Big cities haven’t been the highlight of our trip. With a growing middle class and globalization, a lot of Asian cities feel boringly similar to home in many ways. Local people shop in air-conditioned malls and drive shiny new cars. Pollution and traffic jams are rampant. The best experiences of our trip have typically been on remote beaches or mountain trails away from massive population centers.
But Hanoi has something special. With a population of 7 million and serious air pollution, it has its share of the problems that affect all the world’s major cities. But the Old Quarter and the surrounding neighborhoods in the core of the city retain an unmistakable charm. It’s noisy, hectic, and pedestrians need to perform elaborate dances to avoid motorbike collisions. Sidewalks aren’t for walking: they’re where street food vendors set out tiny plastic stools for customers, fruit sellers thread between traffic with shoulder poles or bicycle baskets, and merchants hawk their goods in streets that are still designated by trade. Our friend and seasoned traveler Arik once compared the Old Quarter of Hanoi to Kathmandu as cities that have an absolutely unique and special atmosphere, and we agree.
We approached our trip to Vietnam with some trepidation. The country has a reputation for scams, hassle and price gouging. We heard a few horror stories from fellow travelers on the road. On the other hand, we had friends who had been to Vietnam and loved it. We had originally planned to head to Nepal for three weeks of trekking starting in early October, but with a dubious mountain weather forecast, we decided to push Nepal back to November. After a quick stop in Ko Lanta, Thailand, where I got my Open Water scuba certification, we had a couple of weeks to fill in the second half of October.
After a check of the weather conditions and airfares to various destinations in Southeast Asia, we decided to do a quick tour of northern Vietnam. It turned out to be a great decision. We found Vietnam to have much less hassle and annoyance than we expected. With a few lessons learned on our previous travels in India, a hotbed of hassle, we avoided scams and had a great time.
After landing in Hanoi and checking into our hotel (make sure you book a room and airport transfer in advance to avoid taxi scams), our first stop was the Bia Hoi Junction at the corner of Dinh Liet and Ta Hien in the Old Quarter. Bia Hoi is freshly brewed beer that is drunk on the same day. It is insanely cheap at around $0.25 a glass and incredibly refreshing. The Bia Hoi Junction is fronted with several establishments, all selling cheap food and beer. The junction is a hub of activity with motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, doughnut vendors, and souvenir hawkers jostling for space with beer drinkers squatted on low plastic stools on the street. Lonely Planet pooh-poohs this corner because of its popularity with hordes of backpackers. It certainly was touristy, but the place at the southeast corner had the best bia hoi of our trip, and we returned several times.
We had only been in Vietnam for a few hours, but we were already invigorated by the energy of the Old Quarter and were eager to explore the area. The next day, we followed the Lonely Planet’s walking tour of the Old Quarter. We haven’t been too impressed with Lonely Planet’s recent guidebooks, but their city walking tours have taken us to some of the most interesting corners of several cities including Hanoi. There are several temples and sights, but the best experience is simply to wander the streets and absorb the atmosphere.
Street vendors in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
The single thing that makes Hanoi’s Old Quarter feel special is the huge number of street food vendors. The best food in Hanoi is eaten while crouched on a crappy plastic stool, slurping or sucking on something freshly cooked on a tiny cart or stand. Most vendors specialize in only one or two dishes. It’s worth seeking out locations that have built a reputation as the best of their type, but one of the best meals we had was at an anonymous stand around the corner from our hotel. After six weeks of decent but uninspiring Indonesian food, Vietnamese cuisine was a revelation. Vietnamese cuisine is complex and full of flavor, with abundant fresh herbs. Street food is perfectly safe for tourists, so we happily pulled up a chair at any and every stall that looked tempting. Here are some of the highlights.
Living in Seattle, we are well acquainted with Vietnam’s most famous dish: pho (beef noodle soup). We always had the vegetarian pho with tofu at our old favorite Than Brothers pho joint at home, but we had the original with beef in Hanoi. Vietnamese people typically eat pho for breakfast, and we joined a long line of locals at a well-known place in the Old Quarter. The thick slices of beef for breakfast took some getting used to, but the pho was delicious.
The best meal we had in Hanoi was bun dao (fried tofu with dipping sauce, vermicelli noodles and spring rolls served with a massive heap of fresh herbs) at an anonymous stall around the corner from our hotel. Load up your chopsticks with a piece of tofu or spring roll, dip into the sauce, and chase it with a refreshing combination of herbs and noodles. Every bite is an explosion of flavor. Best of all, a huge portion cost $1.50 per person.
For our last dinner, we headed to the famous place selling bun cha (like bun dao but with barbecued pork) at Bun Cha Dac Kim at 1 Hang Manh. We were careful to go into the restaurant on the right side: the one on the left is a copycat with the same name and even a fake street number.
Although we don’t eat much meat at home, we have been taking the opportunity to taste local specialties with meat while traveling. The bun cha was delicious if a little greasy, with another huge pile of sharp, refreshing herbs. With one or two pieces of pork left on my plate, I realized I had reached my capacity for meat for the month and possibly the rest of 2015!
Vietnam is one of the world’s biggest coffee producers and has come up with some tasty coffee drinks. Our favorite local coffee was at a street cafe at 39 Ta Hien that did a sweet, refreshing ca phe sua chua: a shot of syrupy coffee over ice and a dollop of creamy yogurt, for less than $0.50.
An honorable mention for drinking options in Hanoi goes to Raw Juicery across from St. Joseph’s cathedral. As we are good middle-class foodies, we had been missing our trendy superfoods ever since we left home. We indulged in several tasty green smoothies with mango, coconut, spinach, and chia.
As if the abundance of delicious street food wasn’t enough, we also found the best variety and quality of tropical fruit of our trip so far in Vietnam. The country stretches a huge distance from north to south, encompassing several climate zones where almost every imaginable type of fruit and vegetable grow. Fruit stands and roaming fruit vendors are never more than a few steps away in Hanoi. We gobbled down sweet perfumed mangoes, juicy rambutans, tart passionfruits, delicate persimmons, creamy custard apples, and refreshing dragonfruit. Even though tourists are always overcharged at the market, it never cost us more than a dollar or two per kilo.
Finally, a cold coconut is the perfect drink to cool down on a hot, sticky afternoon.
A Sightseeing Afterthought
We had to do something in between gorging ourselves on street food, so on our last afternoon we walked south to the Temple of Literature. Like most Vietnamese temples, it blends Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Without knowing much about Vietnamese religion, it was hard to get a sense of what the local worshippers felt and experienced as they made offerings. However, we enjoyed the series of temples painted in brilliant red with their ornate shrines.
We stayed at the clean and comfortable Especen Hotel ($22), tucked into a side street near St. Joseph’s cathedral. It was well located just south of the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake with its island temple and picturesque bridge that are illuminated at night.
We left Hanoi happy to have discovered a big Asian city that’s also a rewarding travel destination, even for city-phobes like us. Despite modernization and a booming tourist trade, Hanoi shows no signs of losing its special charm. In fact, after touring around the coast and countryside, it remained our favorite destination in Vietnam.