Get Bia Hoi in Beer Corner:
It’s a budget traveler’s dream: beer for $0.25? YUP!
Bia hoi is beer that is brewed in the morning, and is meant to be consumed within 24 hours. It’s yeasty and feels homemade, but it’s the same vibe that so many fancy craft Belgians strive for with their expensive ‘unfiltered, organic’ brews. For a quarter!
The glasses aren’t huge, but for a couple of bucks you can easily get a solid buzz under the twinkly lights that are stretched across the streets in the center of Old Quarter. Hundreds of travelers sit on tiny plastic chairs as glass after glass of the good stuff disappears until it’s sold out.
Want to cheers your new Vietnamese friends? Here’s how: Hold your glass up and say: Mot Hai Ba Zo!
Get the Best Sandwich You’ll Ever Have:
On a narrow side street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a cart stands on the sidewalk. Low plastic chairs are scattered casually around the cart, and tables are nothing more than planks of wood on plastic crates. A young Vietnamese man with a kind face, or his pretty wife will be standing at the cart, asking which Bahn Mi you would like to have. The menu is limited, there are maybe five options. But each one is a revelation of flavor.
I opted for the traditional Bahn Mi: Pork and Pate, with chili (you’ve got to have chili). And everything about it was perfection.
Light, fluffy bread with a crunchy crust. Creamy, savory pate (family secret recipe, the man tells me), beautifully seasoned pork, some daikon, carrots and cilantro for crunch, and just enough spice to keep things interesting.
Banh Mi 25 (this is the name of this ‘restaurant’) is a must-do if you visit Hanoi. Go for the food. Stay for the people.
My first evening in Hanoi, I ended up sitting around one of those tables with two Brits, a Welsh guy, and a newly-married Aussie couple for hours, downing Tigers and swapping travel stories until my train to SaPa was about to depart.
I brought my Dutch friends to try the sandwiches, and we spent time playing with the couple’s adorable son and daughter for an hour.
And when we made a final sandwich run before our bus departed for points south, the grandfather pushed glasses of tea into our hands with smiles and nods in place of words he didn’t know how to speak in English.
The History: It’s More Than the War
Many American visitors to Vietnam visit the war museum in Saigon, and I understand the reasons why. But I’m generally more interested in a country in it’s own context, rather than only learning how one nation’s history relates to my own country.
So we visited the National History Museum in Hanoi, which tells the story of Vietnam from the times of Feudal Tribes thousands of years B.C. all the way through to modern times. In this context, the war with America is but a blip in a long, storied history. As if sensing that Saigon has it covered, the National History Museum makes but a passing reference to the conflict with the West, and focuses on the art and artifacts from ancient times.
Try the Food:
I came to Vietnam to eat. I already knew I loved Vietnamese food, and I was excited to get to tasting the real deal. Rather than wade through dozens of conflicting reviews on the various travel sites to find the best restaurants, I simply booked a highly-recommended street food walking tour. There was a daytime and nighttime option, and since I was on my own I figured night would be better, because nightlife.
The Verdict? It was amazing!
A group of six other really awesome people? Check.
The coolest, nicest, most fun tour guide, Johnny? Check.
A night of stuffing my face with half a dozen Vietnamese delicacies until I looked pregnant and vaguely hated myself? Double check.
We tried pho, we tried spring rolls, we tried bahn xeo (hold the freaking phone, that stuff is delicious), we tried duck, we tried bahn mi, we tried everything you can think that’s traditional Vietnamese yummy. And it was all yummy. Our guide took us to all the hole-in-the-wall spots I never would have found on my own, down narrow alleys and even through the setup of a wedding! He let nothing stop him from giving us the best of the best.
If you want to do the same tour, look for Awesome Travel’s Street Food on Foot Tour (and try to haggle them down a few bucks by booking in person). If he still works there, ask for Johnny. He is awesome!
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum:
One of the more macabre things to do in Hanoi (at least to us Westerners), is to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh (yes, the actual HCM) at his imposing Mausoleum in Hanoi.
The body of Ho Chi Minh is sent to Russia once per year to be re-embalmed, and many Northern Vietnamese visit the Mausoleum to show their respect for their former leader.
I stood in the line with my tall, blonde and blue-eyed Dutch friends, sticking out like sore thumbs amidst the nicely-dressed Vietnamese that surrounded us. Signs posted warned us not to speak or take photos of the body, as this is a sign of great disrespect. Thus, I cannot share with you what HCM looked like in visual form.
But the vision of that small, unassuming, waxy figure lying in repose, his hands folded over his belly and his eyes closed as if in sleep, that vision will probably stay in mind’s eye forever, anyway.