Hanoi: Living and Eating
We were ready for Hanoi after three weeks in Bali. A more frenetic, stimulating city experience. Will and I stayed slightly outside of the Old Quarter in the Hoan Kiem district #2. We rented our own apartment, and as expected, it was wonderful to have a home base. It was a space we could take ownership of, even if only temporarily. The apartment was situated in a residential neighborhood, which enabled us to get a true feel of the local culture.
We started each morning slowly. We successfully tracked down oatmeal, milk, AND peanut butter in the local grocery store.
Other than breakfast, we ate every other meal out for a slew of reasons. First, Hanoi is known for their iconic street food scene. Second, at the grocery store, we didn't recognize majority of the products. We were going to have black beans and rice one night--a common dinner for us at home--but the canned beans were in fact a sweet adzuki bean paste. Lesson learned. Lastly, it was quite literally less expensive to eat out. Buying products in the store we recognized was expensive. Whereas, a banh mi on the street was averaged a little over $1 USD (25,000 VND), and a bowl of pho was a little over $2 USD (50,000 VND). When eating out in Vietnam, specifically street food, our primary rule of thumb was to go to a crowded place. The first of many banh mi's we tried was a safe bet at Banh Mi 25.
It was an ideal introduction. We sat across the street on stools, as traffic wizzed by.
We both ordered the Mixed Sandwich (pate, barbecue pork, jamon, and sausage). It was awesome. We found it remarkable how crisped the baguette is on the outside and were were quick converts.
A memorable bowl of pho was at Pho Gia Truyen. It was our first evening and we sought a truly nurturing meal. And it was packed.
There were three options, none of which were in English. Confused, we ordered the deluxe, or the Tai Nam. The line moved quickly, as they sliced the meat to order.
In the back, large pots of bone broth were stewing. The aromatics of garlic, lemon grass, and fish sauce was intoxicating.
The perfectly spiced bowl of pho was healing. It truly felt soul soothing. The soup didn't need much, but the Vietnamese couple next to us motioned that there were chilis and a lemony vinegar to add to taste. I tried to emulate as they made portioned bites, twirling the noodles with the chopsticks in their right hand with the spoon in their left. I was far less graceful.
Another noodle soup we loved was at Oc Thi No. It wasn't until after we sat down that we realized that all they served was snails.
Which was fine with us, because we'd seen snails eaten on plastic stools on seemingly every street corner. The cleaned snails in the soup looked like a doable introduction. Bún ốc, the snail noodle soup, originated in Hanoi. The fresh tomato broth broth was bright with lemon and garlic, but complex stewed in bone broth. We loved it so much we went back the following evening, but no luck. They were already sold out.
Similar to noodle soup, bahn mi stalls were on nearly every street. Another place we enjoyed was Bami Bread. It was a simple sandwich, but was exactly what we were craving at the time. Although not as authentic, we both had the roast chicken, with pate, mayonnaise, papaya, carrot, cucumber, chili sauce, and "special Hoi An casserole sauce."
We spent most of our days simply walking around the city. At first, it felt like stimulation overload with the sounds, the scents, the colors. But we eased into the pace, and came to really enjoy the spontaneity of Hanoi. When walking down the street, we passed older men crouched playing chess, people playing full blown badminton games on the sidewalk, school children leaving the blaring loud speaker at their schools.
Mostly, it was fascinating to see people's way of life. Stooped on the sidewalk slurping noodles, sipping coffee, snacking on shelled sunflower seeds. Most doors were open, and you could peak into kitchens, which served as a window into daily life. We were told most Vietnamese eat breakfast and lunch from street vendors. And thus, it wasn't difficult to find a snack. We stopped when anything looked good. Unfortunately, I don't know the name of this dim sum stall, but it was a highlight. We shared the pork and shrimp and dumplings made to order and they were my favorite.
We noticed locals eating soup with some sort of fried bread sticks. I believe they were quẩy chiên giòn. We were intrigued. When we saw a man frying on the street we decided to finally try them.
There were two small plastic tables, and a pair of girls were enjoying them as a snack. The fried dough was accompanied by a mysterious vinegar based dipping sauce, that you could add chili sauce to taste. Apparently it's a popular Chinese snack called youtiao that's popular around Southeast Asia as well. Will likened it to carnival food.
One of the most flavorful dishes we tried were these grilled scallops in a herb, butter marinade. You pick the seafood you want and they grill it out front. They were. So good.
Perhaps one of the most memorable aspects if our stay in Hanoi was the park by our apartment--Thong Nhat Park. It was massive. Primarily used by locals, it felt like an oasis compared to Hoan Kiem Lake surrounded by the commercialized, touristy portion fo the Old Quarter. Well, Thong Nhat Park was as much of an oasis as you're going to find in Hanoi. The park was constructed in 1958 with the intention to unify Vietnam.
We found that after work, around 6 p.m., the pathways flooded with people jogging, walking hand in hand, listening to headphones. Vietnamese techno music blasted while zumba-like workout classes competed for space. Nearby, a meditation group was seated by the water with their legs crossed. I asked Will how they could possibly mediate with so much commotion. He replied, clearly, "you don't understand the objective of meditating." Tune everything out.
The park also included a small botanical garden, playgrounds, exercise apparatuses, a small amusement park, swan boats on Bay Mau Lake. Perhaps most impressive were the daily festivals: extensive book fairs, orientations in amphitheaters, and of course, a busting street food scene. We tried the bánh tráng nướng, which resembled a Vietnamese quesadilla.
We went on morning runs around the park, nightly walks, we'd bring our Kindles and try to read by the lake--but usually got tremendously distracted. Pro tip: They charge 4,000 VND (under 20 cents) for tourists to enter the park, but if you walk by and look like you know what you're doing, the gate attendants seem not to notice.
As for drinks, Vietnam is known for their strong coffee mixed with sickly sweet condensed milk. Of course it's delicious. But there were also some other quirky concoctions. We discovered we were fans of yogurt with ice, found of most every menu. It can also be mixed with coffee or fruits such as passionfruit.
Fresh fruit juice and smoothie stands were a daily occurrence. It's a challenge to walk a few feet before passing a juice stand. At first we were turned off by the ice. But by day two, we gave in. If you're concerned, a good measurement is that if it's a large ice cube with a hole in the center, than it was made by a machine. Drinks are typically accompanied by snacks: peanuts, spicy corn nuts, etc.
We also enjoyed the bia hơi, a light draft beer that's brewed daily. Typically men drink it on stools, street corners, and local bars. It cost roughly 5,000 VND and is only 3 percent alcohol. We found a local place around us that was always loud and crowded.
We tried it for dinner one night, and ordered bia hơi to cheers with the guys next to us. Although we fumbled ordering food since there was no english translation, they did get our beer orders correct.
Coincidentally, I found out that a friend from high school was also in Hanoi. Although we hadn't seen each other in ten years, we met up for a coffee, and proceeded to explore the city together.
It was refreshing to compare overall impressions. But ultimately, just nice to catch up.
It was also my introduction to having a daily pineapple. Cut to order, an entire pineapple cost 10,000 VND. They're so naturally sweet, to me they tasted canned. Women would sell them on the streets in baskets, but in this case, on the back of a bike.
Will and I enjoyed our stay in Hanoi tremendously. Perhaps the weather helped. It was far cooler than we thought, averaging temperatures in the high 60s each day. The overcast, chillier temperatures were a reprieve from the heat of Bali. Will noted if it was our first stop in Southeast Asia, perhaps it would have been more of a jarring culture shock. But coming from Bali, where motorbike traffic clogs the road, it felt like a natural transition. I will admit, the air pollution got to us. The perpetual haze that clouded the skies was not just from clouds. If we stayed longer, we would invest in the face masks that many of the locals where when driving. Regardless, once you visit Hanoi, the energy of the city is unforgettable. I do hope we'll be back.