VISIT HANOI AS A LOCAL
Two years ago, when I interviewed an American photographer for his first journey to Vietnam, he said: “Almost everyone in my county knows nothing about Vietnam except the war.” With the increasing number of construction projects and the influx of exotic culture, Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam is changing fast. It is a far cry from the image that makes it onto the screens around the world many decades ago.
When Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) or Ao dai (Vietnamese national costume) started to depart from its origin, I have wondered what a “quintessential Hanoi” is. An apple didn’t hit my head while I was wandering around the French Old Quarter – an immersion point for most travelers. But right after I stumbled against a plastic stool on the pavement, it dawned on me that these low-slung chairs are so ubiquitous that they become indispensable to Vietnamese lives.
In Vietnam, the pavement is rarely for the pedestrians. It is not just the motorbikes but mobile street vendors selling fruit, vegetables or souvenirs and local shops which also have expanded onto the pavements. However, once you get used to that bustle, you’ll realize that all of life aspects are played out on the streets which makes Hanoi become such a living city.
But if it’s the stool’s curse to be emblematic of Hanoi’s pavement misuse, some are trying to embrace that legacy in a more positive way. You basically can do your own tour around Hanoi by taking a break on a plastic stool and watch the daily chaos. It’s really a good way for a first-time visitor to experience Vietnamese daily life, albeit challenging.
Even though there is no typical Vietnamese breakfast/lunch on the menu, many humble street stalls only serve you at a certain time. Bun oc (snail vermicelli soup) at No. 6 Hang Chai, for example, opens between 6 and 9 a.m. From the early morning, locals squeeze on to the rows of plastic stools, knee-to-knew with many others in a narrow corner. Heaped with snails and tomato, what is typically a gentle broth becomes a slightly sour, chewy dish. If you prefer an unusual take on the omnipresent Pho, come visit No. 1 Hang Trong in the late afternoon. It’s called “Pho bung” because there is no table to place your bowl and you’ve got no choice but carry it by your hand.
Highly recommended addresses to visit:
- Mien luon – No. 2 Phu Doan (stir-fried rice vermicelli with small eels)
- Bun ngan Nhan – Trung Yen alley, a small alley off of Dinh Liet Street (vermicelli in Muscovy duck soup)
- Pho xao bap bo – No. 11 Hang Buom (fried Pho with beef shank)
- Bun thang – No. 32 Cau Go (rice vermicelli soup with chicken, pork and egg)
- My van than Phuong Beo – No. 9 Hang Chieu (Wonton noodles)
- Bun bo Nam Bo – No. 67 Hang Dieu (vermicelli with grilled beef)
- Bun moc – No. 57 Hang Luoc (vermicelli soup with mushroom meatballs)
- Bami Bread – No. 98 Hang Bac (banh mi)
- Banh mi P – No. 12 Hang Buom
- Banh mi pho – No. 97 Hang Bong
- Banh mi chao – No. 38 Dinh Liet (banh mi with Vietnamese-styled beef steak served on a frying pan)
Opening hours: 7 a.m-10 p.m; Price range: $1.5 to 3
It hardly costs you more than $2 to enjoy different styles of coffee in Hanoi, the capital city of a country which is one of the world’s largest coffee exporter. Head to Nguyen Huu Huan street in Old Quarter where to offer various pickings for both locals and tourists. Stop at Lam Cafe (No. 60) or Nang Cafe (No. 46) – two of the oldest coffee shops in Hanoi – for classic coffee drinks. Find a chair with a good view of the street and let yourself get used to the haze and taxing traffic. Even though it doesn’t look rustic as it used to be, it’s pleasant to watch lots of Vietnamese, regardless of age or class, spending hours gossiping, smoking and gazing at their smartphones.
Highly recommended addresses to visit:
- Tho Cafe – No. 117 Trieu Viet Vuong Street
- Giang Cafe – No. 39 Nguyen Huu Huan (try egg coffee)
- Cafe Pho Co – No. 11 Hang Gai
- Su Cafe – No. 96 Nguyen Huu Huan
- Dinh Cafe – 2nd floor No. 13 Dinh Tien Hoang
- Nhan Cafe – No. 39D Hang Hanh
- Hanoi House Cafe – No. 47 Ly Quoc Su
- Cong Caphe – No. 27 Nha Tho (near the Cathedral)
“Bia hoi”, or draught beer is the lifeblood to Vietnamese culture, especially to young and middle-aged men. It’s easy to mark out a crowd of local men in the late afternoon as they start to gather after work and grab their beer on the pavements. If you crave for a hectic atmosphere in the evening, make your way through the crowds of people and motorbikes to Ta Hien (known as Bia hoi corner) in Old Quarter. Rather than being the best spot in town for cheap beer, it promises an inviting vibe with street music and outdoor activities. The beer is typically enjoyed with roasted peanuts (lac rang) and fries. Sometimes, you would see no-fun police swing by and get all of the plastic chairs as a way to penalize the street stalls for misusing the sidewalks.
You will rarely feel lonely even if you travel on your own in Hanoi. Young Vietnamese students love talking and practicing English with tourists. They’re willing to show you around and offer you a free tour if you want know more about the local culture. Take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and you will soon find yourself surrounded by exercisers, couples, dog walkers who are eager to have a language/culture exchange.
Some more useful tips if you plan to stay in Hanoi for more than a week:
– Join the Facebook group Foodies in Hanoi for more food tips and Hanoi Massive for any general tips
– Join the weekly meet-up on CouchSurfing to hang out with Vietnamese friends and tourists