The first stop on our long road back to America was the capital city of Hanoi. It’s hard to believe that I spent an entire year in Vietnam without venturing further north than Hue, but it’s probably because I knew I would be heading in this direction before peacing out. The Astronomer, on the other hand, spent quite a bit of time in Hanoi for business and definitely knows his way around town.
We flew from Saigon to Hanoi on Jetstar Pacific and arrived after the sun had set. We dropped off our bags in our hotel room located in the Old Quarter and headed off to find some good eats. Since The Astronomer knows the Old Quarter (and all of its secrets) like the back of his hand, he led me to Xoi Yen because I am a sticky rice fiend.
I went for the classic xoi xeo (7,000 VND)—sweet sticky rice topped with fried shallots and sheets of mung bean paste that resemble Parmesan cheese. The Astronomer ordered a portion of xoi ngo (15,000)—sticky rice with corn topped witdh cha mo (pork forcemeat), mung bean paste and fried shallots. The two orders of sticky rice were served with a bowl of pickled cucumbers on the side. The spicy and sour cucumbers contrasted nicely with the sweet sticky rice.
Still a bit hungry after our sticky rice snack, The Astronomer and I stumbled upon a woman serving up an impressive number of Northern dishes in a cramped street side set up. We ordered three pho cuon (3,000 VND each) and two nem chua ran (3,000 VND each). Unfortunately, both the pho cuon (grilled meat and herbs wrapped in rice noodle sheets) and nem chua ran (deep-fried fermented pork) turned out to be ho hum. I don’t think it was the cook’s fault that these dishes didn’t rock. When it comes down to it, pho cuon and nem chua ran aren’t innately brilliant dishes. Pho cuon lacks a proper dipping sauce (neon orange chili sauce from a squirt bottle doesn’t count), while nem chua ran needs a good punch of fresh herbs.
After dinner, we returned to our hotel room and crashed. I had a hard time sleeping my first night away from Saigon—there’s something about the people and the spirit of the city that tugs and pulls at me. I’ve moved around quite a bit in my adult life so it was really a novel sensation to actually yearn to be somewhere. Although it took a while, I eventually caught some much-needed Zs.
The next morning didn’t begin as bright or as early as we had hoped. I was a bit bummed about missing our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, but my frown was quickly turned upside down with one wiff of cha ca. Cha ca is hands down the greatest dish to come out of Hanoi. Hearty chunks of white fish marinated in tumeric are fired up tableside with a forest of green onions and fresh dill. The fish and greens are eaten with an assortment of accompaniments including vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, herbs, fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste. The dish is so good that I don’t mind reeking of fish and dill for the rest of the day.
Even though Cha Ca La Vong receives all of the accolades and press (including a visit from Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats), those in the know head to Cha Ca Thang Long (80,000 per portion) for this local delicacy. And let’s set the record straight—there’s nothing bizarre about fried fish with dill.
The rest of the day was spent buying train tickets to Sapa and walking around Lake Hoan Kiem.
Two scholars—The Astronomer and Ly Thai To.
Shady trees and winding paths—two lovely non-edible Hanoi offerings. After exploring the city scape, The Astronomer and I went on a run that consisted of multiple laps around the lake and dodging tourists in the Old Quarter—a pleasure compared to our options in Saigon.
For dinner we stayed in the Old Quarter and noshed on barbecued pigeon (chim quay – 45,000 VND) and rice noodles with beef (pho xao – 20,000 VND). Pickled cucumbers and dish of kalamansi, chili and salt were served on the side.
The barbecued pigeon was succulent, but a bit too oily. We dipped the meat in a simple sauce made from kalamansi juice, chillies and salt to combat the oiliness. The pho xao was a solid plate of carbs—it’s hard to mess up stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat smothered in a light gravy.
Because dinner never ends with just one eatery for us, The Astronomer and I jammed over to the street side vendor we discovered the previous evening and ordered a plate of mien xao cua Thai Lan (20,000 VND). The vendor recognized our faces and quickly wok’d up a heap of glass noodles with crabmeat and fresh beansprouts. Whereas the mien xao cua served at the Crab Shack in Saigon contains lots of fresh crab meat, the crab in this dish tasted strangely crunchy and not at all fresh.
The following day we met up with “Teddy,” a former editor of mine, at Dac Kim for a lunch of nem cua be (crab-stuffed eggrolls) and bun cha.
The Astronomer was impressed with this eatery on an earlier visit, and Teddy guaranteed that the place was great, so it really wasn’t a surprise that both the bun cha and nem cua be were executed outrageously well. Along with Cha Ca Thanh Long, Dac Kim is definitely a not-to-be-missed stop during a trip to Hanoi.
We took Teddy’s advice and hit up Banh Cuon Gia Truyen in the Old Quarter for dinner. This woman makes each banh cuon fresh to order.
Banh cuon—delicate rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms—are another one of Hanoi’s specialties. Even though the banh cuon here was comparable to what we’ve eaten in Saigon, a portion cost twice as much. We also had to fork over some extra dong for cha (pork forcemeat) because it wasn’t included. Not cool, Hanoi. Banh cuon without cha is like Oreo cookies without the cream in the center.
Street side roastie.
After our puny plate of banh cuon, The Astronomer took me to an eatery specializing in eel. The first time he ate here, The Astronomer ordered a bowl of noodle soup with crunchy fried eels and glass noodles, which were good but not great. On this occasion, we listened to the waiter and ordered stir-fried glass noodles with eggs and topped with the same fried eels, which turned out to be really spectacular.
Our third course of the evening was a bowl of bun thang at 12 Hang Dieu Street. Compared to stellar Vietnamese noodle soups like bo kho, bun rieu and bun mang, this Northern-style chicken soup just left me bored. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good bowl of soup, but it can’t hit the spot like the big dogs can.
For dessert, The Astronomer picked up a plate of profiteroles from a random French bakery in the Old Quarter. Although they looked appetizing, the cream tasted like bubblegum. The Astronomer ate one and we gave the rest to a street vendor. Bubblicious puffs just ain’t our thing.
The following morning we cruised the bay of Halong.