Hanoi is a strange and frenzied place. Hanoi is just pure chaos and anarchy. There are so many motorbikes rushing through the streets that it sometimes feels like you’re caught in a giant swarm of wasps. Much in Vietnam takes place on the street; people eat and drink there, get their haircut, repair shoes, fix motorbike tires, read the newspaper and play games. Good luck walking down the streets navigating all this activity and trying to get to your destination.
When walking down any street in Vietnam, it quickly becomes apparent this is a country that’s crazy about coffee. The coffee culture is very much entwined in Vietnamese life and the need for speed and caffeine is inescapable. In Vietnam, the coffee scene is buzzing from morning to late-night. Its cafés are like social gathering hubs. In Australia and New Zealand, many java drinkers can be seen in the cafes hunkering down in front of their Apple Macs. Here in Hanoi, the locals are sitting on low plastic stools on the sidewalks, sipping their java and shooting the shit with friends.
There are so many coffeehouses in both Hanoi and Saigon that serve up regular Vietnamese iced coffee which is real sweet and strong and much different tasting than Starbucks. However, my fav and the most innovative coffee creation is the special Egg Coffee that can be found at the very funky Cafe Pho Co. or the original Cafe Giang in Hanoi. I had never heard of Egg Coffee, so I had to get my ass over to Pho Co. and give the stuff a try. Vietnamese Egg coffee (aka Ca Phe Trung) is more like a dessert. It was invented in 1946 by the owner of Cafe Giang when Vietnam was short on milk. A creamy, meringue-like egg white foam is layered on top of a strong coffee. They whip egg yolk, condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee & sugar. It’s a thick, creamy drink similar to eggnog, but this stuff gets you really wired and ready to kick some ass. It’s like a liquid tiramisu. So damn good. Even people who are not normally coffee drinkers would probably like it.
Hanoi is one of the greatest street food cities in the world. Stepping onto the “maze-like” alleys of the Old Quarter streets is like entering a large, bustling kitchen, where you can easily see something being fried, steamed, boiled, or rolled. It is a foodie haven. Every alley we would walk down we would see locals chowing down on bowls of noodles. Food tours are real popular but as seasoned travelers, we were able to write off these tours and sniff out the scents on our own of all the popular dishes including: Pho, Bahn Mi baguettes, Bahn Cuon and my fav and apparently my main man Obama’s as well, Bún chả. Bún chả is chargrilled bbq meats (pork strips and patties) in a sweet broth of fish sauce, sugar, garlic, vinegar and chiles. You mix in mounds of fresh herbs and chewy rice vermicelli noodles and served with the optional (but, necessary) plate of deep-fried spring rolls. Build yourself a bowl with a little bit of everything, slurp and repeat. At lunchtime you’ll find just about all of Hanoi sitting on kid-sized stools and chowing down some Bun Cha. On his last visit to Hanoi, Obama paid a visit to one of the local Bun cha joints called Bun Cha Huong Lien. The restaurant has since become a big hit. Heaps of tourists have been flocking to the restaurant, excited to try out the now famous COMBO OBAMA, which is basically a bowl of Bun Cha, a side of deep-fried Hanoi-style spring rolls and a bottle of Hanoi beer.
All of the food in Hanoi was spectacular, was so damn inexpensive and most importantly, healthy. Vietnam has a low obesity rate, you’ll rarely see a local who’s overweight, and most Vietnamese people are lean and slim. Eating healthy is easy in Vietnam—even the street food is healthy. What makes Vietnamese cuisine healthy is they use a lot of vegetables, seafood and fresh herbs for flavoring (instead of salt), and they cook with water rather than oils. I have been eating a ton of fresh spring rolls…..not the deep fried ones. The Vietnamese version are rolled in rice paper and they stuff all sorts of veggies in them along with your choice of meats.
There was an unbelievable amount of restaturants in the Old Quarter. You also have the streetside stands where you can woof down the best tasting Bahn Mi sandwiches. We easily sniffed out the best places and our favs were Bahn Mi 25 and Bahn My P. Barbie does not fancy hot Pho noodle soup, especially in 100 degree heat, but she was a good sport and kept me company at some of the best hole in the wall joints to slurp down another of Hanoi’s signature Beef Noodle Pho soups. Similar to dim sum places in Hong Kong, you’ll likely share a table with a stranger. My two favorite Pho places were right next to each other at 49 Bat Dan Street and both inexplicably both shared the same # address.
It is not often that you get a chance to eat at a 100-year old restaurant during your travels. Cha Ca La Vong is a legendary institution in Hanoi. We passed on the original and visited one of the newer higher rated places that serves up the same exact famous grilled fish called Cha Ca. Cha Ca is made from Hemibagrus (Ca Long). The bones are removed and the meat is seasoned, covered by banana leaves and grilled by coal heat. It is served with roasted peanuts, rice noodle, spicy veggies (dill, onion, coriander, mint) and fish sauce. All the ingredients are brought to your table and you basically mix it all together and cook up your very own fish dish. It’s ok if you don’t know Vietnamese because the menu is very easy to read as there’s only one dish on the menu. When you only have one (1) item on the menu, it better be damn good. I can confirm they delivered. Big Time.
The following are some of the signature dishes in Vietnam:
I thought I had seen just about everything throughout my life. Despite the fact I am an old washed up fart nowadays. When it comes to nightlife and party scenes, I can say I have experienced a good majority that the world has on tap. Especially after factoring in our endless amount of experiences during our current RTW (Round the World) travels. I thought I had seen the most intense outdoor party scenes spanning the world during our travels. That is, until I reached Hanoi. Vietnam, a communist country, is probably the last place I would have thought of when it came to having a raucous nightlife. Simply arrive on a weekend evening (when the streets are closed to vehicles) to the Old Quarter in Hanoi at Bia Hoi Junction, located on the corner of Ta Hien Street and Luong Ngoc Quyen. The action and party scene is sensory overload. It is an absolute classic nighttime destination wandering around the entire area. Just a few blocks away surrounding Ho Hoan Kien Lake, right in town, is a more mellow but still supercharged area where families are enjoying their own version of fun nightlife. Every single person was smiling and enjoying the simplicity of life. To top it all off, a weekend street Night Market is thrown right into the mix as well in the Old Quarter. Just a fun, hot, sweaty scene in the entire area.
I must also mention there’s a whole lot of copyright infringement going on in Vietnam. Patents and trademark paperwork must have gotten blown up by all the B-52 bombings during the Vietnam war. 20 years ago, Ralph Lauren, Dolce Gabbana and Tommy Hilfiger were the main copycat targets. They even had the Rolex watch copycats down pat. Flash forward to today and the big copycat items are Under Armour, North Face and throw in some fake Beats headphones. There are seemingly no copyright laws here in Vietnam. If you have a successful business, it will be copied and copied perfectly and in many cases the copies looking better than the original.
In addition to Vietnamese salespeople trying to trick you into all the fake clothing, I did find it amusing to discover many minor league scams continued even outside of Ho Chi Minh City. In Ho Chi Minh City, locals were taking advantage of tourists with the confusing currency valuations. In Hanoi, the scamming was turned up a few notches to hit another level. I pride myself on being on top of every possible scam. I actually looked forward to the daily scam game to keep me current, on my toes, and help broaden the breadth of all new scamming opportunities. The scams began as soon we left the comfort of the hotel doors and stepped foot on the street with that first blast of hot Hanoi air hitting our faces. Just when you thought you had made it through the day scam-free, the rug will inevitably get pulled out from under you. Just when you thought you got all your Dong in tact for the day, somehow they got some clever trap set up to extract this Dong from your pocket before you can blink. Don’t let these little 5 ft. tall smiling Northern Vietnamese fool you as they are real good and are probably the most sneaky people of any Asian countries we visited. The only time we were able to put our guard down was when we got off the well beaten tourist path.
They got the Restaurant name switcharoo scam, The travel agency booking scam, The designer clothing scam, The taxi meter scam, The street doughnut lady scam, The same-same scam plus many others. Let me explain the restaurant name scam. I was on a mission to eat at a specific highly rated hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in one specific dish, Bun Cha. After finishing up our meal, I noticed another restaurant two doors from the one that we had eaten in that had the same exact name and same exact colored signage. Unknowingly, we had been hoodwinked and pulled into the fake ‘scam’ restaurant as soon as we got out of our Uber by a smiling female scammer. Even if I had noticed the two different locations beforehand, it was still up to me to uncover which is the real deal and which one was the copycat. That is no easy task with each having their own streetside touts demanding they are the original in broken English and each having the same exact name and signage. How the copycat restaurant gets away with this without really pissing off the ‘original’ owners is beyond me. We were amateurs and got taken in by the fake restaurant. You can see from the pictures below the source of all this confusion as they looked so similar from the outside and we thought they were both the same Bun Cha places. Yes, we did get scammed but you can only screw Big Doug once. Our antenna’s are now up and are on high alert. The good news is the fake restaurant’s Bun Cha was tasty but we later discovered the pricing was the same as the original place @ $4 for each of our Bun Cha orders. The only beef I got, is if you are not going to be the real thing, at least offer a fucking discount. We went back to the real deal original two days later and there was a huge difference in quality. They even had a big colorful sign in the original warning patrons of the imposter right next door.
The next copycat scam is the travel agency booking scams. In Hanoi, there could be five (5-10) travel agency storefronts on every single block trying to get a commission from the many tourists booking one of the many day tours on offer. (all the below copycat agencies are on the same street) When we were in the South, we booked our Mekong Delta tour with the highly reputable Sinh Tourist (aks Sinh Cafe) Agency. In Hanoi, we discovered literally hundreds of agencies with the same exact Sinh Tourist Agency name and signage. After experiencing the restaurant copycat scam we identified that there are only two real Sinh Tourist Agencies in the city out of the hundred ones in the city. It took me about two day to get a good handle on this game.
Enough with the scams. The big activities in Hanoi are a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison (aka Hanoi Hilton). This is the place where Senator John McCain was imprisoned. You know the guy who should not be considered a war hero because, “hero’s don’t get caught”. This according to the Orange Tool sitting in the White House. The picture below is of McCain dragged out of the water after his plane got shot down. The other activity in the city centre, and a respite from the city chaos, is a visit to the famed Ho Hoan Kiem Lake to walk, jog or bike around. We also took in a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the final resting place and embalmed body of the Chairman of the Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh.
I can report that Ho Chi has a great setup.
Similar to the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney, we now have a new rivalry brewing between Saigon vs. Hanoi. Barbie liked Hanoi better because it had more of a Vietnamese old style architecture/culture and has not yet been poisoned by as much modern technology. The people on the streets in Hanoi do appear to have cell phones but they don’t look like they are connected as everyone on their cell phones looked like they are playing some sort of video games. I liked both cities equally and a visit to both is a must in order to see the alternative lifestyles. Note, you would have to visit Hanoi during the summer months otherwise you could freeze your ass off.
LOOSE STOOLS INDEX – 9
Rolling right along and cool as a cucumber. Bring on the B’s!!!!
Bánh mì, Bánh cuốn, Bun Cha, Bánh xèo, Bún bò Huế, Bánh bèo.
These are just some of the signature dishes in Vietnam. I ate all the B’s that the Vietnamese chefs in Hanoi threw at me and none of the B’s did any damage to the Loose Stools Index. We head into Hoi An, the food capital of Vietnam a bit later in the trip with plans to do some major league eating. Therefore, arrival into Hoi An with a seasoned gut coupled with a high stools index rating should put me in a good position.
Restaurants – New Day, Aubergine Cafe, Cha Ca Thang Long, Bún chả hàng mành – Đắc Kim, Don Duck, Phở Bát Dân (@49 Bat Dan), Pho Gia Truyen
Others – Quán Ăn Ngon, Bánh cuốn Gia truyền Thanh Vân, Bun Cha Huong Lien, Hùng Lẩu, Chim Sao, La Badiane.
Coffee Houses – Cafe Nola, Café Pho Co., Loading T Cafe, Ca Phe Giang, Cafe Dinh, Cong Caphe
Bahn Mi Stands – Banh Mì 25, Bánh Mỳ P
Big Doug getting scammed by everyone. Wouldn’t have happened in the old days.
The old days are long gone and the more mellow BFD is prone to a small scam every now and then.
I really enjoyed your blog on Vietnam. They are so entertaining and informative as always. I especially like the idea that the copycats of scammers get away with so much and everyone seems to be making a living at it. It’s also amazing that people eat, drink coffee day and night in the street then party all night. I really enjoy the fact that you take up the challenge no matter where you are. No one is going to take it advantage of Big F Doug! Your food descriptions make me want to be there with you to try some of the more adventurous dishes. I also enjoyed your restaurant listings and your section on “Through the Binocs” which really gives a more detailed observation of your experiences! How are you able to eat in so many different countries and maintain your gastrointestinal balance? As evidenced by the “LS Index”, you seem to be holding up well. Or is that the result of subjecting your body to such abuses?? I beg to differ with your description of being “old”. That’s a term that is not used even if it is warranted. With your stamina and travel ability/experience/body slamming abuses, the word does not apply. As always, your verbal descriptions are colorful and so detailed that I can actually enjoy the experience vicariously through you! Keep them coming, BFD! I can’t wait to see you again. Safe travels until we meet again.