Today is Aug. 17, my 358th day in Myanmar.
I left Myanmar for a change of sight, or you may say for a change of food.
As much as I did not intend for a two-day Hanoi trip to turn into a foodie pilgrimage, my travel mate claimed she saw it coming.
Did I pin a few dozen restaurants on Google map with tips from the Interweb and other travelers –– Sure. Did we end up walking a good 20 minutes in hope of finding an old-school ice-cream stand –– Yep (considering how small Hanoi’s Old Quarter is, 20 minutes is quite far). But at the end of the day, we stumbled upon a matcha cafe she salivated over, and we ate our hearts out with no gross feelings. So you may see for yourself our food journey, and be the judge of our success.
Friday night | Vinamilk & lime juice (20k don/less than $1)
We landed at the chaotic airport around 10 p.m. and didn’t settle into the lakeside Airbnb until midnight. The ambitious plan to have an authentic Vietnamese dinner turned into a “let’s find a convenience shop, buy some drinking water and hit that bed in 20.”
If you live by the Hoan Kiem Lake – center of the Old Quarter – this is not at all difficult, even post-midnight. Near the Ham Ca Map crossroad – where the boat-shaped building and the fountain out front frequently appear in travelers’ pictures as city landmarks – shops open long past many Vietnamese’ bedtimes, which are late!
Grab some Vinamilk yogurts when you hit these stores. I was looking for drinkable yogurt, similar to what I mostly find in Myanmar and China. Vinamilk was not that, but something much better. These yogurts are pudding-like and unexpectedly creamy and refreshing.
Equally refreshing was a lime juice I risked buying at the same street corner. When the juice lady scooped up a handful of ice cubes from a bucket (with bare hands!) and poured them into a plastic cup, my heart sank. Gladly no diarrhea happened after sipping the 20k don (< $1) lime juice that night, and I lived to guarantee the flavor. As we passed the same street corner at an earlier hour the next day, many more scattered around the same juice shop sipping these refreshing liquids. If you want to join the pack and enjoy a chill moment by the lake, this is not the worst, and definitely a cheap option.
Saturday morning | Mocá Café (120k/$5) & Banh Cuon Ba Hanh
The discovery of Mocá Café was by pure happenstance. I didn’t pin or hear of this place, but I needed somewhere to quickly dodge in for a Skype call and spotted it as the nearest cafe on Google Map. It was, as it turned out, a secret gem. Following map direction, I first turned onto the street directly facing the St. Josephs Cathedral (a serene view in the early Saturday morning), then into a French convent with brick walls and white marble counter. I ended up ordering two cups of Vietnamese coffee and a big breakfast, feeling absolutely comfortable and undisturbed through my hour-long call.
The Western breakfast here is healthy: lots of veggies and not much oil – exactly to my liking. The Vietnamese coffee, despite very many travelers claiming it being too bitter and thick, was just how I wanted it.
Out through the open windows, motorcycles swoosh down the narrow streets like a stream. But between the shades thrown by the fan-looking leaves of Chinese parasol trees and the light morning breeze, nothing needs to be rushed. Nothing could go wrong at Mocá Café.
Twenty minutes after stuffing down my egg, toast and coffee, I ate again. Walking distance from Mocá, Banh Cuon Ba Hanh is up there on the TripAdvisor list, a.k.a. the kind of Southeast Asian restaurant usually crowded by English speakers. Three low tables surrounding an open kitchen make up the entirety of the small storefront. Banh cuon are rice rolls, soft and half-transparent (pictured in the lower left corner below), with minced pork and minced wood ear mushroom stir-fry wrapped inside. Order conservatively, even if eight banh cuon rolls don’t seem like much, they can be filling. If you’d like, order the omelette and soy milk here. The latter is homemade. The omelette, unlike any other I’ve seen before, is wrapped in the same sheet of cooked rice batter as those used for banh cuon. It probably won’t be the best eggs you’ve had, but nonetheless delicious.
Saturday noon | pineapple juice (25k/just more than $1) & egg coffee at Cafe Pho Co (45k don/$2)
My lime juice purchase the night before made stepping into a juice shop, ubiquitous on the streets of Hanoi, much less risky. The one we went, right across from the Temple of Literature, listed all juice combinations a fixed price of 25k don – just over a dollar. It’s a steal!
Comparisons between Hanoi and Yangon, two Southeast Asian capital cities not far from one another, continued throughout this trip, and it is in this juice shop where the contrast reached its peak. Universal Wi-Fi still seems like a distant future for Yangon. And in places where you can get freshly squeezed juice for a dollar, there usually wouldn’t be an air con.
“It’s easy to live in Hanoi,” my travel partner exclaimed.
Her statement raised an interesting paradox. Because without all the amenities, Yangon managed to tug at our heartstrings tighter than anywhere else. As a city, it so needs time and effort from everybody to make it better, and time and effort are what many of us decided to give. The same cannot be said about the full-functioning, easy-to-live Hanoi.
But get that juice while you are here. It’s daaaamn good.
Walking into Cafe Pho Co feels like walking into a rich family’s household in 1930’s Nanking. It was then the capital of KMT China, with architectures from the Qing Dynasty mixed with the decorative style from the West. I don’t remember much of the menu at Cafe Pho Co, but I do remember there being a fat cat, a rooster stuck on a tree brunch, lots of bird cages and a discussion of Chinese grandpas’ common pastime of “walking the birds.”
People go to Cafe Pho Co for one thing and one thing only: caphe trung da – coffee topped with a layer of thick, beaten egg yolk. Egg and coffee are not designed to mix, but try your best to drink both at once, otherwise you might feel a bit nauseous from the dense creaminess.
As for the rest, sit back, enjoy the lake view, stroke the gingery sleepy fat cat and imagine yourself a household head of a big, lucrative Chinese family.
Saturday dinner | Banh Mi 25 (45k/$2)
Ordering at Banh Mi 25 is a confusing ordeal – let me attempt to break it down. Bahn Mi 25 does have a small storefront. Since it’s usually fully packed, find a seat and settle down if you can. The assembling of banh mi does not actually happen in the kitchen behind, but out on the street. You don’t and can’t order while sitting in their shop, but have to go to their street cart outside to place your orders.
You can, however, order a glass of juice in the shop. But you will be paying for that, along with your banh mi, at the street cart outside, where you placed your order.
We all clear now?
Banh Mi demonstrates the strength of Northern Vietnamese cuisine – its fusion and versatility. On one hand, soups and noodles heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine took a local twist here, with rice substituting wheat as the predominant noodle ingredient, and the sweet, slightly sour flavoring using many local herbs. On the other hand, banh mi is something both so local and so Western. Had it just been French ingredients (baguettes, mayo and so on), bahn mi would not be what it is today. The addition of fresher ingredients – shredded cucumbers, pickled carrots and cilantro – makes a sandwich much more palatable to my Asian tastebuds.
And the bread! Oh the bread! Of all the Asian countries who do breads (majority of them don’t), Vietnam seems to me the only one who does it like they own it. Bread is an organic, natural part of day-to-day in Hanoi, and always consumed, toasted. It’s gratitude and satisfaction filling the plane when flight attendants rolled out the hot bread cart on my flight to Hanoi. It’s gratitude and satisfaction all over again eating a warm banh mi from the street.
Sunday morning | Yamamoto Matcha Cafe (40k/less than $2)
One does not walk by a menu that displays all matcha products without going in. At least we didn’t. We got stuck on the matcha magnet and had to buy these soft-served cones for breakfast.
These ice creams melted with a slightest sight of sun – a sign of very little preservatives. They are of great taste, and might be smoother than just about any ice cream I’ve put into my mouth, including the double chocolate gelato we had the night before.
Spoiler alert – in the rest 24 hours of our time in Hanoi, we managed to come to the same matcha shop two more times. Safe to say we were pretty drugged up on matcha when we left Hanoi, a.k.a. the food heaven.
Sunday lunch | bún chả street stall (75k don/$3.5)
Two types of travelers dominated the Hanoi tourism scene – at least during our time there in July – the French, and the Koreans. The former is more expected. The country that used to be a French colony has maintained much of its colonial influence – an easy beginning step for any French travelers. Koreans, though much less anticipated, travel to just about everywhere.
When you have tourists as distinct as these two groups, you can spot the differences in their preferences for a good meal in a city as scrumptious as Hanoi. Last night, many French tourists filled the small storefront of Banh Mi 25. And this morning, Korean tourists were the ones crowded the bún chả street stall we came to.
Bún chả is grilled fatty pork served with rice noodles and herbs. Mixed together with a sweetened-lime flavored dipping sauce, you get yourself a meaty yet refreshing brunch in a bowl. The grilled pork in bún chả tastes resoundingly similar to bulgogi, the Korean-style bbq pork, which explains the tourists. But familiarity to Korean food is not a prerequisite to enjoy bún chả. In my case at least, the intuition to mix a perfect bowl of bún chả did not come from experience or instructions, but lust – a simple, pure lust for food.
I dig the customizable/DIY feature of bún chả. Personally I prefer soupy noodles than dry ones, so I soaked my noodles with dipping sauce. For those having trouble consuming Vietnamese herbs (but they are great for lying to yourself your meal is healthier than it actually is!), you could add as little – or in my case, as much – as you’d like.
Sunday dinner | My Pho (40k/less than $2) & Chả Cá Thăng Long (130k don/$6)
Our first dinner was with some scorching hot soup and icy cold beer. It’s needless to say more.
But if you only have a few days in Hanoi, there’s no restaurant I would recommend more than Chả Cá Thăng Long, where we went after stuffing some pho. You should know what you are getting if you come here, because there’s only one thing on the menu: those sizzling fish bites (chả cá) grilled with scallions and dills in front of your eyes. Thanks to the popularity of this dish, Chả Cá Thăng Long expanded from a decently sized room to two floors spreading through two connected buildings – every seat occupied by both locals and tourists when we arrived at dinner time.
A quick Google search will give you a good idea of what the dish looks like – it’s unexpectedly photogenic so make sure you snap those pics like other tourists. But don’t sweat over how complicated it might appear, waiters here are eager to do the grilling and mixing for you, so leave the hard part to the experts and enjoy your fish as it’s ready.
The components for mixing resemble those for bún chả, which means you can go wild as you wish. The only addition I saw was peanuts, which are best roasted, so feel free to toss a handful in the pan.
Wish you could see me salivating while typing these out. Unlike banh mi or pho, which are Vietnamese staples available all around the world, I have yet to find an equivalent of this dish outside of Vietnam. Let me know if you do, and I may just show up there tomorrow.
Monday Morning | Fly Back
With a little less than $40, we ate and drank in Hanoi for 48 hours. Of most foreign countries I had the opportunity to visit, Vietnam ranks on top as one of the most tourist-friendly (easy to roam around), with the right amount of entertainment options (not overwhelming) and easy on the wallet destinations. I might return soon.
Until then, keep being yummy, Hanoi.