Before leaving for Vietnam, I had heard mixed reviews. Travelers either loved it or hated it. Many said it was their least favorite country based on the attitude of the locals and how they were treated. I was skeptical going in and was expecting to come out the other end disliking it. I went in equipped with my prejudice and tales of other’s travels. But, after spending several weeks in the country, the verdict is in: I loved it (and my travel companions loved it). I loved the people, the food, the country and history. Of course, there are always isolated incidents of doing bad business, not bargaining properly and getting ripped off, or coming across someone who is having a bad day and just feels like being nasty. But I didn’t find my experience to be any different from my time in other countries like Thailand (remind me to tell you the story of the time I got kicked by a seller in Bangkok after walking away from a bad deal on a necklace).
We spent three whirlwind days in Hanoi. Arriving late at night, we were greeted warmly at our hotel, Le Mercure in the Hoan Lake District (94 Ly Thuong Kiet Street) [See map]. Our first traveller mishap occurred when my travel companion left his brand new iphone in the taxi. The hotel which had cameras on the outside, called the taxi agency and tracked down the driver who within 10 minutes brought back his phone! Besides their wonderful service, the hotel was beautiful, elegant and very clean. The staff were professional, courteous and very helpful. A continental and Asian breakfast was served from 6-10 am. A travel and tour agent desk was also located close to the dining area which helped us book many tours around Hanoi. After having spent a few days in Hanoi, we were extremely happy with our hotel choice and chose to spend an extra night after returning from Halong Bay.
Day 1 in Hanoi:
Hanoi is a major foodie destination and many like myself come equipped with an appetite, ready to try almost anything and everything (although I draw the line at eating Vietnamese dog, which I learned is still common amongst the elders). Every foodie traveling to Hanoi should already know that street food is a way of life here. A life which many tourists don’t dare to try. And while I was daring and ready to sit down at any of the many small street food stands, traveling with a physician prevented me from doing so. I was constantly reminded of all the reasons I should not be eating street food including parasites and traveller’s diarrhea to name a few. But how could I ignore all the smells and aroma permeating the Old Quarter. So, I took the risk and dragged the physician along with me (he refused to try but instead stared at me in horror while I sat down to eat).
Street food is central to the life and culture of the city. At any time of day, you will see crowds of people crouched on street corners slurping away on fresh pho (literally fresh, the chicken was alive only a few hours prior to cooking). While I was excited to try some phở, I ended up sitting down on my first day for a mystery meal. Mystery because each stand only serves one dish. And I did not know what dish it was I would be eating, having selected the spot based on the crowds of people munching away. All I know is that it was good. Very good. And I wanted more. But what was it? No one spoke English. So I took a photo and decided to investigate later.
I later learned that the mysterious and delicious meal I had (all less than a dollar) was the popular and quintessential bún chả dish. A serving of crispy, caramelized slices of pork (although at the time I could swear it was chicken), along side a a bowl of bun noodles, and a bowl of warm light fish sauce based broth with small slices of pickled green papaya. A plate of fried spring rolls –nem cua bể was served alongside the bún chả. Probably the most delicious spring rolls I’ve yet to taste in my quest for Vietnamese food. A combination of minced pork, glass noodles, mushrooms and bean sprouts wrapped in egg roll and fried. All this was served with a basket of fresh herbs and vegetables.
Once the dish arrived, I was not sure what to do with it or how to do put it together. In such a scenario, imitation is essential. I looked around and noticed that all the localers (who were eyeing me suspiciously) dumped the grilled pork patties (thit bam) into the broth. Next, the noodles were dipped in the broth picking up a piece of pork on the way before gently placing in the mouth.
One of the highlights of our trip to Vietnam was the abundance of high quality, rich, chocolatey coffee on every corner- all for less than a dollar. The Vietnamese know their coffee and take it very seriously. Yet, don’t go searching for fancy shops with overly happy baristas serving multiple lettered coffee drinks. Some of the best coffee we had were on street corners and curbside food stands. Just some shabby plastic stools, laminated tables and the buzzing sound of motorbikes.
One of the best discoveries was cà phê sua chua or known to us foreigners as yogurt coffee. At first, a bit apprehensive to try coffee with yogurt. What could be so good about that? But after first taste, we were left wanting more, ordered seconds and for the remainder of our trip searched for ca phe sua chua on every occasion (sadly it was not so popular in the South). The bitterness of the coffee blends perfectly with the slightly sweetened yogurt.
Cà phê sua chua consists of a Vietnamese vinamilk yogurt (delicately sweet and delicious), a splash of condensed milk and strong Vietnamese coffee. Ice is optional.
Another treasure was the Cà phê sua da, rich and smooth drip coffee served with condensed milk. I probably had 10 of these a day, shaking and jittery on a coffee high after each drink. In fact, most of my time in Hanoi was spent on a coffee high.
In order to get the ultimate coffee experience it was essential to learn how to order these drinks at places where English was hard to come by. Usually pointing to the drink did the trick but otherwise the coffee vocabulary musts include: cà phê (coffee); đen or sữa (black or sweetened; nóng or đá (hot or iced).