It was love at first site, Hanoi. Let me set the scene. Me, a few days in to my trip, four flights deep after finally locating my nomad friends. I had just spent three days in Hoi An in Central Vietnam, which was literally underwater. We had to wade waist deep to access more remote parts of the town – cue Ollie from Family Guy, “It’s raining Sideways!”. After thoroughly soaking everything I owned I finally made the call to fly to Northern Vietnam.
It was dry. It was beautiful. It was insane. It was Hanoi.
Hanoi is order in chaos – a chorus of horns in a sea of motorbikes that defies all traffic laws or lights but somehow just seems to work. There’s never really a break in the endless motorbike stream, you kind of just have to walk into oncoming traffic and hope for the best. Crossing the street is like putting your hand through a school of fish, – just when you think you’re going to make contact bikes magically pass within inches of your body. In contrast to San Francisco where Apple earbuds are more commonly worn than shoes, pedestrians in Hanoi are paying the fuck attention. Outside the hustle of the old quarter, Hanoi has a vaguely European feel. Walking along Hoàn Kiếm Lake lined with lit up cafes and bridges, we could just as easily have been in Paris. From fancy coffee to baguette bánh mìs, 70 years of French occupation left its mark.
Which brings me to the food. Oh man the food. It’s mind blowing that you can get an amazing meal for $2 consistently, especially if you stick with the liquid diet. From hot pot to pho to bún chả, Hanoi is just killing it with the soups. Since so many dishes are broth based, I also noticed it was actually not very common to see a local with a full meal and beverage (adult or otherwise). I was initially frustrated by this this as an exhausted and dehydrated traveler, but as the jet lag subsided, I realized the beauty in the beverage being an activity in and of itself. You’d see people sipping egg coffees at cafés or posted up on little plastic stools sipping bia hoi on the street corner at all hours. Drinking is a deliberate activity in Hanoi, and I’m down with that. That being said, here’s my ode to the Hanoi liquid diet:
How to drink for 12 hours in Hanoi (I promise it’s not all booze).
9:00 am: Fresh Coconut Milk
Sure the hostel “hand grenades” (tequila + Jägermeister + Red Bull to the uninitiated) seemed like a good idea at the time, but the roadside coconut cures all and always seems to appear when you need it most.
10:00 am: Vietnamese Egg Coffee
Fun fact, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter, behind only Brazil. Luckily that means it has been fairly easy to maintain my crippling caffeine addiction in Vietnam. Cà Phê Trứng is Vietnamese egg coffee, made with Robusta coffee, whipped egg yolk, sugar, and condensed milk. Think liquid tiramisu, rich and creamy, but not overly sweet. I highly recommend making your way through the back door of a silk shop and up a spiral staircase to spend an afternoon at Café Pho Co, a low key rooftop café with a beautiful view of the city.
Technically pho is a breakfast food, but try as I might I just couldn’t break the soup barrier until noon. Pho originated in northern Vietnam, and differs significantly by region. Less sweet and fishy than Saigon Pho, Hanoi Pho really hit the spot for me. I also loved these fried, doughy breadsticks pho was served with. On their own they were a little dry, but perfect when dipped in the broth. It’s hard to go wrong but Pho Tai (rare beef) at Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su got the Hoff stamp of approval.
2:00 pm: Fruit Mango Smoothies
Juice often seems to mean smoothie in Vietnam, and it’s amazing. Fresh fruit smoothies literally made from just blending fruit are everywhere, and go great with hostel vodka in a pinch.
5:00 pm: Bia Hoi
I’m saying 5 pm because my parents are reading this, but when you’re unemployed, anytime is bia hoi time. Bia hoi is a 3-4% light, straw-colored homebrew lager found in small shops and street corners all over Hanoi, and may be the cheapest beer in the world at between 7,000 and 15,000 VND for a glass (about $0.25 - $0.50). One of my favorite activities in Hanoi was posting up on “beer street” at Bia Hoi Corner and people watching.
6:00 pm: Bún Chả
Bún chả was our go to meal in Hanoi, it's basically make your own pork noodle soup. You're served white vermicelli rice noodles, grilled pork, lots of greens, and spicy sauces to fashion a bowl to your liking. I think Danny ate here 6 times. After our 10-hour brush with death on motorbikes (maybe a little dramatic), we melted into our chairs at our favorite bún chả place and everything was ok again.
8:00 pm: Rice Wine
Rice wine is a traditional Vietnamese beverage made from the fermentation of rice starch, and clocks in at a hefty 20-25% ABV. End your evening sipping on rice wine at Ray Quán, a bar and restaurant that serves Vietnamese fusion food and rice wine just feet from passing freight trains.