While I bused, taxied, ferried, hiked, kayaked and motor biked my way through Northern Vietnam, I’d incorporated one of travel’s most important elements. Food. From tiger prawns, and whole fried monkfish, cruising in Halong Bay, to fresh spring rolls, Nem Ran (crispy rolls), and garlic tofu on Cat Ba’s harbor front, I rarely ate for more than $2 USD.
Hanoi was where I spent the most time expanding my waistline, and the French influenced Old Quarter was the ideal place to seek out local spots. You really need a few days to savor the food, and eat your way through at least 6 of the thirty six historical streets, quaint shops and street food vendors. If you haven’t created your travel tribe at the neighborhood hostel to discover street stalls, I recommend connecting with Hanoi eBuddies on Triip.me. Super responsive and prompt, eBuddies Vietnamese students are enthusiastic to show you their city, and help you translate. They offer several tours types for groups too. Best part for backpackers? It’s free. — Beside the cost of food (don’t forget the beers) for you and your guide.
Tracy, my 19 year old guide, studies Economics in Hanoi and has met all types of tourists through her work at eBuddies. We head out from the hotel steps into the well known streets, scoping out the many food carts. My guide tells me we should try the mix of local and Western foods on Ta Hien (“pub street”) so we head through densely packed avenues lined with old buildings converted to bars, lounges, shisha hangouts, and rows of squat stools full of locals and tourists alike. Tables piled with Hanoi beer and Tiger Lager, sipping mojitos and mocktails — frothy fruit juices and sweet sugar cane drinks (Nu’oc Mia) are very big in Hanoi — many slurping Pho’ noodles of every kind, fried snails in chili sauce, and Westernized bar snacks like fried cheese sticks and french fries. Definitely the place to go for a raging hangover, $ .45 cent beers and $2 eats.
My guide continues to describe her University experience, and the locals love of American fast food. Apparently it’s a status thing to update your social media with fast food escapades. Slogging down the last bit of my beer, we continue to move across town. The streets are decorated with bright storefront signs, and imported souvenirs overflowing onto sidewalks with shop owners ready to haggle. We are headed for Coffee Giang on Nguyen Huu Huan street. A super top secret hangout for raw egg coffee and enzyme, nutrient packed, raw egg beer. Yep! Who can resist that? Down a long narrow hall it opens up into a busy cafe known for its Ca Phe Trung (egg coffee) and apparently a popular spot to bring unknowing tourists. Why had I not known about this? It was like drinking dessert, hot or cold, and totally recommended to have green beans whipped into your egg froth. The egg beer was more like a milkshake, having to get past the egg froth settled on the top before a splash of cold Bai (beer). Not best to try them both at the same time, as I did, but I wasn’t complaining.
Easily accessible street food is the perfect open kitchen for the backpacker budget, and you’ll find plenty more a few blocks over. We hit the night market on Hang Dao through Hang Duong streets, where shops peddled Korean foods — surprise — local sweets, and the popular dry, salted and fermented fruit. You can pop in for some generous samples just down from the busy Rockin’ Hanoi Hostel on Hand Ngang. I was pleased by the bursts of flavors and great textures to wrap my tongue around. Salted apricots, mango, bananas and berries of all kinds. Around a $1.50 USD a container, it’s worth picking some up as gifts. My favorite? The fermented and perfumed plums. Doesn’t take up much space in the precious cargo of a backpack either.
Finally we walk a few more blocks to Hang Be street for sip worthy Pho’ piled high with fried tofu, pork, leeks, chicken, and Gio Thu, or head cheese, along with other herbs and condiments I was more unfamiliar with. A filling meal for $1.75, and one I attempted to eat on a full belly, despite my previous snacking.
Another obsession was the local draft beer, Bai Hoi Hanoi, perfectly paired with a ridiculously cheap local bread, more like giant wheat crackers covered in sesame seeds. It adds a bit more flavor to the light beer, because you’re going to need to drink a few pitchers to get drunk.
As a new found foodie, I spent many a day, wondering Hanoi’s chaos — only getting lost once — eating my way through Banh Cam, small sweet and chewy donut balls filled with mung bean, to Bahn Bao, a steamed doughy pie usually filled with pork, mushroom and quail eggs, and of course Bahn Mi, a stuffed sandwich on a French style baguette, with pickled carrots, daikon, veggies, spices, jalapenos and gobs of meat. In my case, tuna and egg dripping with mayonnaise.
If Pho’ is your thing, you will have no problem. I ate Pho’ for breakfast, dinner and in between. Topped with heaping amounts of fresh shallots and herbs, I never missed a chance to add a dash of freshly chopped chilis to almost everything. It does not overwhelm the taste and certainly helps clear your sinuses of the Hanoi pollution. I have so many Vietnamese favorites, it’s impossible to chose just one.
Food can always bring people together, and is not to be missed in Vietnam. You can find your fill of salty, crunchy, doughy, snacky, spicy, slurpy, or sweet tidbits to eat on every street. No matter if you are in the motor bike dodging center of Hanoi, or the most rural outskirts of H’mong villages, you will perpetually find a humble food vendor cooking up sizzling meats. Just be aware when in the Highlands, some of that sizzle may be the region’s specialty… horse.
As we head back to my hotel, through the densely packed streets, belly full, I smile at the groups of people scattered across the sidewalks. Young and old alike, catching up over herbal tea and Pho’. I knew I would miss the organized disorder of the Hanoi streets. I promise myself, I will be back to log more hours on the trail, and the rite of passage discovery of backpacking South East Asia. In the meantime, ‘VO’! (Cheers).