It was October of 2016; I was apathetic in life, uninspired and reluctant to continue my trip to Hanoi. I booked my ticket 6 months ahead of time mainly out on a whim and a relatively cheap budget promo run by one of the local budget airlines. I was feeling lazy to pack and go thru the whole airport hassle. My friends were pretty excited and I wouldn’t want to be the odd woman out, so I said okay let’s go to Vietnam
How to Get There
One of the best ways to book your flight to Hanoi is thru Kiwi.com, they find you the lowest rates across hundreds of airlines with a guarantee from canceled flights, rescheduling, and delays.
Don’t get me wrong. I love traveling, but the traversal completion of one’s journey to point A to point B is that one must endure the process. You have your airport security, the long queue to security scanner, having your boarding pass check then revalidate, long cue yet again, immigration officers who are required to act stern and judgmental about every core of a human being that you are. Wait for more than 3 hours then let’s board the plane. There then again long queue, boarding pass check again, walk, stride or run. Cramp, jammed and sit swiftly then force you to endure your coach quality seats. Wait… Just about 10 more minutes when you’re all settled finally then the worst will ascend in front of you without before you know it.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I arrived pretty late at around 1 am. All I want to do is get on a cab and head straight to our Airbnb. The Noi Bai International Airport is approximate, 45-1 hour outside the city. It is pretty easy to take a cab, but the only challenge is the language. They don’t speak much English in Hanoi, but they can comprehend any gestures or simple English. With a general sense of confusion, I looked outside the airport and was surprised on how Hanoi seems so big. The way they build their roads and bridges going into the city as if it welcomes visitors and makes its first mark on you that they are progressing as a nation.
We finally arrived at our rented apartment along West Lake. The 2 am breeze is calming and welcoming. We were greeted nicely by our host, showed us to our room and we immediately got some shut eyes. The next morning, with this energy that I have I wanted to see Hanoi in the daylight.
As I was walking randomly for hours. I sat down, tired, on a small stool and we asked the man making the food to bring us whatever he was making. The bowl of beef Pho arrived, steaming intensely and full of flavor. Hints of mint, coriander, sauces, and limes hit my senses. I took a small sip. My eyes opened intensely, gave my bowl a second look. The stock is amazingly good. It tastes clean and filling. Finally, I affirmed to myself that coming to Hanoi is a good decision. I felt at home in a foreign country. Hanoi welcomed me and I knew my stay will be splendid. In front of me is a promising city, with one of the best food culture in the world.
Hanoi is on the opposite north part of Vietnam. It is the capital city. Saigon is located in the southern part. Saigon is the most popular destination for most tourists. How do they differ from one another? Everything from the way food is prepared to how piercingly people speak to the weather is almost bipolar. They couldn’t be more different. Hanoi is the more established, adult, contented and cultured father figure, while Saigon is the young needy millennial, busy finding his place in the city and growing rapidly in many different tangents.
You can see layers reveals periods of Chinese and French occupation- you can see a glimpse of history and the resilience of Hanoians.
Dine on the wild and wonderful at every corner, sample market wares, uncover an evolving art scene, then sleep soundly in a little luxury for very little cost. Meet the people, delve into the past and witness the awakening of a Hanoi on the move.
Hanoi Neighborhoods can be simplified into 6 parts:
Hoan Kiem is the area immediately around the lake, which acts as the center of activity
The Old Quarteryou will find all the tourist, hotels, souvenir shops and happenings. High influx of people
The French Quarter, colonial 1900s style. A quaint place that will transport you back in time as you step foot into that place.
West Lake, A more polished neighborhood where the affluent and most expat community reside.
Ba Dinh, massive landmarks, and government buildings are concentrated here.
Hai Ba Trung is the most local than any other location
If you want to be located where all the backpackers are and you miss a slight chaos that’ll remind you of Saigon then, by all means, you stay around the French Quarter area. Personally, I prefer the in-between space. If you are coming to the city for only for a couple of days I would recommend staying right in between of the Old Quarter and West Lake. After a long day of going around, it’ll be nice to have some peace and quiet. There are plenty of options of hosted Air BnB’s to choose from that are quite reasonable.
Getting Around Hanoi
Vietnam is known to be a motorcycle country pretty much the most dominant form of transportation for locals. These bikes bully bigger cars and don’t seem to mind breaking every bit of traffic law in the city. They drive recklessly yet calculated and don’t honk most of the time even if you’re walking on the right path for pedestrians. Do not get offended though it is just the way it is with their driving culture. They aren’t mad, only a little impatient.
There are plenty of cabs around the city, be mindful though of other cab drivers as they tend to rip you off if you’re a tourist with their meter machine running 3-4x faster. I recommend getting the ABC Taxi Co. as their flag downs and fare machine is honest and bills you the right amount.
Should you choose to take the railway train or buses as it is cheaper. However, do not expect efficiency with drop-offs and scheduling.
You may opt to rent a motorcycle that’ll cost you for as low as $5/day.
Scooters as far as the eye can see with three passengers each all dangerously dancing around each other like a well-rehearsed play.
What to see
I would recommend exploring the streets thru walking and the everyday life of the locals. Key sights for mandatory tourist attractions that are worth visiting are:
The Imperial Citadel Quán Thánh, Ba Đình, Hanoi
The Temple Of Literature Văn Miếu, Đống Đa
The Opera House 1 Trang Tien St, Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Hùng Vương, Điện Biên, Ba Đình, Hà Nội
The Perfume Pagoda Hương Sơn, Mỹ Đức, Hanoi
Most of these sites don’t charge any fees.
There are plenty of travel stalls offering day trips to:
Duong Lam Ancient Village
Halong Bay (if you have been to El Nido. El Nido is way better)
Duong Lam Ancient Village
You will read a lot of different blogs on what to do and where to go in Hanoi. What I did was to make my own mandatory food curriculum of what I had to try based on research and plain walking around the city. Hanoi has a very prominent food and coffee culture, and during my stay, I missed most of the tourist spots just so I can really immerse myself in it.
Cost Set Back Average:
Phở- 50,000 Dong =106hp or 2.12USD
Coffee and Egg Coffee- 50,000 Dong=95 USD or 2USD
Bun Cha = 50,000 Dong =106hp or 2.12USD
Bahn Mi– 25,000 Dong= 53php or 1USD
People belonging from different social class becomes equal in front of a myriad of food stalls peppered along every road and avenue. You have not truly experienced Vietnamese cuisine if you haven’t had it here. People drive in their motorbikes. Men dressed in their silk shirts and women covered from head to toe with cotton garments to protect themselves from the sun and dirt no less. They park their motorcycles in an efficient manner in front of stores. Chose where you will eat, pick from an extremely concise menu. The stalls differentiate themselves with white and block letters that signify what kind of food they are serving.
There are so many reasons for travelers to come to Hanoi, but the food and the vibe the city offers are the ones that keep me coming back.
Street Food Etiquette and Tips:
Be ready to find the first available vacant seat, regardless of whether all the tables are beside each other.
Sum up your sign language and pointing skills and be straight to the point regarding which food you want. Vendors can pick up easily what you are trying to say to them.
All condiments are for sharing, don’t be surprised when someone randomly grabs your chili or sauces.
Don’t be too picky, you will be using the chopsticks in the middle of the tables. And yes you will see these same chopsticks washed on the side of the road.
Vietnamese Phở vocabulary:
Phở: (Pho, pronounced “fuh” with u as in “but”) is an iconic Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of a clear meaty broth filled with rice noodles, cuts of meat, and topped with fresh green herbs.
Phở bo: beef soup noodles. Phở ga: chicken soup noodles. Phở lon: pork soup noodles. Phở bo tai: sliced rare beef soup noodles. Phở bo vien: noodle soup with meatballs. Phở bắc: literally “Northern” pho, a noodle soup from Hanoi and surrounds that tend to use wider rice noodles than Southern pho as well as green onions.
1.Pho Tai Nam (Sliced Beef Pho)
Your first proper meal should only be Pho. Pho in Hanoi, unlike Saigon, is a religion. Perfectly makes sense, the North gets colder and predominantly dishes served in Hanoi are served with rice noodles. From afar, you can already see the long line of people scrambling to get their breakfast. Low stools, cramped tables and very long line of patrons both locals and travelers. You can see a seasoned man manning as chief of the soup location and in front of him are raw chunks of fresh beef.
On the first morning, I immediately caught a cab to get my Pho fix at the Phở Gia truyền, for a bowl of Pho Tai Nam. They first put noodles in the bowl then add the undercooked beef on top then add piping hot broth to cook the thin slices of beef, before adding all that glorious herbs on top. The broth had so much flavor that you do not need to amend its perfection. The rice noodles that they use are fresh, light and bouncy.
2. Pho Ga (Chicken Pho)
Second order of business Pho Ga (Chicken) from Pho Ga Dac Viet. It’s in the corner of Bat Dan Street in the Old Quarter. I’ve passed this several times before trying it. Think about the typical chicken noodle soup? remember how it tastes like? the texture? its broth? Now, think about disregarding that thought because you’ve been eating a mediocre version of this chicken noodle soup from Hanoi.
Rice noodles served with long-simmered in low fire chicken broth and chopped free-range chicken. The clear broth does not look compelling from afar, but when it hits your nostrils. The coriander, mint, fish sauce, chili, and lime all come together perfectly. The chicken breast is not rubbery. It is juicy and so tender. Every bite is a punch to your senses waking you up. Perfectly paired with their fried donuts. THIS IS THE BEST CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP that you will ever have in your life.
Every time I am coming down with a cold and am having a serious hankering for a bowl of Pho Ga— I think about that particular day where I sat on a small stool in Hanoi and that hot bowl of Pho Ga being served right in front of me.
3. Bo bun hue
In one of the cold nights during my stay in West Lake, we decided to look for a nearer place to have dinner. A few blocks away are random machine shops, tailor shops, and a few obscure eateries. Then we noticed a woman smiling at us with his son having that inviting glance. They serve noodle soups and they are open. We went it without expectations. We were greeted nicely by her son, who speaks zero English and we randomly pointed out to the cheapest price on their menu. His mom prepared our bowls with all smile. Proud of what she created. In front of us something unique as compared to what we were having during our Pho escapades.
In front of us is a bowl that had different beautiful pieces of meat in a symphony of warm broth. It was perfect for the cold night. Thick slices of juicy tenderloin, meatballs and their version of meatloaf. They serve it with sides of fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, sauteed onions, banana sprouts and lime. You may pair it with this side of Ban Xeo for added crispy texture to your meal.
4. Bun Cha
Originated in Hanoi bún chả is a dish of grilled marinated barbecue pork and noodles. The pork is fatty which gives it extra flavor (chả) which is very smokey because it is being cooked on a charcoal grill. over a plate of white rice noodle (bún) and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce made up of fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar, which attribute to its sweet and sour taste and served with rice noodles. And usually, they have crab spring rolls on the side.
This was the first Bun Cha I tried. The moment I placed the rice noodle on the broth and had a bite of the meat. I think I died and went to heaven. The delicate balance of flavors exploding in your mouth. The char from the grilling of the meat is empowering the flavor of the broth and takes it to another level. This is even more enhanced when you add a bit of garlic and chili. This WAS really good. This was only 50,000 dong. And I loved it so much, I went back on my last day.
The good thing about this restaurant is they had actual chairs and you didn’t need to squat near the ground to have your Bun Cha. They have several combo meals that served the spring rolls and the Bun Cha. The Bun Cha here was good, as well as, the rolls but the meat was lacking the char flavor from the grill. The combo will set you back around 100,000 dong.
VERDICT: BunCha Nem Ran
Eat where the locals eat, what I noticed in the second Bun Cha restaurant, there were a lot of foreigners since it is nearer all the hostels in the Old Quarter. As opposed to BunCha Nem Ran, mostly locals dined there, and it was cheaper.
5. Bahn Cuon
I saw this dish in several blogs online and I got really curious about it. It’s sort of like a savory crepe but they use rice flour instead. Inside there is either pork or chicken then topped with pork floss and herbs. This is then dipped in nước chấm (Vietnamese fish sauce), with Belostomatidae (giant water beetle) extract. The extract actually smells like roses and it adds sweetness to the dipping sauce.
6. Vietnamese-style Barbeque
Bo Nuong Xuan Xuan , The moment you walk into their street you can already smell the rich aroma of the barbecue. Very tasty meat and the salt and pepper sauce with lime and chili was so amazing. the servers are so kind and helpful. Order one beef and one pork. The serving is for one but the whole meal is good enough for 2-3 people. The sauce that burst out of the meat when you cook it is perfect to your side of local bread. The server will recommend getting an extra order of their margarine so to better enhance the flavor. Do yourself a favor and listen to him, One of the best dishes I had in the city.
7. Bahn mi
Bánh mì: (Banh Mi) is a Vietnamese sandwich, made with a short Vietnamese baguette, coriander, shredded pickled carrot, daikon/green papaya and meat of your choice.
Bahn Mi is not actually on of the specialties of Hanoi, but since I just wanted to compare what they had there and Manila. This was something I wanted to try. A Bahn Mi is a sandwich using a baguette(French influence) with pate, meat, picked vegetables, and fresh herbs.
Honestly, it was okay. I didn’t really think it was better than the ones we have available here, but perhaps it’s because Hanoi is a Pho town. Ho Chi Minh would be the one with the better Banh Mi.
8. Spring rolls
9. Egg Coffee
Let’s get into the Hanoi Coffee Culture. First thing is, coffee is sold everywhere. They’re sold in carts, small stalls, or cafes. In Vietnam, they specialize in Weasel Coffee, similar to our Civet Coffee in Manila. This is more expensive and has different grade levels where the better it is the more expensive the coffee beans are, it varies from Weasel Gold, Weasel Perfect and Weasel 1 thru 6. When purchasing the coffee, you can even have a taste test to be sure what you buy is good stuff. In Hanoi, coffee is king. They serve it well and serve it strong.
They also use a different brewing technique using the “phin“, it’s basically a drip filter, brewing only one cup at a time. You will notice they serve their coffee in small glasses with a little condensed milk, acting as both the sweetener and creamer.
There are plenty of places where to get your egg coffee fix, we tried a number of shops and had summed up to these two Cafes.
This shop is hard to find at all. There is no sign.The entrance is in between two small shops in front of the Hoan Kiem Lake, you go up several flights of stairs. The building had shown signs of beaten up age. It is narrow, dark and messy. After 3 flights of steep stairs, a small door will greet you. 2 baristas sternly looking. It’s very dimly lit. We asked for egg their egg coffee. We waited patiently. Feeling obscure because it is different yet familiar. Cigarette butts all over the floor, of locals fiddling on their phones.
Our cups had finally arrived. A creamy soft, meringue-like egg white foam is perched on dense Vietnamese coffee.
You see that foam thing on top, that is a rich creamy, sweet foam with a little hint of cinnamon. When I first tried it, it was rich and thick and heavenly satisfying. The thick foam complements the strong coffee underneath.
This cafe claims that invented the Egg Coffe. Cafe Giang is packed on both levels and in the center of the property, at the bridge between the lower and upper levels, sits Nguyen Van Dao, keeping track of the plentiful orders in a large notebook and giving orders to those serving. Behind him, there’s a modest, open-plan kitchen where a modern, mixing machine is whirring constantly, whisking up eggs and other parts of the recipe.
The Egg Coffee in Cafe Giang is served in a small cup over another small cup with hot water, to keep it warm. Their egg coffee had a thicker consistency but it had the same creamy sweet foam on top of the aromatic coffee underneath. It was also really good.
In Hanoi, drinking coffee has become a culture. For many Hanoians, the most important factor of a café is not its luxuriousness but the quality of the product.
Overall, the Hanoi food experience is far beyond what I was expecting. In total, we are giving Vietnam’s kitchen a whopping 4 Extra Rice Rating!
What Hanoi Represents
Hanoi is always in a state of transition. A very youthful city with a long lineage of history. People can feel the change and the wealth that is available. In the urban areas everybody gets to have a motorcycle and an iPhone, but underneath it is still a lot of poverty and people struggle. But when you are in Hanoi you do not tend to see it.
What I love about this country that you can really have a cool bar or an underground music scene and right next to it is a lady on the street selling snails or Pho. You do not see that anywhere else. Every part of the social class eating on the same curbside street stall.
The city was under duress 50 years ago and a lot of people that we met on the street had seen the country rise from the tough and torn civil unrest to what is now a unified progressing city. A communist nation coping in an international scene. Trying hard to adapt to an increasingly young population yet stuck with one foot in old values. Freedom of speech is still scrutinized and censored. The younger generations are wanting more financial market openness and state-owned enterprise reforms. The country has strong potential in the region.
I am in love with Hanoi because it gives you the quintessential experience of Southeast Asian experience everyone needs to go through the first time. It has all the beautiful textured disarray you see in movies, a remarkable food culture that will introduce you to new and unusual combinations of flavors. With the just right amount of English where you still need to struggle to get around and to actually feel that you are traveling. Everything here is cheap. I only spent 100 USD (excluding plane ticket and accommodation cost) for my whole 4 days trip and was able to eat my way thru Hanoi and buy souvenirs to be brought back home.
Being in this place is such an experience. It is filled with one of the best food cultures in the world, an intriguing history, a deeply thoughtful people and a blend of modern and traditional cohesive values. As we always say, go forth and experience thru wandering and become a storyteller when you return home.
Paula Ferrer is a full time Operations Manager for a digital direct marketing company and a part-time professional lyricist for homegrown local artists. She has an inexplicable love for trying out new dishes—whether from fine dining restaurants, hole-in-the-walls, and your friendly neighborhood isawan. Same passion goes for traveling and immersing herself into new experiences may it be thru music, film, art or just randomly talking to wise old lolos and lolas. Read thru her digitalized collections of experience musings and wanderings. Follow her at Instagram: @paulamariz & Twitter: @paulaferrer
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