
But Jesse being a master of maps, we always managed to find our intended destination. Next up on our first morning we sat down at a place called Xoi Yen, which serves us some tasty saffron sticky rice topped by all sorts of crazy things like Chinese sausages, shredded chicken, deep fried marinated boiled eggs, dried shredded pork, deep fried shallots, and some sort of shaved mung bean pieces. The dish is called xoi xeo, and It was a really great mixture of textures and savory flavours, unlike anything we’d had before. Heavy for an early morning breakfast but super tasty!
Then we headed out to try a Hanoi speciality – egg coffee. Sounded a bit odd to me, but Jesse loves his coffee and this one was on his list of “must-try”s. The recommended place we visited was a really cool spot through a narrow lane of stores, up several spiraling staircases to an impressive and relaxing view of the Hoan Kiem Lake. The egg coffee was sort of like a whipped egg latte and my order of “salty/sweet apricot juice” made from preserved apricots was exactly what I’d hoped for (Leslie – you would have loved it!) The day was misty and overcast, which made the lake and its surrounding area have a sort of dream-like quality to it. We would find ourselves wandering around this lake later on in the day and again several times throughout our time in Hanoi as it commonly intersected our walking routes and its surrounding walkway was always a good people watching spot for us whenever we needed a break. We’d also later return to this coffee spot as well, to satisfy Jesse’s curiosity for what the iced yogurt coffee was like!
Next up on our first day we wandered back through different streets in the Old Quarter to squeeze ourselves into a packed little place selling Banh Cuon, which is basically freshly steamed sheets of rice noodle/paper filled with minced pork, mushrooms and dried shrimps. Topped with fresh coriander and covered in a light fish sauce…it tasted like the Vietnamese version of one of our favourite dim sum dishes – cheung fun. Deeeelicious! Lucky for us, this place was just a few doors down from our hotel so we popped back in for a mid-day nap.
Feeling refreshed and ready for our next meal, we tried to seek out the quintessential Hanoi street food – bun cha. But by the time we showed up to our chosen venue, the place was closed. We’d try again another day. Lucky for us, on our walk back we happened across a street corner with multiple vendors selling “Kem Caramen”. It seemed like motorbike after motorbike would just stop in front of these places and order bags full of the little creme caramel cups to go. So we figured we’d better get in on this one too and sat down to try. It was heaven…deep, rich burned caramel and a light fluffy custard. All for $0.35 a pop! We’d be back at least 3 times again before we left.
As a bun cha replacement we settled on trying out a southern Vietnam dish that we had never tried before – Bun Bo Nam Bo (love that name!). It is a dry rice noodle topped with beef, bean sprouts, lemongrass, green mango slices and a handful of herbs. All topped by a fish saucey broth. Crunchy and slurpy all at once, it totally hit the spot.
Just as we stepped out of that stall, we stumbled upon a sidewalk vendor rolling little rice flour filled balls and plopping them into boiling water. It looked just like a Chinese dessert we often have with my mom at home so I had to try it. Turns out it’s called Banh Troi Tau and there were a few different kinds, some small ones filled with sweet cubes of palm or brown sugar topped with sesame seeds and then bigger ones filled with either mung bean and coconut or black sesame paste served in a warm, sweet syrop. Jesse seemed to not be quite as into them as me but I was thrilled with this unexpected street dessert. I love all things made from rice flour!
Feeling like we needed to walk around a bit more to work off all the food we’d just consumed, we started to follow the buzz of crowds and motorbikes that all seemed to be convening in one location. It was Sunday evening, and we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the evening Mass ceremony at the beautiful neo-Gothic St Joseph Cathedral. The doors of the church were wide open revealing a massive congregation inside, and in fact it continued on outside with people listening to the service (broadcasted over speakers) while sitting on little plastic stools in the courtyard or simply on the seats of their parked motorbikes. The area surrounding the cathedral is also home to many coffee / tea shops with outdoor seating and every single one was buzzing with young Vietnamese students all chatting and laughing together, while enjoying their iced teas and roasted sunflower seeds. It would be an understatement to say that the city felt really alive to us that evening.
We returned for a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake which was all lit up for the night and seems to be the quintessential place for couples (young and old) to share a bench together and enjoy each other’s company. We stayed there for a little while, enjoying the sight of the tiny tower called Thao Rua which sits on its own little island in the middle of the lake, and reminiscing of all the delicious eats we’d had on our first day in Hanoi.
Starting on the path back to the hotel, again we were drawn to the crowds of people this time all seeming to have an ice cream cone or popsicle in hand. Jesse decided that we needed to find the source, and it didn’t take long for us to locate the Bang Gia Kem Trang Tien franchise of ice cream. The place seemed huge, with 5 different windows where you could order your iced treat, including one where motorbikes can actually drive right into the store itself to order. Crazy. We looked around us to check out what most of the others had chosen, and we both settled on the classic coconut-vanilla cone, which turned out to be a simple but very enjoyable second dessert of the night for us. Certainly not the best ice cream we’ve ever had (SE Asia just doesn’t do dairy as well as back home), but the atmosphere and company of everyone else around us was reminiscent of us being back at home lining up at Ed’s or Greg’s ice cream on a hot summer evening. It was a great way to end our food marathon first day in Hanoi.
And that’s really how it went. Sometimes we happened upon great street food by chance, and sometimes we purposefully sought it out. With each day and with every new meal we easily began to fall in love with Hanoi and all the character and buzz of its inhabitants. To us, the city has struck an impressive balance of offering the comforts of a big modern metropolis but still being able to maintain so much of its historic charm. We enjoyed our visits to some of the city’s major attractions – HCM Mausoleum, Temple of Literature, and the handful of temples we visited whose names I’ll never keep straight! We also loved all the hours we spent sipping cafe sua dua (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) or hot milk teas on sidewalk cafes across the city with other locals. And we even indulged in some of the more modern aspects of the city like being able to chill out and grab some free wifi in big chain coffee shops like Highlands Coffee, enjoying some retail therapy at some of the city’s many shopping malls and even catching a showing of the latest Die Hard movie (thankfully not dubbed) at the theatre which all gave us a bit more of a familiar feeling of being home. But our fondest memories are of the many neighborhoods we’d wander through in search of amazing food and the people we’d encounter and interact with along the way. Special moments for us include watching the old ladies play badminton near the West Lake (and picking up their birdies when they went flying towards us), wandering slowly and happily through the Tay Ho area (where we decided we’d live if we could move here) and the exercise ladies busting a move in the Botanical Gardens. Of course, it’s always about the food for us, so that and the masterful vendors dishing the incredible eats out to us will remain the thing we will remember the most.
And as much as I’d like to recount a day-by-day breakdown of all our awesome meals, I think this post is already far too long as it is. Jesse suggested we make a Top 10 Favourite Chanman Hanoi Eats list instead, so we’ll post that next!