Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis
While most first time visitors to Hanoi make a beeline to the atmospheric Temple of Literature or join the masses queuing up for a glimpse of Uncle Ho at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, I prefer to stick to the streets, where one can experience the real Hanoi up close, partaking of its great café culture, and then heading for some knockout dining, not to mention superlative drinking.
Hanoians certainly are not ones to laze around. If you think you will have the city to yourself at 5 a.m. you’d better guess again, as thousands of folks are already up and about, preparing wares for the day’s vending, or else taking advantage of the early morning cool and some free time to exercise around the city’s center point, Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you can find people doing Tai Chi, doing aerobics, jogging, playing badminton, and there are even large groups of ballroom dancers twirling away in the early morning light.
I prefer to kickstart my morning with a bit of firepower, heading for the nearest café, of which there are hundreds to choose from. Vietnamese coffee is pretty akin to rocket fuel, dark, strong, and taking up to 15 minutes to drip through the metal filters that come with the traditional cups. If you really want to get a boost, try a cup of café ch?n, better known as weasel coffee. This is the most expensive blend in the land, whose beans are eaten, digested, and shat out by a civet cat before being processed, and supposedly the digestive passage of the beans decreases bitterness and improves flavor. If this is a bit too much to fathom, there is also café trung, or egg coffee, where a raw egg gets whipped up with condensed milk and added to the brew; Café Pho Co (11 Hang Gai) just off of the lake has been serving up their grandfather’s blend for decades in their antique family shophouse overlooking Hoan Kiem.
However most cafes are at streetside, giving unparalleled views of the frenzied nonstop action that goes on. Vendors hoisting bamboo carrying poles with balanced loads weighed down with fresh produce compete with bicycle sellers laden down with everything from flowers to the kitchen sink, and all of course try to swerve in, out, and between from the zillions of motorbikes that rule the streets. Sitting out here, one can sample the gamut of Vietnamese food that is renowned worldwide, from banh cuon steamed rice paper crepes to bun cha noodles with grilled pork, or perhaps some banh xeo savory rice pancakes.
If the action on the streets gets a bit too chaotic and sticky, there are plenty of indoor spots to go replenish and revel in as well. Several places in the old quarter offer an atmospheric spot away from the hustle and bustle, each serving their own brand of unique Hanoi influenced fare. At The Green Tangerine, a romantic niche housed in a 1928 villa, fine French, Vietnamese, and international fusion all meet, resulting in some delectable results. Creations like scallop Carpaccio served over a tart-like layer of beetroots, mango, and pineapple look more like art than food, and the king prawns cooked with mango and rum and served with carrot cake will leave you marveling. Meanwhile, just around the corner, the aptly named Highway Four takes you on a journey through North Vietnam’s mountain provinces, serving hard to find delicacies like crickets roasted in pig fat, grilled ostrich, and banana leaf flower salad, all incredibly delicious and washed down with the finest alcohol you’ll find in Vietnam, their homemade Son Tinh rice liquors.
Speaking of alcohol, make sure to get back out on the street and find a spot to quaff some bia hoi. Bia hoi, meaning ‘fresh beer’, is a light lager brewed without preservatives and found everywhere in northern Vietnam. It is dirt cheap, and a great way to sit out on the street and meet locals. In Hanoi, the corners of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien are legendary for the conglomeration of bia hoi stalls full of hundreds of foreign tourists along with locals all hanging out sipping their cold suds and making cultural exchange.
Despite the chaos on the streets there are plenty of spots near and far to get some much needed respite. Making home at the Sofitel Metropole while in Hanoi is the classiest way to go, enjoying Hanoi’s most elegant and historic hotel. This French colonial gem, located around the corner from the Opera House, is a period piece, with its recently discovered air raid bunker now available for touring by guests.
For further escapes, it only takes around 3 hours to get to Halong Bay, the UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with dramatic limestone karst peaks rising out of the South China Sea. The best way to see Halong Bay is by cruising on a traditional junk and spending an evening or two aboard the boat, taking in the various cave complexes, floating villages, kayaking opportunities, and beaches on sleepy Cat Ba Island, all out in the bay. Paradise Cruises runs excellent trips. All this is guaranteed to get you back to Hanoi rested and recuperated, and perhaps seeing northern Vietnam’s capital with a bit more of an unhurried attitude. Believe me, the café, bia hoi, and rice wine paced lifestyle is actually quite addicting.
Stay Sofitel Metropole: 15 Ngo Quyen, Tel: +84 4 3826 6919, www.sofitel-legend.com
Eat Green Tangerine: 48 Hang Be, Tel: +84 4 3825 1286 Highway Four: 5 Hang Tre, Tel: +84 4 3926 4200
Do Trips to Halong Bay Paradise Cruises: Hanoi Office Unit 8 & 9A, 3rd Floor, International Center, 17 Ngo Quyen Tel: +84 4 3936 8338,