bun cha

Vietnamese Cuisine is in the Lead

Despite my quick departure from Vietnam, I still think it has the best cuisine of my trip so far.

First of all, I have a declaration to make: Vietnamese coffee is the best coffee in the world. There, I said it. I love Vietnamese coffee. I don’t just mean the proper “Vietnamese coffee,” the type on ice with tons of condensed milk, although I do love that too. I mean all coffee in Vietnam. It is STRONG. It has flavor. It is good alone, with condensed milk, in Espresso form, in drip coffee form, with whipped egg yolk… You name it it’s good. There’s a reason there’s a whole street in Hanoi dedicated to Ca Fe’s. Go to Vietnam, have coffee, bring some back for me. Thanks.

Then there’s the food. It’s all so fresh, clean, rarely is there oil or excess sauce. I had the best spring rolls of my life in Hoi An and then learned how to make them myself on my Halong Bay boat. That Halong Bay tour had some incredible food! From DIY spring rolls to sauteed vegetable dishes to hot pot lunch to barbecued oysters everything was fantastic. The street food is unbeatable. Before I went I was most looking forward to bun mi but it’s the pho that is the clear meal of Vietnam – it’s on every street corner for around US$1.50 and it’s all good – and the bun cha was my surprise favorite. These were the make-it-as-flavorful-as-you-like kind of meals, with chili sauce, fish sauce, garlic water, herbs, and chili’s all available to please your taste buds. I wish I could eat in Vietnam every day.


I See Dead People in Hanoi

Hanoi is insanity personified, if you replace person with city (is there such a term?). If you thought motorbikes in HCMC were a problem, try Hanoi. It’s utter chaos. Only some major streets have traffic lights so the area you mostly walk around – the Old Town – is just a free-for-all. I resumed my old NYC jaywalking awareness. Whenever it looked remotely ok, full speed ahead, confident that I would make it to the other side. Somehow this worked. It was when cars got involved that it all went wrong. Motorcycles move quickly, much like people, and as long as everyone kept the same speed we were able to time it right and not interfere with each other without missing a beat. As soon as a car appeared, looking like a huge beast compared to the rest of us, the dance was thrown off. Speeds had to change, caution had to be practiced. It made me wonder if we’d all be better off with just motorbikes and pedestrians, something that is impossible in our world.

Hanoi, former capitol of North Vietnam, is now the capitol of all of Vietnam. I started my visit with one of the most important sites: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It took a while to even find the entrance but I eventually fell into line with everyone else approaching the impressive structure. Then I got inside and holy shit there he is! I’m staring at a dead man! I can see his facial hair! For some reason I didn’t process the fact that YOU CAN SEE HO CHI MINH. He’s not in a coffin, he’s right there inside transparent glass. I started my day by circumnavigating a dead man. Yup, that happened.

I got over the shock by hovering next to some tour guides outside of the building listening to the history of Ho Chi Minh, the Uncle of Vietnam, main proponent for unification who never got to see his efforts come to fruition (he died in 1969, Vietnam was unified in 1971).

The other highlight of my tourist wanderings in Hanoi was wandering through the Temple of Literature. The temple is dedicated to Confucious and his teachings. It’s a procession through and around 5 courtyards and it’s beautiful. I spent a while making my way through the complex, pausing to take in a temple here or a bonsai tree there. 20,000 VND well spent.

By the time I made it back to the main part of the Old Town I was starving. A nice lady who was running a pho stand on a street corner caught my eye at the right time: “one?” Sure, this place looked as good as any. It was the best pho of my life. I love how they give you a bowl with the noodles, meat and broth, and the rest is up to you. You can make it as simple or as spicy as you want. Of course the way I make it my noise was running uncontrollably and I loved it.

My two nights in Hanoi were different but both enjoyable. Night one I met a friendly dormmate from Mexico who had been in Hanoi for a bit but whose friends had already moved on, so he took me to a cool bar that he’d been to once before, Bar Betta. This would be a place I’d frequent (especially the free Wednesday night beer hour) if I spent more time in Hanoi. It has a very chill retro vibe, huge beers, eclectic seating options, and an expansive rooftop. Of course the guy at the table next to us was from San Francisco.

Night two was my last night in Vietnam and I was alone, which is what I had wanted. I went to a bun cha place that some people on my Halong Bay boat had recommended and it was one of the tastiest meals of my trip. Bun cha is a do-it-yourself experience: you get some fried (I think?) pork and some white vegetable (I think?) in broth, with a side of more of the white stuff in broth, a plate of herbs and lettuce, and a bowl of chilis. Again, as spicy or as bland as you want. Wash it down with a Hanoi beer and it’s the most filling and delicious $4 dinner you’ve ever had. Also by recommendation I had an egg coffee for a nightcap. It sounds like Manhattan’s famous egg cream, which I have to admit I’ve never actually had, but if they’re at all similar I have to get one when I visit Manhattan next. Egg coffee is basically coffee with whipped egg white but it tastes like liquid tiramisu. It is rich, creamy, decidant, dessert-worthy, and delicious. And not the thing to have when you have to wake up at 4 am for a flight. Oops.

Quick shoutout to my hostel, Hanoi Hostel. It’s tiny, just 2 8-bed dorms and one more room that we think may have been private, but for just $5 a night you get breakfast – egg, toast, fresh fruit, tea and coffee – and an hour of free beer every day. Plus huge lockers under the bed, warm showers (bathroom is better in the girls room), and a lovely rooftop on which you can enjoy the freebies.