It started at a Chinese New Year gathering, on one of those humid but chilly February nights in Hong Kong. Over a meal of 年糕 and 蘿蔔糕, a group of old friends gathered in a Mid-Levels apartment and (I can’t ever catch or remember the thread of conversations at these things) eventually we got to talking about Vietnamese food, and wanting to eat it, and wanting to go to Vietnam, and wanting to go to Vietnam and eat Vietnamese food. By the end of the night, we had started a Whatsapp group to keep the conversation going, and by the beginning of March we had booked our flights and accommodations for an end of June/beginning of July trip to Hanoi. I was last in Hanoi in 2011 with Cora, Justin, and Lianne, and I remembered it having really incredible food, especially this legendary bowl of pho ga that will forever be my paragon for transcendent food experiences.
Traveling with us were Grace (Vancouver 2015, Taipei 2014, Kuching 2014), Byeong (Seoul 2012), Enoch (Ho Chi Minh 2013), Will (Niseko 2015, Kenting 2014, Kuching 2014, Ho Chi Minh 2013, Hualien 2013), Yale (Niseko 2015, Kenting 2014), Ricky (Ho Chi Min 2013), and Erika, Ricky’s fiancée.
In the late afternoon of June 30, we gathered at Hong Kong International Airport, where we donned our custom tees and settled in for the short flight across southern China and the Gulf of Tonkin. We split up at Noi Ba International Airport, taking two ubers into town – we’d end up uber-ing all weekend, and the total per person cost came out to a ridiculous HKD 28. We stayed at the Hanoi Mercure la Gare, conveniently located just 10 minutes walk from the Old Quarter, and we had no complaints about our accommodations. First things first, we headed around the corner to Quan An Ngon, an open-air sit-down restaurant, to grab a quick bite, before heading out into the streets to hunt for our first bowl of pho. There’s something so publicly intimate about sitting down in front of a makeshift kitchen on a sidewalk, tables full of raw ingredients, big metal vats of broth bubbling away, the female proprietor twisting and spinning in her seat to concoct the perfect bowl.
The next morning, we emerged from our hotel into a dizzying morning cityscape of scooters, compact cars, and crowded sidewalks. One of the benefits of traveling with other people is being blissfully unaware of the specifics – I need only to know that we are going to food. Enoch, the man responsible for our dining itinerary, led the way, as we navigated through the mass of city commuters. After about 20 minutes of walking, we came to a halt, only to find that the restaurant we had in mind had closed down for good. Not to fret, though, as, like any good planner, Enoch had a long list of alternatives, and after gathering ourselves, we continued our morning hunt.
The city has the feel of a work in progress, though the site has been inhabited for millennia. It went through numerous changes in ownership and control, as well as name, as competing Chinese and Vietnamese dynasties fought over the Red River Delta. At one point, it was named Dong Kinh, or Tonkin, meaning Eastern Capital, which uses the same Chinese characters as the Japanese capital of Tokyo. Starting in 1010 AD, Hanoi, then known as Thang Long, grew into one of the leading centres of Vietnamese culture and politics. When the French incorporated the city into its Indochinese colonies in the late 19th Century, they added their own architectural and cultural aesthetic into the city’s street scenes. The eclectic history of Hanoi was evident as we walked through town that morning, with different architectural styles inspired by, and some even dating to, specific points in the city’s past. All this is to say that I had a lot of time to look at things around me, following the group blindly down one street and up another. After a not-so-long walk, we finally arrived at a dimly lit restaurant with two parallel rows of long wooden tables. We took our seats and ordered a few plates of banh cuon, a sort of Vietnamese rice noodle roll, and the quality of the rice noodle was unbelievable, rivaling the best I’ve had in Hong Kong.
There’s no rest for the weary, and certainly no rest for the stomach in Vietnam, and we soldiered on to continue our eating marathon. Next stop: more breakfast at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim. The multi-story restaurant with the distinctive red signage is a popular place to eat the deceptively simple bun cha – dry rice noodles, grilled pork, deep-fried spring rolls, a mountain of herbs and vegetables, and dipping sauce. I don’t think they serve anything else, actually.
After having our fill of bun cha, we took a quick coffee break in a re-purposed colonial-style dwelling, before heading over to the Old Quarter. I was intent on finding that legendary bowl of pho ga from my last trip to Hanoi over five years ago, but all I could remember was that it was behind the City View Cafe. I walked up and down the street, the image of the storefront fading in and out of my memory, but sometimes a memory should be left alone, and this was one of those times. We settled for pho ga at another shop, which was decent, but memories – the good ones at least – are a hard act to follow.
Our last stop that afternoon was Giang Café, an upstairs coffee shop in the Old Quarter specializing in Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. Made with egg yolk, coffee powder, and condensed milk, the sweet concoction isn’t quite coffee, and impressions of the drink can be polarizing. It tastes very much like tiramisu, and if you’re expecting coffee, that can be a jarring experience. I didn’t mind so much, though I can’t imagine having too many of these, but others weren’t too keen on it. The dessert-drink capped off our morning/afternoon jaunt through the city, and most of us headed back to the hotel to get out of the sun. Byeong, Grace, Ashley, and I made a quick detour to a Yogen Früz franchise around the corner, for it was Canada Day that day, and what better way to celebrate in Hanoi than with a cup of Canadian frozen yogurt!
In the early evening, we headed out to Hang Buom Street in the Old Quarter. There was a time not too long ago when the Old Quarter was Hanoi, and the original 36 streets of the city crisscross the district, leaving hints of the past in their names. Each of the streets was known for a particular commodity or being associated with a specific guild – in Hang Buom’s case, that product was sails. You’d be hard-pressed to find any sails along the popular street these days, however, and the only canvases on display are the awnings covering the western restaurants and bars catering to the nearby hotels and backpackers hostels. What brought us to Hang Buom that night, and actually the following evening as well, was a small spa that somebody had found online. It was nice, but I can’t remember what it was called – there were a few on the street that looked very similar, though, and I’m sure the quality of service is around the same.
Dinner that night was at Ngon Villa, a restaurant set in a beautiful 19th century colonial building, built for a French army captain when Hanoi was the capital of the French protectorate of Tonkin. The place specializes in a wide variety of regional dishes from all parts of Vietnam, with seasonal ingredients and authentic recipes. The menu at Ngon Villa is à la carte, divided into three tiers of all-you-can-eat: level 1 -250,000 VND (10.99 USD/85.32 HKD), level 2 – 360,000 VND (15.82 USD/122.86 HKD), and level 3 – 580,000 VND (25.49 USD/197.95 HKD). All dishes are marked with one, two, or three stars, and each level allows you to order items from the corresponding number of stars, or fewer (so level 2 gets you all items with 1 or 2 stars, level 3 gets you all items with 1, 2, or 3 stars – level 1 only gets you items with 1 star). The price points are obviously higher than what can be found on the street, but the quality of the food was quite good, and the ambience inside the restored building was well worth it.
So ended the first day of our Hanoi getaway, and I think we made out pretty well. We started out strong, with four meals and two coffees by early afternoon (including an unmentioned hotel breakfast – not bad!), slowed down the pace a bit in the late afternoon with a couple hours in the spa, and then wrapped it up with a big dinner in a beautiful setting. We still had another day-and-a-half left in the city, and there was a good chance they’d look a lot like this one.