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A Day in Hanoi

 

This Saturday morning from my Manhattan apartment, I ordered a spinach cheese omelet, a toasted and buttered bagel, and a hazelnut coffee, light with cream. Each bite of this classic New York breakfast brought comfort and satisfaction, a nourishment to my spirit—that is, until my mind wandered to Hanoi. 

A year ago today, while living in Vietnam, my morning meal would have brought the same inner joy ... and then some. I made it a point to eat only among the locals, and living with a Vietnamese family my first four months, I soon discovered that eating in Hanoi awakens taste buds I didn’t know existed. It combines flavors I never imagined, and it engages me in the culture. Grounding both body and mind in the present moment, a meal, in effect, embraces the spirit of Vietnam in an instant. Each bite reflects its people, its culture, its core. Each meal provides an experience in what is Vietnam. 

To start the day, a classic bowl of pho is by far the most popular choice. In the entrance hall of the public kindergarten near my home, I join a crowd of early local commuters, filing in for a steaming broth containing barely boiled, flaky-thin beef slices surrounded by noodles. Seated at plastic tables half a meter off the ground with toy-like matching chairs, locals are served by the elderly woman who runs the stall. She offers a few fresh limes, chili sauce, and sprigs of basil for flavoring. I hunker down, chopsticks awkwardly held, and somehow manage to scoop up most of my soup. For once, I actually blend into the crowd. Conversation over Pho is minimal, and a morning meal with the sun breaking through has both Hanoians and me captivated a soothing start to the day. 

Banh cuon, at a stand a few blocks south of Hoan Kiem Lake, is another favorite breakfast choice for me. Offered on many street corners, this is a wet rice noodle sheet layered with minced pork, topped with dried onions, and dipped into nuoc mam (fish sauce): one of the best meals around for 80 cents. I usually share this pleasure with my friend Linh, while listening to her dramas of dating Vietnamese and American men. 

As I move through the morning, finishing English lessons with my crew of five teenage boys, I take time to fill up on a little caffeine. I often sit at a quiet, plant-filled spot on the pedestrian walkway where I first began taking Vietnamese lessons. The owner places a glass containing a spoonful of condensed milk in front of me and then on top balances a drip can which releases black caffeinated liquid. Avoiding the clouds of heavy tobacco smoke from the older men reading local news indoors, I arduously study my Vietnamese flash cards in the outdoor area.

If I want my coffee with a pastry or fresh milk, there is only one place in town to go, despite it serving Westerners: Café 252, which was Catherine Deneuve’s favorite while filming Indochine. This cafeteria-like shop packs in travelers for its one-of-a-kind banana bread and chocolate croissants. It emanates a fresh-baked aroma that has passersby on motos turning for a look. The homemade yogurt, presented in 80s-style, polka-dot glasses and served alongside bowls of seasonal fruits, is also a top menu item.

For lunch, I sometimes invite my teen students to join me, using this as an opportunity to get to know them better. Not far from the Long Bien Market where many of them live are several stalls of bun cha ca, a fish and noodle stew with hints of mint: the healthiest meal around. We quickly slurp, digesting our meal with cha da, a cold herbal tea that balances out our perspiring bodies. The lady in charge here chatters away about her husband who passed away, her current boyfriend, and her daughter who doesn’t like to listen. She also teases me about my own love life - or lack of one.

My typical lunch, however, is the all-time classic: bun cha. If you are only able to eat one thing in Hanoi, this must be it. Toward the end of my stay in Vietnam, I ate bun cha at least four times a week. These grilled pork patties are prepared over an open flame that crackles into a cloud of white smoke, enticing any nose within thirty meters. Floating in a broth of flavored fish sauce, garlic slivers, and chopped chili, the succulent patties are nibbled up along with cold noodles, fresh mint, cilantro, and leafy greens. At my bun cha joint, the son of the owner parks my bike in a hurry, flashes me a big smile, and pretends not to understand my Vietnamese. He’s hawking locals with ferocity, as they pour into the competing stands for lunch hour. His flirtatious smile and friendly demeanor bring me back every time.

Some days I get a call from my friend Hanh to meet for pho cuon, another offer not to be passed up. Riding on the back of her motorbike, I hug tightly as we cruise through the alleys around Truc Bach Lake, eagerly anticipating the meal to come. This dish, making my personal “Top 3,” consists of fresh cilantro, boiled beef, and lettuce, rolled in a soft wet noodle, and dipped into fish sauce. Covered with sautéed garlic, spinach, and beef, the fried noodle snippets that are served with pho cuon are as addictive as McDonald’s fries. 

By the close of lunch hour, my teachers, boss, and everyone else in Hanoi insist on coffee, again, and then a nap. Post-lunch napping on motorcycles, benches, desks, or chairs is the norm. At the Vietnamese Institute of Anthropology where I teach afternoon classes, students share all sorts of fresh fruit: rambutan, longan, jackfruit, pineapple, mangosteen, or whatever else is in season at that time. As we dip grapefruit in chili-flavored salt, we chat about the weather, the office, the workday, or the culture of Vietnam. It’s over this naptime fruit that I often learn my most insightful lessons.

After a day of teaching, around four, I head back toward home for a cup of che. Green mung bean mixed with coconut milk, fresh fruit, and/or jelly-like agar, che is the most varied dessert offered in Vietnam. Located in an unusually wide alley, my che place has narrow stairways leading to several floors of seating, and serves its che in glass mugs with a bowl of ice. With ice scooped into it, che becomes a cool sweet to relieve the tropical heat. Every Vietnamese seems to know about this secret spot and is willing to pay the extra 20 cents for its generous portions, and yet, as far as I know, not one Westerner, other than me, has ever ventured here. 

By now it’s nearly the dinner hour, and with it comes an entirely new set of options, but for now, I head home. As I rest, contemplating my evening dining options, a summer afternoon rain shower brings my appetizing day to a close. 

FACT FILE: 
Finding Jennifer’s favorite Hanoi dining haunts 

BREAKFAST

Pho café 
This nameless shop is located in a pre-K school parking lot, which is converted to a restaurant in the morning. Look for the sign “Truong Mam Non Sao Sang.”
44 Tran Hung Dao St. (north side between Hang Bai and Ngo Quyen Streets) 
Hoan Kiem District 

Bun oc café 
Nguyen Quyen St., Alley 220
Hoan Kiem District

Banh cuon café
On the east side of Ba Trieu Street at To Hien Thanh Street. 
Hai Ba Trung District 

COFFEE

Café Nhan 
7A Tong Duy Tan Food St. (pedestrian walkway) 
Hoan Kiem District

Café 252
252 Hang Bong St.
Hoan Kiem District

LUNCH

Bun Ca (for cha ca)
42 Hang Dao St. (at Hung Phuc St. near Long Bien Bridge)
Ba Dinh District (bordering Hoan Kiem District)

Bun Cha Hoang Anh (for bun cha)
47 Bui Thi Xuan St. 
Hai Ba Trung District

Pho cuon café
25 Ngu Xa St. (near Truc Bach Lake)
Ba Dinh District 

SNACKS

Che café
This shop is located in a small, wide alley on the north side of Tran Hung Dao Street between Quang Trung and Da Tuong Streets.
72G Tran Hung Dao St. 
House G in Alley 72
Hoan Kiem District.

 

 

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