I sat there at this eatery, made legendary by Obama. His visit to Vietnam meant more to this restaurateur than lifting a 50 yr old embargo. I was deaf to the constant murmuring of customers around me. All I could think of was that I was having a bad day- the cab driver overcharged me and none of the touristy places that I had been to was open.
I looked around for some sort of inspiration and that’s when I saw him on the marbled wall- my god. He was at the same eatery not too long ago- with the same array of dishes in front of him. Well, that was enough reason to put on a smile and pop a can of delicious Hanoi beer. I realized that he was the reason I had come to the Land of the “Ascending Dragon”.
To experience what he did and to know why this beautiful country grabbed him and never let him go- a country that he would love forever. This is about the country that brought a super power to it’s knees yet one that is heavily influenced by its colonists. A country considered to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies and staggering natural beauty.
I traveled to Vietnam in the month of March- which is among the best months to travel considering the climate varies considerably for each region. The conditions in the Northern region is perfect for trekking and adventure activities. South and Central Vietnam experience sunny days with a slight possibility of rain.
For simplicity, I’ll write about the Hanoi leg of my trip in this blogpost and cover Ha Long Bay and Hội An in separates ones. Hanoi is the capital city and is considered to be the financial district of Vietnam. It is located on the banks of the Red River and is one of the oldest capitals in the world.
Hanoi is a fast-growing metropolitan with high-rise buildings but most part of the city is still characterized by well-preserved colonial buildings, ancient pagodas, and museums. I booked AirAsia tickets to Hanoi via Bangkok- tickets are cheap and the layover is short compared to other stopovers. Noi Bai International airport is about 30 km (45 mins drive) from the city.
Where to stay in Hanoi?
In terms of recommendations on where to stay, I’d easily ask you to look for an accommodation in Old Quarter. Old Quarter is without a doubt the commercial heart of Hanoi and staying in this locality will help you get around the main tourist attractions easily. Old Quarter surrounds the beautiful Hoàn Kiếm lake and once used to be the residential and manufacturing center of Hanoi.
What to see in Hanoi?
If you have to chalk out a list of places to visit (on Google), there are quite a few but not all of them I’d recommend. In fact, almost all of the places that I’d recommend is in and around Old Quarter. To start with, you can check out the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum- both are diagonally across the road to each other.
Thang Long is an ancient site that served as political center and the capital of the country for centuries. Within the walls of this fortress, you will find relics that is of historical and cultural significance. Personally, having an interest in learning about conflicts that have occurred in world history, I find Thang Long to be a flawless war museum. You will find war rooms where important strategies were discussed which changed the course of decisive battles on the Southern and Indochina fronts.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the final resting place of Vietnam’s most iconic revolutionary leader- Ho Chi Minh. Although against his wish (as I’ve read elsewhere), his body is preserved in glass. Would you believe it if I tell you that every year it is sent to Russia for preservation; which is why the mausoleum is closed in October.
Other tourist attractions include- the Temple Of Literature, Temple of the Jade Mountain, St. Joseph’s Cathedral and Dong Xuan Market. To me, the above tourist attractions were just places that I wanted to cross off of my touristy checklist.
If you ask me…
When I was thinking about which country to visit for a holiday, my attention was drawn to Vietnam by articles written by popular food and travel documentarians. They spoke volumes about the street food, about the structures that epitomized architectural brilliance and about the locales that you would not find anywhere else. In terms of locales to visit, do not, for any sane reason on this planet, forget to visit the train street in Hanoi. It is without a doubt the most photographed place in Hanoi. There are several spots to catch a glimpse of the train as it passes barely inches from the homes of this residential neighborhood.
The street food scene is like many South-East Asian countries with a few exotic ingredients (as I would say) like snails, duck embryo, crickets and dishes like blood pudding and snail vermicelli soup (which I had)- to name a few. The snail vermicelli soup is basically the Pho (a popular Vietnamese staple) but rather than having beef as the protein, you have snails.
Another favorite is Bun Cha – a noodle dish with grilled pork served with a side of seafood roll and pork meatballs. You should have this from Bún Chả Hương Liên- an eatery that is now on the culinary map of Vietnam. The restaurant was made famous by Obama’s visit with travel documentarian (my god) late Anthony Bourdain. Also, try the banh mi (baguette) which is treated as a staple- bread which is split lengthwise and filled with various savory ingredients like a sandwich and served as a meal.
Vietnam is also known for it’s world-famous coffee and I had a tough time Googling the best coffee shop in town but after a lot of digging, I came across Trung Nguyen coffee. At a Trung Nguyen coffee shop is where I had the best cup of coffee in my life. Another coffee shop you should visit is The Note Coffee- known for it’s egg coffee. The Note Coffee is also known for it’s interior decor; well, the walls are stickered with post-its! Later the same day, I decided to go to a local watering hole known for cheap beer (50 cents a pint) and delicious barbecue.
Bia Hai Xom is located about 20 mins away from Old Quarter and it is definitely worth the visit. As the saying goes, when in another country you do what the locals do. So, I decided to drink and eat like they did. Lastly, you wouldn’t want to leave Vietnam without having the original Pho – no snails, no exotic ingredients just the good ol’ Pho. There are a lot of street hawkers who serve amazing Pho but Diep Vu recommended Nhà Hàng Ngon- located in Hoàn Kiếm district. The beef stir fry, the Vietnamese spring rolls and the Beef Pho (don’t even think about chicken) are dishes that I’d recommend having at this restaurant.
Apart from the places (or local eats) that I have mentioned above, you can visit the night markets which happens once a week. You can treat yourself to some delicious street food but first- be sure you can stomach it. I was in Hanoi for about 72 hrs and found that’s ample amount of time to discover the best of Hanoi. The remaining days of my Vietnam itinerary was spent in Halong Bay, Da Nang and Hoi An for which I will be writing separate travelogues.