Hanoi hits you like a smack in the face. After five days of sleepy Myanmar, we had a day to spend in Vietnam’s whirlwind capital, a city bursting with narrow, bustling streets filled with streams of insane traffic, street vendors and lost looking tourists. I left with a distinct feeling of having only scratched the surface. I’m actually about to head back up north to experience more of this tasty city, stopping off at some of the missed backpacker destinations on the way. I can’t wait to get back up there; its frenetic energy and pace of life is addictive.
With very little time to spare we decided to take a free tour of Hanoi through a fantastic organisation called ‘Hanoi Kids’ (hanoikids.org) which is set up and organised by the city’s students who will show you around the main and less visited sites in exchange for an opportunity to practise their English. In the morning we went to the Ho Chi Minh complex for our first dose of Vietnamese history and then we met our lovely guides Andrew and Duong back at our hotel. They took us to the Temple of Literature (a historic site dedicated to Confucius and also housing Vietnam’s first university). It was interesting to learn about Confucianism (a Chinese philosophy dating back to the 5th century) from the very knowledgeable words of local students. What I really wanted to do though was to get to grips with the Old Quarter and its limitless variety of street food, with the people who know it the best.
When you walk down the narrow frantic streets of Hanoi, you are surrounded by street food vendors, each with their own speciality ready to tempt your taste buds. The problem is though, unless you speak Vietnamese or a have an uncanny ability to figure out food by sight, you’ll have no idea what these dishes actually consist of. We wanted to try something very different and we weren’t afraid to let our guides know that we would eat anything! Our first “snack” was a local favourite called cháo (pronounced ‘chow’, with an upwards intonation). This was basically a thick, smooth rice soup topped with pork flavoured crunchy corn puffs. It was certainly different, something you definitely need to try a few times to really enjoy it! The combination of rice flavour with a creamy soup texture was more than unusual but it was a nice contrast with the salty crispy texture of the pork topping.
Hanoi is a very exciting place to be for any foodie. The city serves up an endless variety of flavour and texture combinations of dishes you never even thought imaginable. We happily took recommendations from Andrew and Doung for where we could explore further culinary treats. Later we dined on bún cá (bun cha) at a well renowned street cafe location, probably my favourite dish from the city so far – a moreish combination of grilled pork meatballs served with a light broth, rice noodles, pickled bamboo and loads of fresh Vietnamese veg (sprouts, morning glory, banana flower and lettuce). What I love about this kind of food is that you can add as many leaves and condiments (fresh lime and chillies, chilli, soy and fish sauce) as you like to the main bowl of meat and noodles, making it your own every time.
The other recommendation we were particularly keen to try to was the famous pho bo (fuh bo) – a beef noodle soup that the locals seem to eat at any time of day: breakfast, lunch or dinner. I’ve even found places where you can eat this at 4am on your way home from a skinful. You can get it pretty much anywhere in Vietnam and it is becoming increasingly popular in metropolitan cities around the world. We just about had room to share a bowl at one of Hanoi’s best outlets. To be honest I’m not overly fussed about this particular dish. It suits palates that appreciate the subtlety of the flavours in the broth but personally I like food that packs a stronger punch.
After we parted ways with our friendly guides we went for a walk around one of Hanoi’s many lakes – Hoàn Kiếm. A place in the heart of the city for jogging, romantic strolls, playing badminton and even meditation, the water is set in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a frantic main road. It was pretty clear here that despite the noise and the crowds, the city dwellers are very good at just getting on with life and finding ways to shut off and relax.
We met three very sweet girls who wanted to try out their English: a popular way for the students to brush up their language skills. They took us to a local ice cream shop where we tried kem gom – sticky rice icecream. It was surprisingly good – like eating frozen rice pudding!
Wondering back towards our hostel through the busy night market, we had a few extra tasters including che – a traditional Vietnamese dessert consisting of jelly, fruit, caramel and yogurt, all in oddly tempting bright colours, but basically a tub full of sugary rubbish.
The girls were great company and it was nice being able to help them practise their English in exchange for some more guidance of the many wonders of Hanoi. We felt like we’d had a successful day of cultural exchanges and getting a taste for what the sprawling capital has to offer. I will certainly be back to experience more of the buzzing street life in the not too distant future.