Before our epic SE Asia holiday, I had read a few blogs to inspire my appetite. One of the best was A Food Lover’s Journey by Ahn in Melbourne. Mouthwatering and easily relatable, Ahn is a Vietnamese expat and reading her blog is enough to make anyone crave Vietnamese food. The monthly Delicious Vietnam blogging event conspired by A Food Lover’s Journey and Ravenous Couple was never something I thought I would participate in. When I saw their reminder this month, I realised that it was just about time I wrote about Vietnamese food and our time in Hanoi.
Vietnamese food in Auckland
There is a lack of Vietnamese restaurants in Auckland, but one of my favourites is Hansan Vietnamese Restaurant. One of those places with cheap, fresh and delicious food, but severely no frills service, my review can be found here.
The other Vietnamese place worth mentioning in Auckland is Banh Mi. Who do great filled rolls and all the classic Vietnamese dishes as well.
“”Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best — ” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called”
I love thinking about foods to try and late last year, I dutifully read (and reviewed) Peta Mathias’ book Noodle Pillows about her culinary travels through Vietnam.
I looked forward to the restaurants and street vendors that specialised in one thing and one thing only. You don’t really get that kind of expertise in Auckland. Here, restaurants try and offer the world instead of perfecting one dish.
We were ready to eat noodle soup, lemongrass chicken, bahn mi, Vietnamese spring rolls and, unbeknownst to my husband, snake. So armed with this dreamy vision of Vietnamese cuisine, in mid January, we flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Day One: The Old Quarter, Hanoi
We arrived early in the morning and after we’d checked into Charming Hotel in The Old Quarter, our first point of call was food. We had been up since 4am for an early flight and enjoyed the prerequisite McDonald’s breakfast at KL airport, but we needed to see what Hanoi had to offer. Being winter, it was surprisingly cold in Hanoi and we hadn’t packed for it. A jacket would have been nice, but a warming meal would suffice.
Deep Fried Eel for breakfast
Our first meal in Vietnam was exotic to us, but probably not to the locals. We only stumbled across this as the first noodle shop we came to was packed with locals. We entered and pointed to a few items on the wall menu and grabbed two empty seats at a table. At home, it would be weird to sit at a table with strangers, but here it was expected.
There were six items on the menu, deep fried eel six ways. There was rice, soup, noodles and of course noodle soup. The eel soup was tasty and we also got an eel noodle soup. The food came quickly and there deep fried bread donuts just like in Chinese cuisine as well as baskets of fresh herbs. We shared a table with a local couple who knew what they were doing so we just copied how they ate. I loved how there were about as staff as there were diners at this tiny eatery. Everyone was busy and the turnover was quick. Total cost for our breakfast for two was 50,000VND / $3NZ / $2US.
A large aquarium sized box (at the rear of photo below) was filled with deep fried eel. I guess they go through a lot each day as every dish on the menu features deep fried eel.
Point Point Dinner
Later that day, we passed by another little shop with tiny child-sized chairs and tables. Tiny tables and chairs are everywhere in Vietnam so get used to it. When you transport your shop furniture on a scooter every day, full sized tables and chairs are not an option.
The Koala liked the look of the pre-cooked food behind the glass and he was onto a winner. The lady behind the counter didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak any Vietnamese but that was no problem. She was happy and friendly and we pointed to a number of dishes that we wanted to try while. Washed down with a couple of beer, our dinner for two cost 150,000VND / $10NZ / $7US. You would struggle to buy two beers for that price in NZ. This was considered a splurge compared to our 50,000VND breakfast and I guess it’s no wonder that this place wasn’t packed with locals. Still, it was a fun way to try many different dishes.
Strong coffee and Hanoi Donut Holes
We hadn’t tried the strong Vietnamese coffee yet. It was late now and there were hardly any people around. Night time is really different in The Old Quarter and we enjoyed the peacefulness. During the day, you can’t take two steps without someone wanting your attention to sell you trinkets or shoe shines. It can be draining if you aren’t prepared for it or like us, want to give the locals your respect and your time. The hustle and bustle goes home for the night. If you ever feel overwhelmed by the madness of day, go out at night.
While we enjoyed our strong coffee at an open late cafe, a hawker came by and sold us what we later learned were nicknamed Hanoi Donut Holes. The were deep fried, sweet treats that went perfectly with the strong black coffee.
It makes so much sense to sell donuts to coffee drinkers at a coffee shop. They compliment each other perfectly. You don’t want a super sweet treat without the strong coffee, and the coffee needs the donut. But it would be outrageous at home in New Zealand and probably written about in the newspaper if people bought and consumed products from hawkers while at an establishment. At home, sometimes people can get all uptight if a customer sips their own water bottle in a restaurant. It isn’t like that in Asia where they seem to encourage complimentary business.
Beer and snacks at Cafe City View
But wait, the day wasn’t over. We ended the evening by going up to Cafe City View by the lake. Even though it was cold, we got a seat out on the balcony. This THE SPOT for great traffic and people watching. Seriously, the traffic takes some getting used to and watching it for a few hours is a great way to figure out the system.
There are no traffic lights at this intersection and everyone just drives or walks at a steady pace. It’s like merging like a zip but there are a hundred zips going in different directions. As a pedestrian, the best thing to do is to start walking, keep a steady pace. Whatever you do, do not make eye contact with oncoming traffic.
You know when you walk towards a person and you make eye contact and then you get that awkward thing when you both try to avoid each other and end up walking into each other instead? You don’t want to do that with a vehicle. So cross the road and walk at a steady pace and all the traffic will flow around you. People here are defensive driving all the time. I believe that it makes them much better drivers. They concentrate the whole time they are on the road unlike Western society where people accelerate when the light is green and brake when it’s red and don’t really pay attention or identify dangers. I don’t drive because I walk everywhere and I’m always trying to make eye contact with drivers but sadly, they often aren’t paying attention.
We had some fries and deep fried spring rolls with our beers and then it was time for bed.
Some other sights from our day in Hanoi.
An orange eyed cat huddles up to hot kettles.
Most clothes wearing dogs you see look like they’ve been dressed by a female. You know, all cutesy and no business.
The Koala liked how this fellow looked like he’d picked out his own clothes. A far cry from the fashion of the handbag dogs of Beverly Hills.
Ladies keep warm and socialise early in the morning at the baguette shop at the end of our alley.
Fruit and flower sellers. People actually wear these hats because they are cheap and practical. They are not just for tourists (or dress-ups).
Of course, tourist versions are available at every turn if you that’s what you want.
Hoan Kiem Lake.
The amount of cargo people on scooters and bicycles never ceased to amaze me. This flower seller can barely see past her flowers.