True Life: I’m a Street Food Addict
November 26 – 30
Somewhere between the food comas, easy walks around the enchanting Old Quarter and more than a few bia hois we were hooked. Us and Hanoi? We got along noice. Reeeeaaaaal noice.
We heard mixed reviews about Vietnam before our arrival, with many friends telling us we could feel ok skipping it altogether and others telling us it was a can’t miss. But if Hanoi was any indication of things to come, our worries were unfounded.
Early on in our courtship Right off the bat, we knew we would love Hanoi. Truth be told, anything that wasn’t confined to a small, dirty, uncomfortable bus like our 18-hour ride into the city from the Laotian boonies would have been a welcome change. But you can’t help but feel the in-your-face energy around you when walking the streets of the Old Quarter where we were based. Motorbikes and pushy salespeople were everywhere, but you can’t knock the bustle. With no plan beyond just getting out and walking around, we hit the streets in search of some local food, and were not left wanting for much of anything. Every 10 or 15 feet we passed another boiling pot of broth just waiting to mix with noodles for some Pho, the local specialty. Or small cinder block grills with red-hot coals roasting pork, beef and chicken – complete with the fan positioned behind to make sure passersby like ourselves couldn’t miss the enticing aromas. You want spring rolls, fresh fruit, cheap beer, fried pastries, noodle soups, grilled meat, anything else? You name it, and you can find it within a block or two of any spot around the Old Quarter.
Our first foray into the food was bun cha – a combination of cold-served vermicelli, fresh greens, and grilled pork and veggies in broth. In a word – nomnomnomnomnom. Mix in some fried spring rolls and a couple cheap Hanoi beers (not nearly as cheap as the bia hois, but more on those later) and you’ve got two happy travelers.
Before continuing our walking tour, we made plans for a metaphorical taste of home on our first day. I just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and the second movie was released locally the day we arrived. It was unavoidable. It was happening. Being the only westerners in the theatre, we struggled to push back the masses who confused us for the stars of the show and were all like “Is that Katniss? Katniss, is that you? Peeta! It’s Peeta and Katniss!” enjoyed some of the indecipherable (for us, anyway) previews and commercials before settling in for a couple hours of bliss. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Until you’ve seen Katniss fight for her life with President Snow via Vietnamese subtitles, you haven’t lived.)
We left the theatre after signing autographs and set back out to the Old Quarter for more food and our introduction to the famed bia hois. These just-tasty-enough beers are easy to put down knowing that each one costs a mere 15-25 cents.
The beer is unpasteurized, so once the kegs are delivered all the beer has to be consumed that day before you start messing with bacteria (never a good thing). We, along with a handful of friends we met in the previous 24 hours, happily obliged and pulled up our child-sized plastic stools to the child-sized plastic tables (Fisher Price runs this town) that line the sidewalks for a few beers.
This became a regular daily activity in Hanoi. Sitting streetside, watching life go by, chasing it all down with a cold beverage. All while thinking about the “skip Vietnam” crowd and thinking, “Seriously, how the h could you come here and not love this? Say it to my face. SAY IT TO MY FACE!!!”
One of the challenges in Hanoi (and, as we’d come to find, other big cities across Vietnam) is negotiating the traffic. By the time we left, I viewed it more as a game than an inconvenience. Noelle and I won. Every time.
The key? Be aggressive. B. E. Aggressive. I usually led the charge across the street, with Noelle cheer-clapping closely behind.
The streets are clogged with endless motorbikes and a few cars sprinkled in here and there. There are no “walk” or “don’t walk” signs at most intersections, so the key is just walking across at a slow and steady pace (head on a swivel!) so the helmet-clad speed racers have enough advanced notice to avoid hitting you before you reach the other side. It’s kinda like when cops arrive to break up a college party. Despite trying to hold up a calm demeanor and thinking “Be cool, be cool…” the internal dialogue is more along the lines of “OMG! OMFG, get me out of here!” Of course, the major difference being you run the risk of getting hit by a motorcycle or car as opposed to getting a stern warning from Officer Friendly. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note, I cannot validate this metaphor due to my adolescent halo, DAVE.) And walking across and along the sides of the streets is inevitable since the sidewalks are fully blocked with parked motorbikes. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If I were writing this post, my title would have been, “Where Sidewalks Aren’t for Walking” (although I always appreciate a good MTV show reference). This was a defining element of this city. Pop up sidewalk restaurants and vendors nestled between lines of motorbikes dominated the real estate meant for pedestrians…so instead you had people clogging the streets. It was weird. But fascinating.)
Despite the inherent risks and potential dangers just crossing the street, it’s actually a great city to explore on foot. We stayed in the Old Quarter, but took time to walk around other areas, including the wide boulevards of the French Quarter, the shores of West Lake and Truc Bach Lake (where John McCain landed by parachute after the Vietnamese took down his bomber), and the serene Hoan Kiem Lake. Along the way we stopped at a few landmarks for pictures and made time to visit the Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton where John McCain and fellow American soldiers enjoyed a cushy existence (for prisoners anyway) through the end of the Vietnam War. Despite our general hesitance to pay admission to these types of places, we can make exceptions when it costs less than $1 to enter.
And here are some other scenes from around the city:
But where was I? Ah, yes. Sights, shmights. No point in denying that the best part of Hanoi was the street food. We learned all sorts of new names of foods we liked, and sampled as much as we could during our 5 days here. Here are some of our favorites:
Pho Bo/Ga – A local staple, and rightfully so. It’s everywhere in Hanoi, and the mix of broth (seasoned for days at a time with simmering bones, beef and other ingredients), rice noodles, a mix of greens and your choice of meat (beef was our favorite). Once everything is there in front of you, you typically can mix in some chopped chili peppers, chili sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce and/or whatever else was in the unlabeled bottles of most of the tables we sat at.
Tip From Those Who Knows (that would be us): Go to Pho Gia Truyen at 49 Bat Dan in the Old Quarter, but get there before 10am to be safe because they typically run out early.
Bun Cha – Char-grilled (over cinder blocks filled with hot coals, of course) pork patties with vermicelli and herbs/greens. Simple. Delicious. And everywhere.
Egg Coffee – Exactly what it sounds like. A beaten egg mixed in with a cup of coffee. It made for a frothy mix, but was actually quite tasty.
Tip From Those Who Knows: Try it at Cafe Giang in the old quarter. Tell them Dave and Noelle sent you (there is a 0% chance they’ll know who you’re talking about).
Banh Xeo – A fried treat – almost looking like a calzone – filled with a mix of shrimp and veggies and fried into a pancake.
Banh Mi – likely familiar to many at home, this baguette filled with liver pate, fried eggs, beef, veggies and chili sauce was at just about every street corner.
Bun Bo Nam Bo – more well-known and widely available further south, this mix of beef (“bo”), bean sprouts, greens, crushed peanuts, bun noodles, shallots and broth. It also is the most fun name to say of everything on this list.
Tip From Those Who Knows: By far the best place to eat it is at the aptly named Bun Bo Nam Bo on Hang Dieu.
Banh Cuon – Thin rice rolls filled with pork and mushrooms, or shrimp and mushrooms as we also tried.
Tip From Those Who Knows: Get it at Bahn Cuon Gia Truyen on Hang Ga. They do it reeeeaaaaal noice over there.
Bia Hoi – oh wait, this is supposed to just be foods?
Tip From Those Who Knows: Get it from… everywhere.
Caramel sticky rice – Exactly what it sounds like.
Fried sticky rice – cubes of sticky rice fried on a wide pan over open flame, then cut up (usually with scissors) and combined with chopped cucumber, soy sauce and chili sauce.
Banh Ghai – Deep-fried pockets filled with glass noodles, minced pork and mushrooms. One of the greasier items we ate, but still worth a shot nonetheless.
Tip From Those Who Knows: Get it on Ly Quoc Su near St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It’s the only area we were able to find it around the city.
So yeah, you’re not so bad, Vietnam. We couldn’t have enjoyed Hanoi more than we did, but it helped that we had quite a bit to look forward to with our next stop on the high seas – Halong Bay.