After spending two days sailing through Ha Long Bay, Kai and I returned to the insanity of Hanoi to catch a train north to Sa Pa.Our sleeper train was scheduled to depart at 10pm, which meant that we had about six hours to kill in the city before we had to head to the station. We’d already spent three days getting lost, almost hit by scooters, and checking out the local attractions in Hanoi, but as I had a stomach bug the first time around, I missed out on experiencing the local cuisine. So in our final hours in Hanoi, we were eager to dive (plummet, cannon ball?!) into the city’s legendary food scene.
We started by searching on TripAdvisor for a restaurant with notable summer rolls, enthralled by how easy they were to make and how delicious they tasted following our cooking demonstration on board the Aphrodite. Tripadvisor told us that Highway4 had some of the best summer rolls in the city (or perhaps it was just the most flaunted in English) so we plotted the restaurant out on a map and set off for the first stop on our Hanoi food tour :)As it was early afternoon, well past lunch but not yet dinner, Highway4 was empty, and we had our choice of low-to-the-ground seats! We slid onto the floor, crossed our legs below the table, and started thumbing through the menu, which did indeed have a wide selection of summer rolls!We ordered the catfish summer rolls, pork summer rolls, and fried crab summer rolls.Having just recently recovered my appetite, my stomach hungrily pestered me to make up for lost time. I could have consumed all three plates by myself, but I decided to be kind and share with Kai ;)
And while we could have happily stayed here all afternoon, drinking beer and gorging on fried food, there were still a handful of food spots we wanted to check out in Hanoi before our departure. So we put the breaks on our summer roll-feast and hit the streets of Hanoi once again.Knowing our meal at Highway4 was quite calorific, we decided to partake in some non-food related activities before resuming our food crawl. I opted to get a pedicure (which came to a grand total of €3) and Kai elected to roam around the neighborhood with my camera. So these cool shots of Hanoi city life below are of Kai’s doing :)When I call Hanoi chaotic, these next few photos illustrate what I am talking about. There are scooters parked haphazardly everywhere, people spilling onto the sidewalk in chairs, electrical wires shooting off of trees and buildings, and thousands of scooters zooming through the road. Where is a gal supposed to walk?! Why are there so many obstacles here?!
While Kai was outside photographing the stress on the street, I was inside getting pampered.Some things I learned while getting a pedicure in Hanoi:
When you walk into a shop or salon, such as the nail parlor above, it’s considered polite to take your shoes off at the door so you do not track dirt into the establishment.
Many homes and stores do not have running water, so people often have big buckets of water outside (that I am assuming they fill at communal taps) that they use for washing dishes, bathing, boiling a pot of coffee, etc. I was pretty shocked when the girl doing my pedicure took the foot tub outside and filled it with water from a big bucket out front! Fingers crossed I didn’t get a rain-water pedicure. . .
Services are incredibly inexpensive in comparison to Europe or the US. The pedicure I got was 80,000 VND, which was less than €3. Massages, facials, waxing, shoe shines, and other services are equally inexpensive.
Also, in most western nail salons, you are given a pair of disposable sandals to wear until your toes are dry. Not here! As I only had my sneakers with me, Kai very sweetly ran into a shop accross the street and bought a pair of rasta colored sandals I could wear with my semi-wet pedicure – ha!When my toes were done and neatly parked in their new flip flops, Kai and I walked over to Phở Gia truyền Bát Đàn (or simply Pho Bat Dan) where we had been told we’d find the best pho in the city. I typically don’t eat breakfast, but Kai had been slurping up bowls of pho to start the day at both the The Light Hotel and on our cruise in Ha Long Bay. Pho is a great way to start and end the day, and it’s spectacular in between as well!
In case you’re not familiar with pho, in each flavorful bowl of noodle soup, you will find broth, rice noodles (bánh phở), herbs, and tender meat. It’s usually served as a street food, eaten at all hours of the day, and has an incredibly rich flavor, due to the long seeping of beef bones, oxtails, or flank steak to make the broth, along with charred onion, ginger and spices. At Pho Bat Dan you can request for the beef in your soup to be served three ways: medium-rare with belly meat, medium-rare, and well-done. I suggest going for the medium rare, as the hot broth of your soup will do most of the cooking!We’d prepared ourselves for a big wait (as there is usually a long line outside!) but due to the odd mealtime hour in the late afternoon, we rocked up to the counter, ordered a bowl, and sat down at an open table – no wait what so ever.We went for one big bowl to share, which came to a grand total of 45,000 VND (or in EUR €1.50)Our soup was served with a side of spicy chillies, which I loaded on (sorry stomach that JUST recovered from the flu!)And oh. my. god. this pho was THE BEST! Which I feel a bit silly claiming, since technically it was my first pho in Vietnam. But I’ve had many phos in my life, and the pho atPho Bat Dan was eons better than all former phos ;)
Kai and I had one more noodle stop on our food crawl list, but we decided to break for a beer before jumping straight in to another bowl of noodles.So we did like the locals and found a small plastic table on the sidewalk to share, where we ordered two beers, peanuts, and sausages.The meal looked cute, but we were surprised to receive our sausages wrapped in corn husks. And when we peeled back the husk, we were baffled to discover what appeared to be raw meet. If you’re from Vietnam, fill me in on what this might be, because I have NO IDEA.That said, we both had a good laugh at our raw beef in corn husk order, as well as the menu below, which was very specific in terms of units . . . ‘one couple’ . . . ‘one pack’ . . . ‘one unit’ . . . ‘one dish’ . . . LOL. Also, fried sparrow . . sad face :(
Just as it was starting to get dark, we polished off our beers and set out to find our final fod destination – Nha Hang Bach Phuong Bún Bò Nam Bộ, or in English (which is only slightly less complex!) Bun Bo Nam Bo :)Bun Bo Nam Bo is a sticky hole in the wall with shared tables and plastic-laminated menus that serves some of the best beef noodles in Vietnam. The dish is spectacular due to the fact that the beef has been marinated for hours – sometimes days – in a sweet marinade of sugar, fish sauce, pepper, and herbs before being lightly cooked and then dumped in a bowl with crushed peanuts, vermicelli noodles, herbs, and salad – holy moly!While pho is served with a fragrant broth, the beef noodles are tossed with a light dressing.Which makes for an incredibly rich noodle experience. The textures, flavors and beef were all fantastic, and our only complaint was the price, which was slightly more hefty than our last noodle dish at 60,000 VND (€2.50) for the bowl of noodles. That said, they were well worth the €2.50 and we’d highly recommend the spot!We wanted to say farewell to our time in Hanoi in style, and so for our last stop, we popped in to Nê Cocktail Bar for a drink. The establishment was air conditioned, sleek, and boasted of a very talented mixologist. The cocktail menu had a range of inventive Vietnamese cocktails that could be purchased for very western prices, which was fair considering the art and craft put into creating each beverage. Kai ordered the Pho Cocktail which was served with a chili and lime garnish, just like the soup :) I had a tall, sweet anise punch, which settled into the glass like a ruby rainbow and tasted even better than it looked!We then proceeded to get in our only argument of the trip! When it was time to pay, I gave the waiter 500,000 VND, and he took the bill and left to get change. However, when he came back to the table a moment later, he had a 50,000 VND bill in hand and said I’d given him the wrong bill. We had just gone to the ATM prior to get the cash, so I knew I had a 500,000 bill on me, which I no longer had on hand following that moment. And we’d also been in Vietnam for a week, so I was pretty familiar with the difference between a 500,000 bill (which is GREEN) versus a 50,000 bill (which is RED). Kind of a hard mistake to make. To this day, I am pretty convinced that this guy pocketed my 500,000 bill and swapped it out for a 50,000 bill. But at the time, there was no way to prove it, and it was less than €20, so I wasn’t going to make a big fuss over it. But it was embarrassing, and Kai immediately sided with the waiter, giving me shit for short changing the staff. Anyways, Kai had to pay, since my 500,000 had vanished, and it soured what was an amazing cocktail experience.
I know that’s a shitty story to end on, but that’s travel life! Kai and I made up in less than 10 minutes and were best buddies again by the time we were on the train with our snacks headed to Sa Pa :) But that’s another story – one that I can hopefully share later this week :D
Until then! xo Ali