While the plane ride from Siem Reap to Hanoi was less than 2 hours, it seemed like we had traveled between two different worlds. The Visa process went quickly and smoothly thanks to the letter of approval our hotel had helped us attain. Again a chauffeur awaited us, but this time our driver remained nameless and our tuktuk was replaced by a large, overly air-conditioned van. The outside temperature had also dropped by over 20 degrees. We were so excited to be in Vietnam, it seemed surreal! As we turned off the bleak highway and shops and restaurants dotted the landscape, Elissa and I had only one thing on our minds – must find pho, ASAP! Pho is the Vietnamese noodle soup, and Hanoi is its birthplace. In deciding between visiting Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi won hands down when we learned it had the best Pho in Vietnam (hence the world!) And the cooler weather made hot soup even more appealing. Our hotel was modest, but the staff was beyond friendly and accommodating. We promptly set out to find Pho, and quickly discovered that there was no seating inside of any of the restaurants. Locals were perched on tiny plastic stools, gathered around tables on the sidewalks. Most of the cooking was also being done on the sidewalks! So our criteria for a restaurant soon became A. that there was Pho on the menu, and B. that we could sit inside. We were pretty limited, but found a somewhat dodgy looking place filled with older men and advertising Pho. We ordered a chicken Pho and crab spring rolls, expecting the fresh rolls we had become so accustomed to eating in Siem Reap (we even had some in the airport waiting to board our plane for Hanoi!) As we waited for our food to arrive, we started reading the rest of the expansive menu, and found it was categorized by protein…chicken, beef, pork, fish, pigeon, frog, and dog. Yes, that’s right; offered either boiled or fried. Welcome to Vietnam!The pork list was expansive, offering boiled pig’s ovary and an assortment of different sized intestine. The noodles and broth satisfied our Pho craving for the evening, although our mantra remained #phoateverymeal. The “chicken” was orange strips of mystery meat, and considering the menu offerings, we didn’t dare try it! The restaurant had decided that a gruesome American horror movie made good dinner entertainment, so we quickly slurped our Pho and headed back to the hotel for the night. Police were cruising the streets in small trucks making announcements over megaphones, and I don’t know if it’s because I knew it’s a socialist country, but the city had an Eastern European feel, and at times reminded me of the backstreets of Prague.
Our first mission for Thursday was coffee! We headed out , map in hand that we had worked with the hotel staff in marking the whereabouts of coffee shops I had researched, the Old Quarter, and the meeting point for our food tour that was to take us to many local spots sampling all the local dishes. The neighborhood felt so different by day than it had the previous night, but the small red plastic stools remained on the sidewalks, and we found a cafe with many locals sitting around drinking coffee. As historically there was no fresh milk in Vietnam, the strong espresso-like coffee is served with sweetened condensed milk. It settles to the bottom, which allowed me to stir in just as much as I wanted. I always take my coffee with milk no sugar, but the sweet milk really accented and balanced the richness and strength of the Vietnamese coffee. In front of almost every restaurant, right out on the sidewalk, was a vendor preparing some sort of food. Women had an assortment of vegetables and noodles laid out on the sidewalks on plastic baggies, ready to roll spring rolls. One man was making thin rice-flour crepes filled with mushrooms and pork; a woman was frying glutinous rice fritters filled with vegetables. On each block, steam from pots of simmering broth or water for noodles, set over open flames, gently billowed. We wanted to try everything, but restrained ourselves, not knowing what we would try on our tour, but knowing we would soon be eating a lot! I learned and observed later on that this was the breakfast crew, and in most cases a whole new round of vendors would takeover these sidewalk spots at lunch and then dinner. In many cases, 3 different tenants rent out the same strip of real estate! They each pay a different rate, and although the cooking takes place on the sidewalk, the restaurant is the actual rental space as the sidewalk is owned by the government. When the police come around (which is pretty frequently), diners and vendors scatter, leaving their food behind, and then return soon after when the police are gone. They say not to worry…your soup will still be there and will still be hot when you return! There was also much food being transported along the busy streets. People carried long poles over their shoulder, with baskets of produce hanging in balance on each end. Also many bicycles carting produce and flowers, and scooters were everywhere! I had heard that traffic was nuts and that cars don’t stop for you. I was again interested to compare traffic to that in Manila. It was busy! But thankfully not polluted. Scooters would come out of nowhere, so we always had to be careful with each movement. Trying to cross the side streets was fine, but the more main roads were much more difficult. A helpful tip we learned was close your eyes, and go for it! Do not stop, and NEVER go backwards. The motorists will see you in the road, and move around you accordingly, often going behind you, thus any sudden or backward movement will mess with their plan for avoiding you! There were also clothing stores everywhere selling an assortment of US and European brands, all for reduced prices, stating “made in Vietnam.” There were also numerous Northface “outlet” stores with the same slogan, and the prices were majorly reduced. These items really did “fall off the truck”…they were made in Vietnam and then stayed in Vietnam! Between the bustle of people carrying produce, bicycles, and scooters on the streets, and coffee drinkers, vendors and soup pots and steam on the sidewalks, and stores brimming with merchandise and shop owners advertising it, and horns honking, and smells of rich broths simmering – it really was sensory overload! But wonderful! We arrived at the tour office, and they had just given away our spots! A miscommunication with the hotel who booked it for us, and the time we were supposed to meet. Thankfully we re-scheduled for that evening, and at this point very hungry, we were on a mission to find more pho! We also wanted to explore the Old Quarter – a maze of 36 streets, each named after the item sold there – gold, shellac, silk, coffee, lanterns. Our hotel had circled the area on the map and it was a bit of a walk, and it was cold. Many of the street names started with “hang” followed by more words…hang bac, hang bong…it was really easy to get “hung up” in navigating (so bad, I know). After walking a ways we decided to go for a ride on a pedicab. The Vietnamese version has the bicycle in the back, and a carriage large enough for 2 (maybe 3) people in the front. They’re painted all white, and many of the drivers wear military looking wide-brimmed hats. We took the scenic route along the beautiful lake that sits in the middle of the city. Our ride was great until the driver tried to rip us off. I had read that a trip should only cost $1, he asked for $5; we gave him $2 and quickly walked away. I had also ready that Hanoi was a dollar economy…but every time we tried to pay with dollars the locals looked at it with disgust! And no one understood the word “dollar” when we would ask before a purchase if they were accepted! We hadn’t exchanged any dollars for dong, the local currency (about which I made continuous jokes, as you can imagine. ) Our theme song for this portion was, “that dong, da dong dong dong…” After wandering around fruitlessly trying to find the small area circled on the map, asking several people for help finding the Old Quarter (one man even did a Google search for us) we realized that we were IN the Old Quarter and had been the whole time! In our wandering, we came upon a man making banh mi sandwiches of sorts…on the sidewalk of course. He was grilling skewers of pork, using scissors to cut open a baguette, and adding pickled vegetables and hot sauce. We were so excited! After many photos and drooling, ours was ready. The flavor ended up being disappointing, but the excitement leading up to it was worth it! We were still on the hunt for pho, and as we walked through what we now had figured out was the Old Quarter, we saw a woman out on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant, chopping duck on a large wooden cutting board. Inside the restaurant – a rare sight, were a few diners eating large bowls of pho. We quickly ordered ours, and it was so worth the search! The broth had a strong poultry flavor, and the accompanying fresh herbs were great. We spent the afternoon exploring the streets of the Old Quarter, and at every turn were amazed at the sights and smells of the food coming from the sidewalks. One alleyway had several large pots of broth that smelled so good I wanted to stick my head in it. We turned one corned and saw a man inside a restaurant/meat shop, knife in hand, holding a rabbit strung up by its foot. Jaws dropped, we watched while in one swift movement he pulled the fur right off of it! Elissa and I had just been discussing the proper technique for this two nights before with some people on our Siem Reap food tour. I couldn’t believe my eyes!! As we walked about in amazement at this whole new culture, we had quickly established a coffee-pee routine. Walk for a while, find a good looking coffee shop, relieve ourselves of all the liquids we were consuming (coffee & pho), and fuel up and warm up our freezing bodies with more coffee and the chance to be indoors. We came upon a cafe with many people sitting out on the sidewalk, drinking coffee or a ubiquitous, mild, room-temperature tea. There was a woman crouched down on the side of the road (not even the sidewalk!) beside a small frying pan set over a charcoal fire kept in a metal basin, with a metal shield on one side to trap the heat. She was cooking up omelets that smelled amazing, transforming them into yet another banh mi of sorts, and selling them to the people drinking at the cafe. Quite ingenious! The rest of her set-up included a bag full of eggs, a small cup and chopsticks to whisk the eggs, a bag of chopped fresh herbs, a small bottle of salt, a squirt bottle of oil, a basket holding a plastic bag of baguettes, scissors to cut open the baguettes, pickled papaya and carrot, hot sauce, and newspaper sheets to wrap the sandwiches in. After whisking the eggs, adding a generous handful of herbs and seasoning, she fried the omelet, folded it in half and tucked it into the baguette, topped it with pickled vegetables and hot sauce, and then crisped up the outside in the sauté pan. It was the most amazing egg sandwich I’ve ever eaten, and on our last day in Hanoi, Elissa and I relentlessly searched the streets, in the rain and cold, until we found this woman again, since she doesn’t “rent” any one sidewalk space. Hungry yet? Good! So now onto our food tour! Our guide was adorable and had just finished college. Each tour is different as the guide gets to choose where they take the tour participants – usually to their favorite spots. So we ate like college students! We started off with pho ga – an assortment of pork preparations, swimming in nuoc cham (famous Vietnamese mixture of fish sauce, lime, and sugar), served with noodles and fresh herbs and greens. Next was a traditional banh mi, the baguette containing pork loin, head cheese, pork pate, butter, omelet, hot sauce, and pickled vegetables. At this point I was full already! After that was bang cuon thit – the rice paper crepes filled with beef, wood ear mushrooms, and topped with fried shallots, that we had seen the man making that morning (it’s traditionally a breakfast dish.) After that came the chance to try Vietnam’s version of balut – hard-boiled, fertilized duck egg. Hanoi’s is a much fancier version than the Filipino, and it’s served in a bowl, out of the shell, in nuon cham and garnished with herbs. Elissa was so brave and ate it like a champ, while trying it once was already enough for me! Next were dry noodles topped with beef and squid jerkies, quail eggs, and pickled vegetables, that we ate out of plastic containers perched on small plastic stools in front of a cafe. We sipped lemon tea, which is actually made of limes, and then when a certain vendor came by we sampled Vietnamese pancakes. Crepes filled with freshly grated coconut, crispy burt-sugar nougat, and black sesame seeds. Really good! We thought we must be nearing the end, but were told we still had 4 more stops! Next was for an assortment of fried spring rolls – an egg roll of sorts, a glutinous rice fritter like we’d earlier seen, a traditional spring roll, and a sweet bean fritter, always with nuoc chom for dipping and greens and herbs for garnish. We had a palate cleanser of an assortment of candied dried fruit with ginger, and fresh fruit dusted with chili, sugar, and salt (like in Siem Reap!) Finally we were onto dessert, where we tried an assortment of the “classics”. Different variations of flan or yogurt, with sticky rice, condensed milk, and fruit. My favorite was tangy black sticky rice cooked with coconut milk and topped with lightly sweetened yogurt. Another interesting one was a glass full of sweet beans and ice, topped with toasted coconut. Our last stop was for the famous “egg coffee” and despite how full we were, it was so worth it! You can order it hot or iced, I went for hot, and received a small cup with intense coffee on the bottom, and a light creamy zabaglione on top. The story goes that the now legendary owner, as a young man, worked as a waiter at a fancy hotel. When he couldn’t find any milk for the guests’ coffee, he added egg instead. The zabaglione is made with egg and sweetened condensed milk, and after sampling it on its own, you gently fold in the coffee. It was absolutely amazing! We saw the founder as we were leaving, old and cheerful, as his son now runs the business! On our tour we met people from all over – UK, Germany, and two women our age who work together in San Francisco. One was originally from LA, and the other grew up in Acton but most of her family live in South Hadley!! Thankfully it was early when the tour ended, and we decided to spend the rest of the night walking off our feast. At one point we stopped into a cafe – this time for a beer and a pee, as we wanted to try the local “biya hoi”. It’s brewed daily, widely available only on tap across the city, and whatever is leftover at the end of each day is discarded. It’s less than $0.50 cents a glass – cheaper than water! We capped off all the walking with $4 foot and back massages before heading back for the night.
Friday was a welcome change from the bustle of the city…and constant eating! We went on a day-long tour of Halong Bay, a three and a half hour drive each way from Hanoi by bus, then boat tour of the bay. We again had a wonderful guide, and the views were incredible. Huge rock formations rise up out of emerald water. The most famous rocks look like 2 birds fighting (or kissing, depending how you look at it.) There are also floating villages here, like in Siem Reap. Thankfully the rain held off, and we enjoyed some lounging on the deck (just not in bikinis!) We hiked inside a vast cave at the edge of one of the formations, filled with stalagmites and stalactites. The cave was probably 100 feet tall at some points, and you could spend hours coming up with objects that the formations resembled. We returned to Hanoi that night with pho still on our minds, as we hadn’t eaten nearly enough of it yet. My research, confirmed by the guide from our food tour, led us to Pho Bat Dan, famous for their beef pho. No one there spoke English (always a good sign) and the woman in charge was big an burly, expertly hacking and shaving off pieces from huge slabs of different cuts of aged beef. We didn’t know what to order, so we just chose two of the three pho options. One contained thinly sliced brisket that melted in your mouth, and the other had brisket and a chewier, thicker cut as well. Both had generous amounts of scallions and fresh noodles, and the most intensely amazing beef broth I’ve ever eaten. Seasoned with a bit of chili and fish sauce, I could have taken a bath in this soup!! We wandered through the night market that sets up on the weekends along one of the main streets, but since it had started to rain most of the food vendors hadn’t ventured out, and we weren’t interested in anything else!
Our last day was Saturday and our flight back to Manila was late that night (actually 1:00am Sunday morning). It was even colder, and raining, and we bundled up (I had broken down and bought a jacket for $25 mid-way through the first day there). Our plans to tour outside of the Old Quarter with a scooter guide were cancelled because of the rain, so we set out to explore other parts of the Old Quarter we had yet to visit. We found an adorable shop owner selling all sorts of silk scarves, and had fun shopping and talking with her. We found the market, which was a sight of dried fish of all sizes, shrimp, and squid, fresh seafood, sacks of rice and spices, dried mushrooms, noodles, produce, and so many items I don’t even know the names of. This area led us to another section that was outside the more touristy grid. We were actually shooed away at one point by an unfriendly restaurant owner who thought we were looking to come into her place (and probably try and pay with our disgusting dollars). It was shortly after this encounter that Elissa and I spotted a woman hacking pieces of whole-roasted meat on a cutting board. We saw the butt of the animal, and immediately knew that was not a pig’s tail we were looking at. We saw it with our own two eyes – whole roasted dog! At first we just saw some cut up into various parts, but then we saw three whole dogs, about two feet long, with big angry teeth. Maybe this was why we were shooed away – like they feared were going to send PETA after them! The one consolation from the whole encounter is that they were all the same dogs, so it doesn’t seem like they’re just rounding up stays (or pets) and cooking them. Once we regained our appetites, we ate at a cute little restaurant promoting home cooking with interesting spins on some classic dishes. The food ended up being inedible, which I don’t say very often! We had ordered an assortment of appetizers, and one was worse than the next. This is when we set out to find the egg sandwich lady again! This time she was set up in front of a small shop, where her only customer was the shop owner, and now us. We ate them while getting ripped off at yet another foot massage parlor – at this point we were wet and our feet were numb, but at least we had bellies full of amazing banh mi, loads of pho and coffee, and minds and hearts filled to the brim with all we has seen and experienced.