48 Hours in Hanoi

Walking through the streets of Hanoi is like trying to read Braille. It’s a tactile experience of people selling anything, motorbikes honking and a constant barrage of the sounds of the streets. There’s a cultural code Hanoians have that tourists and visitors can only feel during their first experiences. Life happens on the streets.

Crossing the street

Crossing Hanoi streets is all about survival. To survive you must grasp “the politics of the pavement”. Vietnamese drive freestyle in Hanoi. The relentless sound of horns commanding, “Attention please – look at my nice motorbike” or “Get out of my way”. The rule of thumb is to keep walking forward, never step backwards. A native Hanoian explained, “You must keep walking at your natural pace but slowly so the traffic can go around you. If you go quickly and make sudden moves they can’t know how to get around you and accidents happen.” Never step backwards because chances are a motorbike will be behind you leaving only 20 centimeters in between. The sidewalks are fair game for motorbikes, so the same rules apply. Motorbikes zoom into oncoming traffic, cut pedestrians off at corners and seem to jet out from nowhere carrying a family of four. When in doubt, follow a Vietnamese person across the street.

Cyclos, XE OM (pronounced Say Om) & Taxis

Cyclos are only allowed in the Old Quarter because they create traffic jams.  The three-wheel bicycle taxi is a popular tourist attraction and drivers will take you around the Old Quarter and charge about 200,000 VND ($10 US) for an hour.

Both the motorbike and XE OM are safe and reliable ways to get around. The XE OM drivers are usually regarded as living maps. They know every street and every short cut of the city. Typically the cost is about 10,000 VND per kilometer and be sure to practice the art of bargaining. Taxis may charge the same prices as XE OM’s but with traffic in Hanoi it could take longer. Be mindful of Taxi meters that overcharge. It’s a well known scam to have meters that run faster and overcharge.

Check In

Hanoi has some excellent and reasonably priced hotels. The Hanoi Elegance Hotels are a group of boutique hotels in the Old Quarter. One of the best is the Hanoi Elegance 4 on 3 Yen Tahi Street, Hoan Kiem. (Rooms range from $45 -$80 U.S.) All the Elegance Hotels have exceptional staff, modern rooms with flat screen TV’s, free WiFi and an excellent breakfast.

The Angel Palace Hotel at 173 Hang Bong, Hoan Kiem is new hotel. The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, modern rooms with flat screen TV’s , free WiFi and breakfast delivered to your room. (Rooms range from $45-$70 U.S.)

Sights to See and Sights to Skip

You can spend a day wandering around the Old Quarter & Hoan Kiem Lake. The 36 streets of the Old Quarter still have the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. The names of the streets originally correlated to the trade of the merchants.  Hang Bong was once “Cotton Street” and Hang Gai, one of Hanoi’s ancient streets, once specialized in thorny wire, hammocks and ropes. Today it’s known as “Silk Street” where over 75% of the shops sell goods and services related to silk. A reliable and reasonably priced tailor Yen, has a shop on 115 Hang Gai called Yen’s Boutique. She has a staff of quality tailors at fair prices. (Remember to practice the art of bargaining) The buzz and roar of Hanoi is constant in the Old Quarter. People sitting on miniature, plastic stools eating, drinking, keys being copied on street corners and women with coolie hats weaving in and out of traffic carrying anything imaginable. Turn down Ly Quoc Su off Hang Bong Street to the Nha Tho Cathedral and you’ll see throngs of young Vietnamese drinking tea in street corner cafes. From there you can rest and try good Vietnamese coffee at Moca Café,  14-16 Nha To with good WiFi and a comfortable atmosphere.

Legend has it that in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the restored sword) in the 15th Century, King Le Loi, found a holy turtle during a cruise on the lake. The turtle requested the King return the sacred sword he used to defeat the northern Ming aggressors in battle. The King unsheathed his sword and threw it to the holy turtle who returned it to the bottom of the lake. Apparently there is still one turtle left in the lake today and on certain days he appears above water and crowds of people gather around to catch a glimpse of the turtle of the lake. Walking around the lake path you can see the 18th century pagoda, Thap Rua, at the center of the lake. On another tiny islet in the middle of the lake is Den Ngoc Son, or Temple of the Jade Mound. Cross the red Huc Bridge to the temple and for 20,000 VND you can take a look inside.

Take a look at the mural along the Dyke Road (Au Co, Yen Phu, Tran Quang Khai) because it is  something unique to Hanoi. It was constructed for the city’s 1,000 year anniversary in 2010 and is the longest mural in the world.

Another day can be spent in the Western part of Hanoi. From the old city it’s an easy motorbike or taxi ride to the West Lake area and then an interesting walk back to the Old City. The ride from the Old City is about 50,000 VMD if you practice the art of bargaining. West Lake and Truc Bach Lake are divided by Thanh Nien Street. You can see the Tran Quoc Pagoda and the area is humming with people as early as 5:30 am. Walk down Hung Vuong towards Dien Bien Phu Street and just before you get to Ba Dinh Square you’ll pass the imposing Presidential Palace, which is worth seeing from the outside. From there you can see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and if you arrive after 7am you’ll see a very long line of people forming for the 8am opening. One could easily skip the hours of standing in line to view Uncle Ho and see his house.  Just beyond is Chua Mot Lot (one Pillar Pagoda) one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples.

Continuing down Dien Bien Phu, you’ll pass the Army Museum and Flag Tower. It has some interesting artifacts but unless you are a real military buff it can be skipped.

Close by is the 11th century Van Mieu (Temple of Literature) and Vietnam’s first University founded in 1076. This is worth the 20,000 VND ticket to see the perfectly preserved five separate courtyards with pools, manicured lawns and the Doctors Stelae’s (stone scrolls). It’s stepping back in time.

Have some lunch at Koto Restaurant right across the street, 61 Van Mieu before an easy walk back to the Old Quarter.

Eating Out

Fantastic food lies at the heart of life in Hanoi. On every street someone is selling Bun Cha, Sticky Rice, Pho or fresh fruit. A tour of the street food alone would just scratch the surface. Tu Van Cong and Mark Lowerson have cornered that niche. They offer the “Street Food Tour” for $55 (U.S.) which includes all food and drink for 3 hours. If the cost sounds steep, truth be told, in three hours you get the best experience of what excellent, fresh, street food actually is. This is  Hanoi culture, so if you love food, this is the tour to take. They both write well known tongue and cheek foodie blogs that are worth checking out. Tu’s is The Vietnamese God, and Mark’s is called Stickyrice. They tell you everything you want to know but don’t know enough to ask about eating on the streets.

With 48 hours you’ll need to find some tasty Pho. Conveniently located in the Old Quarter Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su is just off Hang Bong Street. It’s a clean comfortable setting with adult tables and chairs and is packed early in the morning for breakfast.

At #18 Phan Boi Chau Street is Quan An Ngon, an experience in itself with excellent food. People sit at communal tables and order from a main menu. The restaurant is open air with canopies above giving it an indoor and outdoor feel. Friends sit together in groups, Vietnamese families sit alongside travelers, while various plates of Bun Cha (Hanoi style vermicelli with grilled pork) and Mi Quang (noodle dish usually with pork & shrimp) roll by. You can see the food being prepared in the open kitchens lined around the communal eating area in the middle of the restaurant

Koto Restaurant opposite the Temple of Literature on Van Mieu is different experience. It has more of a western atmosphere and the menu has Western and Vietnamese dishes. The story behind it is as compelling as the food. The restaurant has a 24 month training program for street kids to teach them life skills, health and personal hygiene, self-esteem, and an introduction to the hospitality industry. After being with the program and working at KOTO for 24 months they graduate with full time jobs in hospitality and are able to support themselves.

In the summer months ice cream feels just as much of a cultural experience as well as a foodie fav. Where do the locals go? Is there good gelato in town? Fanny’s 100 % Natural Ice Cream at #6 Quang Trung has real gelato, creamy and smooth, they call it the art of ice cream.

If you’re walking around Hoam Kiem Lake and turn left on Trang Tien you’ll walk about 5 minutes to Kem Trang Tien (Ice Cream), 35 Trang Tien. There you’ll find a barrage of motorbikes parked outside with Vietnamese folks hanging out. Walk up to a small window, pay 12,000 VMD and get whatever flavor they have that day in either a cone or a cup. Also good but different, it’s where the locals go.

For panoramic view of Hoam Kiem Lake and a coffee Café Pho Co on 11 Hang Gai is a unique, classic building in the back of a clothing and souvenir shop. Their unique egg coffee tastes like a blend of tiramisu and thick Vietnamese coffee.

Evenings Around Town:

Since walking the streets of Hanoi is a full time job, the night walking street offers a relief with limited traffic. Hang Duong (Sugar Street) has a night market on Friday, Saturday and Sunday where you can buy the usual market gifts and souvenirs. Shops also specialize in dried fruits and nuts, a favorite Vietnamese delicacy.

One night splash out for a cocktail at the classic Hotel Sofitel. The Summit Lounge on the 20th floor is known for having the best view in Hanoi.

Top off a short stay at a comfortable but gritty Bia Hoi place to drink some beer. You can try the  backpacker’s Bai Hoi Corner and places can be found in the Old Quarter, between Ta Hein St and Luong Ngoc Quyen St.  South of the Opera house is Bia Hoi Hai Xom, 22 Tang Bat Ho, Hai Ba Trung,  if you feel adventurous enough to leave the Old City and try a place filled with locals.

Just eating and drinking your way around Hanoi can fill up a short stay. Just be careful when crossing the streets.

Pick Pocketed in Hanoi

Part of the Great Staff at the Elegance Sapphire Hotel

Being pick pocketed during my first three hours in Hanoi started off my stay. From start to finish I experienced the roughness and generosity of Hanoians and I was grateful for the experience. It also reminded me that in the big picture I am always being taken care of.

Arriving in Hanoi from five fantastic days in Hoi An eating, drinking good wine and going to the tailor I was relaxed and enjoying Vietnam. After checking into my hotel I went for a short walk to check out the Old City. One of the guys from the Halong Bay Party Boat was meeting me at my hotel that evening to make the final arrangements for my overnight trip. The idea was to be in Hanoi for one night, then go on a boat to Halong Bay. After, I would come back to Hanoi, spend a night or two and fly back to Bali. I was only going to spend two or three nights in Hanoi.

Other adventures were in store for me. Walking around the Cathedral area I had my camera and my wallet in an outside pocket of my backpack. I remember seeing it, zipping it up and then a few minutes later thinking, “I better change that around”  and as I reached to put my camera away and move the wallet to the inside of my pack, I realized it was gone. It happened in five minutes. There I was in Hanoi, credit cards gone, cash gone. Luckily I still had my passport and about $10 U.S. dollars. I went through the stages of panic…disbelief…shock… stupidity and then into action mode.

What was going to be 48 Hours in Hanoi turned into about seven days. I experienced so much kindness, graciousness and generosity from all the people who worked at the hotel, the Party Boat company and anyone I talked to. The staff at the Elegance Ruby Hotel made signs in Vietnamese describing the wallet and what area I was in offering a reward and had me post them all over the Cathedral area. (As if someone was going to return it!) Quan from the Party Boat offered to let me come on the boat for two nights and pay for everything when I had my replacement card. The first thing Quan said to me was, “this is a sign of good luck in Vietnam. Now nothing bad will happen to you while you’re here.”

I had only booked one night with the Elegance Ruby Hotel. They were fully booked so they found another hotel to take me for a few days, they paid for it and when rooms were available they moved me to the Elegance Sapphire Hotel and put everything on my bill at the end. I felt like I kept getting upgraded. The manager gave me $100 in cash and told me I could have as much as I needed and he would just add it to my bill at the end. By the time I left the staff and I were sad to say goodbye.

I went on Twitter for things to do in Hanoi and that’s how I found Tu of the Street Food Tours. He tweeted that iPhones were being snatched out of people’s hands in the Old City, so I wrote back saying I had just been pick pocketed. He told me two weeks before he was in the old city talking on his phone and as he hung up someone came by and snatched it out of his hand from a motorbike. Phone gone.

I ended up taking time to write an article called 48 hours in Hanoi, and sent it to a magazine in Hanoi and the editor responded. He doesn’t need it but we’re staying in touch. I have some amazing photography that I’m proud of from my early morning walks. More creativity and feelings of generosity came out of my experience than I could have imagined. It was the level of kindness and concern I genuinely felt that made the whole experience worthwhile. There is something truly soulful about the streets of Hanoi.

The Lantern Town of Hoi An

The well preserved, UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An is one of the highlights of South East Asia and Vietnam. When you arrive you feel like you can relax in Vietnam. After leaving the hustling cities it’s the perfect change of pace. The cobblestone streets in the center of town are closed to cars and motorbikes and the Old Town has kept the unique architecture and feel of an ancient Asian town. A lantern lit bridge crosses the Thu Bon River to more shops, restaurants and markets. You can, eat, drink, shop and go to the beach. Walking around the town you see a beautiful blending of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and French architecture.

However many days you plan to stay, if you add at least two more it’ll be worth it. Walking around town, going to a tailor, sitting a local restaurant with a really nice (and inexpensive) glass of wine, people watching, going to the beach or just taking in the cultural halls and houses in the town make this one of the most relaxing places to visit.

CHECK IN:

There are many options both right in town and further out near the beach. Here are some suggestions:

Hoi An Hotel:  ($60-$90) 10 Tran Hung Dao – great location with a pool, modern rooms and fantastic service.

Hoian Pacific Hotel & Spa: ($43-$60) 321 Cua Dia St. – a bit further out closer to Cua Dai Beach. Lovely, modern and nice pool.

Sunflower Hotel:  ($24- $30) 397 Cua Dai Street – Clean, cheap and cheerful with a pool. Halfway between the old town and Cua Dai Beach.

TAILORS:

Hoi An has over 500 tailors in the town so choosing one can be a daunting task. I tried a few – just for “research” and I learned that you definitely get what you pay for, so you want to make sure to ask plenty of questions and choose carefully. You can have anything copied, made from a photo, shoes, handbags, boots, made to order. Prices vary so keep quality in mind over price.

A few favorites are:

Trung Duc Couture: 37 Tran Hung Dao Street  – Women’s tops: $35-$45; women’s dresses: $45

Tuong Cloth Shop: 67 Tran Hung DaoWomen’s tops $25-$30; Women’s dresses: $30-$50; women’s pants $30-$40

Yaly Couture: (the most expensive tailor in the area)47 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street

Bi Tuong: 54 Le Loi Street (Shoes &Handbags) Women’sflats $30-$40 Men’s business shoes $30-$55

Hao Shoe Shop: 26 Le Loi Stret (Shoes  & Handbags) Women’s flats $30-$40; Men’s shoes, $30-$45

RESTAURANTS:

For great  food, great atmosphere Streets Restaurant at 17 Le Loi Street  has a program that supports street kids taking them into their training program to help them become independent and teach them professional and life skills.  You can check out their mission www.streetsinternational.org. Also try the Canh Rau (leafy vegetable soup) and Kam Flan- Crème Flan with Vietnamese Coffee glaze.

Have lunch at the Lantern Town Restaurant 46, Nguyen Thai Hoc Street (I’ve heard they have a great cooking class also) and walk out the back entrance by the river, turn left and you’re at the central market.

When you want to drink good wine at inexpensive prices and wind down with vegetarian food, the White Marble at 98 Le Loi Street has a great spot to people watch.  Just perch yourself with a glass of wine and watch the world walk by and take in the beauty of the streets of Hoi An.

You have plenty of choices for lunch, dinner or cocktails overlooking the Thu Bon River try to the Cargo Club at 107 Dnguyen Thai Hoc and sit on their roof top restaurant. They have great sweets and a beautiful view.

A fun place with an upbeat scene to have a night cap is Before and Now on 51 Le Loi Street. They have a nice two for one happy hour also.

Spend a day relaxing at Cua Dia Beach or Ah Bahn Beach, having lunch and playing in the sand. The Old Town is easy to navigate, you can wander to the Japanese Covered Bridge or one of the preserved Heritage Houses that are open to the public. These brothers in the photo below grew up in this house, it’s been in the family for generations and they still live there and it’s open for the public to visit.  The Dragon Statue in the courtyard of the Assembly Hall is also worth a visit.

One evening a summer program for kids sponsored by project Indochina hosted a choir concert on the bank of the river by the Lantern Bridge. The kids sang both Vietnamese and English songs and were so excited to talk to people and practice their English. Hoi An is a highlight of Vietnam that I’m looking forward to going back to.

Halong Bay Party Boat

“In Vietnam we say this is good luck! Now nothing bad will happen to you and something good will come from it! It’s  a good sign!”

I was pick-pocketed in my first few hours in Hanoi, credit cards & cash gone. (more on this later) It was a bit of a dramatic introduction to Hanoi. Quan, a very sweet guy from the Halong Bay Party Boat, had come to my hotel to talk to me about the trip and sign me up. I was frazzled and in the shock stage and his upbeat manner and positive attitude seemed to do the trick. Really? I thought to myself….I could shift into that thinking.

I had some reservations about booking an overnight trip on a “Party Boat” to begin with but once the pick pocketing happened there was nothing to do but go with the flow and see where it all would take me. Quan offered to sign me up for two nights on the boat and arranged for me to pay later when the new card arrived. It meant three days on a boat in Halong Bay spending hardly any money…that made sense. I was so grateful for the opportunity to leave Hanoi for a few days and relax.

Halong Bay, the Bay of the Descending Dragon, is one of the highlights of  Northern Vietnam. It’s also a bit of a tourist trap. Parts of the bay are heavily used by tourist boats and are being destroyed by trash and oil in the water. It’s sad to see such a stark contrast against the natural beauty of the place. It’s UNESCO World Heritage Site  and one of the new 7 Wonders of the world as of 2011. It has nearly 2,000 mostly inhibited limestone cliffs. The sheer number of cliffs makes the scenery unique and beautiful.

The scenery paired with the pop song  Beautiful by Akon playing as we got on the boat gave me that funny feeling  this could go one of two ways… really cheesy or really relaxing. There was a full sound system with a Sony Vaio lap top, a flat screen TV above the bar with Stereo speakers and a clock above the stairs shaped like a ships wheel.

The vibe from the staff and the crew trying to get this party started didn’t quite mix with the small group on our boat. There were about 12 people (instead of the usual 20 people) and it was a pretty mellow crowd. A very nice couple from the Basque country near Spain, a young English couple who had been backpacking for over a month and this was clearly the nicest place they had stayed in, two women from Australia and a group from Hong Kong. There really wasn’t a party to get started.

The first afternoon we explored the Sung Sot Caves, (the Amazing Caves) . They were fantastic, but again, pathways have been built and it has flashy neon lighting installed throughout the caves.

In the evening our tour guide brought out the rice wine and encouraged everyone do a shot to give us the traditional party boat welcome.  We were all enjoying having a beer, chatting to each other and watching the sunset. A few people dove off the top of the boat and we were all happy to relax and go to bed early. Secretly, I was relieved no one wanted to do any karaoke.

The next day I woke up early to catch a sunrise. The rest of the day was spent kayaking around a beach close to the Cat Ba Island. The scenery was gorgeous and it was a day of just soaking up sun, paddling around, having lunch and being lazy. The weather was hot and humid and the scenery was peaceful and tranquil. The spot we were taken to wasn’t too crowded. Other boats were around but it was very clean and low key.

It was the third day as we were kayaking around the more populated areas I really saw the trash and the destruction of  tourism. We were surrounded by at least 20 boats like ours, the water was thick with oil, and trash was floating all around, bottles, toilet paper rolls and wrappers. I was grateful for the opportunity to go to Halong Bay and spend a few days kayaking and relaxing on a boat through one of the natural wonders of the world.  I also saw the amount of work that needs to be done to clean it up and stop further damage to the environment. Halong Bay seems to be in the heart of that paradox.

The Street Food Tour of Hanoi

“ Don’t feel like you have to finish everything. We have a lot of food to try. You don’t have to finish it all.”

We’re sitting on the pavement at a low table with small, plastic blue stools. White, plastic containers holding chopsticks, toothpicks, soup spoons and napkins are in between us with the customary small plastic bowl that has chili, lime and salt. I’ve learned this little bowl of spices is the equivalent to salt and pepper in the U.S.. Especially on the pavement of Hanoi. It’s a wet, rainy day and I’m surrounded by Vietnamese people staring at me as I whip out my camera to take a picture of my bowl of Bun Rieu Cha (crab noodle soup). It’s steaming hot and I can smell the fresh spices and broth.

My guide’s name is Tu Van Cong.  He and his business partner Mark Lowerson have carved out a niche in Hanoi with their “Street Food Tours.” I met him on twitter and after reading his tongue and check blog The Vietnamese God I decided I had to try the tour. Having an insider experience of street food with a crazy Vietnamese tour guide sounded too good to pass up.

At 8:30am Tu picks me up on his blue Vespa. Wearing a big smile, aviator shades, and a green T-shirt that says, “Summer Hawaii”, he looks like a 30 something Vietnamese hipster.

Our first stop is just outside the Old City in the temporary wet market. As we settle onto our plastic stools on the curb Tu briefs me about the culture and culinary experience we’re embarking on for the next three hours. “ Ask me any questions you want,” he repeats a couple of times, “ We’ll handle payment for the tour at the end and I’ll pay for everything as we go along. You just have to sit back, taste everything and enjoy yourself.  I’ve eaten my way around most places in Hanoi in the 10 years so I know what to order and what my favorites are. Be sure to tell me if there’s something you want to try to or something you don’t eat. And again, don’t feel like you have to finish everything. We have a lot of food to cover.”

“Where are we?” is my first question, as I look around at various food stalls, noodle vendors and big green metal pods on the curbs next to every vendor.

“It’s a temporary wet market. Soon we’ll have a new warehouse space for the wet market that will be modern and clean. Apparently the government wants it to be more like Singapore.  Many Hanoians aren’t happy about this. The wet market is an ancient tradition and people have been coming to the same vendors for generations. With the new space the rents will go up and some vendors won’t be able to afford it. People feel like we’ll lose something of the soul of Hanoi when this happens, plus the prices will go up because of the rent. The wet market is the body and soul of life here.”

Taking in my surroundings I’m beginning to scratch the surface of what “the politics of the pavement” means in Hanoi. Leaving my bowl of Bun Rieu Cha half eaten, I realize we have another two and a half hours of eating and exploring in the streets of Hanoi. I need to pace myself.

Bun Rieu Cha

Our next stop is in an area where hotels and Hanoians buy sweet offerings and traditional cakes for weddings, ceremonies and holidays. I try my first young sticky rice cake. It’s green, sweet and very sticky.

Driving on Tu’s Vespa in the rain around the streets of Hanoi is an adventure in itself. He has no fear about turning into oncoming traffic and narrowly missing ladies on bicycles in coolie hats carrying produce. At one point I just close my eyes and keep breathing. By the time we arrive at our next destination, down some narrow alley, I am slightly edgy from the drive, the rain and the question constantly buzzing in my brain, “Where are we?”

We’re in another market and I look around to see motor bikes slowing down, an exchange of goods and money takes place with the vendor and the bike continues to roll down the narrow aisles of the crowded market.

“Why are people driving motorbikes through the market?”  after a week in Hanoi I already know the answer.

“For their convenience.” Tu laughs. “They have maybe 1 or 2 things to pick up and they can drive through in 5 minutes.  Park outside it takes at least 15.”

As we walk around looking at the produce, the cut open fish, snails, bags of live frogs and crabs Tu explains to me how easy and cheap it is to cook at home in Vietnam by shopping in this kind of market. The vendors do the slicing, dicing and preparation for you. You simply tell them how you want something cut or chopped, how much of it you want and they do it all. Once you’re home you just have to do the cooking. All the labor intensive preparation is taken care of when you buy it. Everything is fresh…you know exactly where your food is coming from.

After my morning Bun Rieu Cha, two market visits and a young sticky rice cake tasting we’re ready for coffee at Yen Phu Café. Dodging more produce laden women on bicycles with the Vespa we end up at a tiny, hole in the wall cafe (literally) with an interior that reminds me of a back alley. Tu quickly shuffles me past the tiny tables packed with Hanoians enjoying their mid morning brew, up a narrow staircase to another floor of tiny tables. The walls are filled with black and white photos, the floor is grungy and there’s one small window at the end of the narrow room. Light comes in from the staircase and you can hear the sounds from the kitchen below. I’ve become comfortable expecting nothing and being prepared for anything. Tu is chatting happily while I quietly take in the dark, dank surroundings wondering what I’ll be drinking next… which arrives in the form of a beautiful cup of Barista artistry accompanied by a tall thin glass of coffee infused frozen yogurt called café sua cha. This becomes one of my favorite desserts ever and I eat every bite. The coffee, with thick, fresh foam and a delicate flower engraved on top is almost to pretty to drink. The coffee is strong and smooth, but the café sua cha elicits a big smile and a photo opp.

Our next stop is the to Bahn Cuon Lady on Hang Ga Street . My first experience of Bahn Cuon was in Da Nang and it was delicious. Thin savory rice pancakes filled with wood ear mushrooms, diced pork, topped with fried shallots, mint, and coriander and nuoc cham dipping sauce. This experience does not disappoint in addition to the added bonus of watching her make the thin rice pancakes.

Bahn Coun

There’s a mild break in the rain as we get back on the bike and we’re heading to Diagon alley. As we pull up our miniature plastics stools Tu tells me this is his favorite noodle place. It’s the sauce that makes this place so special and he’s tried to get the recipe, he even wanted to write an article about her but no, she wasn’t giving up her secret sauce. She’s not interested in publicity, notoriety. Her unique sauce goes with her to the grave. This Pho Tiu was something special. Typically I don’t eat peanuts anymore. I could taste the peanuts immediately and I could not stop myself. The mix of flavors was just right. It was a completely unique tasting pho and this week I’ve been eating a fair amount of tasty pho. Pork, herbs, beanshoots, crushed peanuts and the indescribable special sauce.  Another bowl of pho finished. Research, I tell myself.

Just as we were leaving, across the dank alley was a woman with a wok of piping hot “crack-in-the-wall- balls”. Sound enticing? I believe this name comes from the fact that the lady who makes them is actually sitting in a spot in Diagon that is like a crack in the wall. There’s no table, just her pans and her shredded coconut and yellow mung bean balls. Some have sesame seeds. They remind me of something I tried the other day in the street when I bought a few from a vendor I wanted to photograph. They were hard and dry and I was not impressed. I asked Tu about them and he said, “No don’t buy those! Sometimes they are 8 days old! I only buy from here. They have to be fresh, hot and straight out of the pan.” Fresh, hot and straight out the pan indeed.  It burned my mouth when I bit into the soft mung bean center.  It was a completely different taste. One of my favorites. Hot, soft and chewy. I had to keep blowing on it so I could finish it before we got back on the bike for our last stop of the morning…

Crack-in-the-Wall-Balls

Fresh, Hot, Balls

An egg coffee at Café Pho Co. The egg coffee was my one request of the day. I had seen it on Tu’s blog and it looked yummy and if I was going off the coffee wagon for a day I wanted it to count. I wanted something different.  The entrance to the café is between a souvenir shop and a clothing shop. The café is tucked in the back above the owners house. It feels like you’re walking into a 1930’s speakeasy in Hanoi. We entered a narrow alley behind two shop fronts where people drive their motorbikes into someone’s courtyard. Red lanterns hang from the ceiling and another narrow staircase takes you up to an elegant room with intricately carved wooden doors.  On that landing is a spiral, iron staircase leading to another landing where the café begins. Following the staircase up one more flight and we were at the top of the building with a sweeping view of Hoan Kiem Lake. The perfect way to end a morning of zooming around back alleys and the narrows streets of Hanoi. The thick, creamy, egg white foam tastes like Tiramisu. It’s so thick you have to eat it with a spoon until only a thin layer remains that you can mix with the rich, dark, full bodied coffee at the bottom. Over coffee Tu tells me about a T-shirt that says “What the Pho?” (a play on WTF) and we agree I have to have one.

Entrance of Cafe Pho Co

So our last stop on the Vespa ride back to my hotel is to a little t-shirt place to pick up my souvenir of our adventures with street food. After a non-stop morning of eating, Tu goes back home and sends me photos and email listing all the places and all the dishes we had in the order we had them.  I don’t have to remember anything, it’s all there for me. Now all I need to do is fast for the next day and take it easy.

You can find out about the “Street Food Tours” on Tu’s blog The Vietnamese God and Stickyrice written by his tour partner Mark Lowerson. If you go to Hanoi and you love food, this is one tour you won’t want to miss.

24 Hours in Danang, Vietnam

Danang cuisine makes an overnight stay worthwhile. New hotels and beach front resorts are going up at a fast pace and stylish Western restaurants and bars are opening to cater to the business and holiday visitors. Alongside these changes there is still plenty of authentic Danang cuisine to find. There is something exciting about turning down a small alley and discovering a delicious place to try Banh Cuon for the first time. Discovering the local food helps you see it’s a city straddling a transition from the old Vietnamese culture to the stylish, modern Western luxury.

Eating Well in Danang:

Don’t be fooled by the stylish Western restaurants and bars going up at a fast pace as you walk along Bach Dang Street between the Han Bridge and Nguyen Van Troi Bridge. Tucked in alleys and streets behind those riverfront hotels and restaurants are some of the best places for local Danang food.

I found a fantastic blog called Danang Cuisine. As I poured through the different reviews of street food and dishes I thought I’d never be able to navigate myself to one of those places.  Being a native of Danang, the blogger Uyen, has mapped out the area for the best local food, so I went walking around to see what I could find in the area mapped out in Danang Cuisine Travel Tips.

I found Banh Cuon Tien Hung, 190 Tran Phu, and had a yummy experience. Banh Cuon is a dish of savory rice rolls made from steamed fermented rice batter filled with minced ear mushrooms, pork and minced fried shallots. It can come with a variety of side dishes like, sliced cucumber, tofu, lettuce and fresh mint and a dipping sauce called nvoc cham. You mix them all together in a small bowl and the blend of flavors is delicious. The couple that owns the modest little eatery spoke no English and completely set me up with the best meal. They were adorable and showed me how to put it all together to eat it and brought me tea after. All for $5.

For dinner stay in the same area and try to find a Quan Chay or vegetarian restaurant. After dinner stroll down Bach Dang Street to enjoy the view of the Han Bridge lit up at night and stop at any of the bars or restaurants to have a drink on the waterfront. Bach Dang Street is mixed with modern wine bars and restaurants like The Moon River Lounge or The Waterfront Bar and Restaurant right between old style Vietnamese shop front cafes where men sit outside drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in worn plastic chairs. You feel the older generation of Vietnam side by side with the stylish, young hipsters.

Where to stay:

There are two prime locations to stay in Danang. The area from the right side of the Han River to the Beach is apparently referred by expats as “the Eastside” and boasts the beautiful Danang Beach. “The Westside” has amazing street food and restaurants.

New hotels are going up a fast pace and from my experience the service at hotels in Danang can be an issue. Many times people speak little to no English so be prepared to have patience with customer service and confusing encounters.

On “the Eastside” you can find a range of places to stay for any budget. The Crowne Plaza Dananag has rooms for $171 a night. It’s the largest beach resort in Danang with over 600 rooms and has the feel of a small city combined with the luxurious standards of the high end traveler. For the beach lovers who don’t mind being a bit further out of the city The Indochina Danang is on a beautiful strip of China Beach and rooms range from $30-$60 a night. The highly recommended Mango Hotel also on China Beach has rooms that range from $25-$35.


Staying at a hotel on “the Westside” allows for plenty of Danang Cuisine to explore in a short stay. The Sun River Hotel has rooms starting at $69 a night and if pay a little more for a VIP room ($75) and have a view of the Han River. There are a range of hotels along Bach Dang Street with riverside views.

Sights to See:

Walking along Bach Dang Street you can see City Hall, the Han Market and a view of the Han and Nguyen Van Troi Bridges. Vietnamese men standing on the promenade with their fishing poles and boats carrying cargo move up and down the river all day. For an Urban area like Danang there is surprising little traffic. It’s easy to find a metered taxi to take you where you need to go and if you stay in the “Westside” you can walk to the maze of street food and restaurants.


Marble Mountain is about 9 Km from Danang on the way to Hoi An. It is a cluster of five mountains that are actually marble and named after the five elements of earth, water, metal, fire and wood. The mountains have active temples, pagodas, caves, Buddhist statues and a sweeping view from the lookout point. The view is a 360 panoramic view of Danang, Marble Mountain Village and Hoi An. To make life easier there is an elevator up and down as an alternative to the long climb on the stairs. Definitely worth a visit either from Danang or Hoi An.


There are cranes and construction all over Danang showing it’s a Vietnamese city in transition. With the clean and beautiful China Beach on “the Eastside” and the local street food and cafes on “the Westside” spending a 24 hours in Danang can be a delicious and relaxing experience in a city that’s quickly changing.