Our food adventures with locals in Hanoi

Our first encounter with a Vietnamese in Hanoi didn’t make me feel positive about the country.We got a taxi from the airport to our hostel, Hanoi Hostel, and were driven to another hotel. The door opened and a man appeared with a printed off piece of paper, yelling at me ‘Welcome to Hanoi Hostel, please come in!’. I knew something was up from the moment this man started shouting, holding a piece of paper with “HANOI HOSTEL” on it. That and the fact that the name of the hotel wasn’t Hanoi Hostel. El was ready to accept this and get out of the car. However I wasn’t buying it. “This isn’t it”, I said. He replied with “It is, it is, it is upstairs. We have two locations, my boss send me to get you!” I asked what street we were on. “Hang Ma Hang Ma!”. This is despite the shop signs all saying another street. I demanded they take us to Hanoi Hostel. “This is it!” I got out, walked to the travel agent next door, and when I asked “This isn’t Hang Ma street is it?” The reply was merely “No”. When I walked back out, the man knew it was over. I called his bluff. Back in the taxi we went, to drive around the corner to our actual hostel. We paid, got out, got our bags, and left the trunk open. The scumbag can deal with that.

Apart from that experience, Hanoi is weirdly magical. We have met such friendly locals and city has such charm about it. The little coffee/tea shop across the road from our hostel does a fantastic strawberry iced tea, and you sit on the roadside in chairs that look like old wicker chairs but are in fact plastic, and watch the traffic go by, like in Paris. The buildings still retain a French feel to them, baguette are for sale on the side of the road, alongside exotic fruits and fish in plastic containers. At night the city comes even more to life with people selling dried squid, crab, spring rolls and these donut balls out of a basket, offering them to people walking, in bars and even restaurants! The traffic is crazy, but people mainly go about their business. They don’t berate you and try to sell you things, and we haven’t experienced anyone trying to rip us off yet, save for the taxi experience on day one.

For many who know me, and know how my world revolves around good food, it comes as no surprise then that I especially love the small roadside restaurants that exist on every street corner, where a variety of dishes are served to customers having beer from a keg and sitting on small child size plastic stools. We visited such a restaurant on our first day in Hanoi, wanting some authentic Vietnamese food. Upon sitting down however, we saw the large and comprehensive menu, all in Vietnamese and none of which we understood (see photo below!). Our receipt says “Bia Hoi 97 Phung Hung”, not sure whether that is the restaurant name, the street, or both! We sat down in the small tiny children’s chairs and a tiny table, and we then realized the ENTIRE menu was in Vietnamese. And that El and I knew nothing about Vietnamese food. Uhhhh….soup? Noodles? The waitress replied with “Bia?” meaning “Beer?”. We nodded, and then reevaluated.

The very confusing Vietnamese menu

After my Lonely Planet Vietnamese iPod app didn’t help, I got up and wandered to the other table full of Vietnamese, to look at what they were eating. We soon began talking, and a very nice man asked what we wanted. We decided on fried noodles, which he ordered for us. Alongside two more beers, on him. Lo and behold, fried noodles with vegetables appeared! And they were DELICIOUS. When we finished, he came back over, and ordered us fried rice, his favorite. This very interesting fried rice came over, with more beers. The rice had a sweet yet meat tasting diced up thing in it that we thought was candied capsicum but then tasted like pork….it was delicious either way. The rice was hard and sweet, nothing like any fried rice I’d ever tasted. He then brought over some fried tofu, with mint leaves and a soy and chili dipping sauce. A Hanoi specialty. I could live off of that.

He then came over for a chat, and more beers. Turns out he works in the movie industry, in distribution (his words) and upon googling him, he is directing a new film very soon! After about 3 hours here, we decided it was time to retire, and head back to our hostel, after saying goodbye and welcome. He paid for all our drinks and the tofu, and even gave us his change as a souvenir of Vietnam, telling us how colorful it was and what beautiful pictures were on it. He also wrote down the three meals we had, so we have at least three things we can order here when we are faced with another completely foreign menu.

  • Mỳ saò – fried noodles
  • Cơm zang – fried rice
  • Dâu phu zań – fried tofu with the dipping sauce

    The fried rice with mystery candied meat in it

This friendliness continued throughout our stay. When we returned from Halong Bay, we went to the more touristy area of Hanoi for dinner. After sharing some beers with an English guy (33 cents each) , it started raining so we began to work our way back to the hostel bar by bar. In our next bar, a Vietnamese girl enjoying a cocktail asked how old I was. Apparently I look 19, not 23. After a bit of chatting, we exchanged numbers and she agreed to take us for lunch so we could try “nem”, the most amazing thing that we HAD to try.

And believe it or not, she rang me and we met up! We went to “House of Nam” and El and I nervously awaited to see what her and Tom had ordered for us. Turns out, nem is like fried spring rolls, but better. You get a dipping sauce, cold noodles that are the same material as po but different, coriander and bean sprouts, and you mix it all. And it was amazing. Luna told us what to do, put it in our plates and awaited our reactions. Delicious!! We also got fresh spring rolls, and nem filled with this sweet rice. And we added three more things to our list of Vietnamese foods:

  • Nem
  • Nem xôi
  • Phơ cuõń

    What was left of the rice filled ‘nam’ by the time I decided to take photos!

We then went and had lemon tea and sunflower seeds on the side of the road, cracking the seed pods with our teeth, sucking the seed out and putting the discarded portion on the side-walk. Something we never would have experience otherwise. It was absolutely fantastic and made me love the city even more. The fact that we were in Hanoi for a mere two days, and met three amazing people who were so warm and welcoming, who wanted to communicate and share Vietnam with us, and want us to return to visit them, it just shows how amazing the city is.

It is a big city, but it has so much heart to it. The people working at the hostel were friendly and chatty and went out of their way to make us feel at home. The reactions of shop keepers and waitresses when you said “thank you” in Vietnamese was happiness, gratitude and surprise at the fact that we wanted to learn their language and make the effort. And I really want to. There is so much to see here and so much more to learn. These are going to be a busy 2 weeks…

Donuts that Tom bought for us to try – the sweet glazed ones have some filling that I couldn’t quite figure out!

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One thought on “Our food adventures with locals in Hanoi

  1. Pingback: The art of travel in Vietnam – in and out of Hue in 30 hours | Where to next?

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