This post is the first in a two-part series on Vietnam, contributed by Reed Flores. (Part two coming soon!)
Read more about his travels on “The Escape Artist”!
The majority of what Americans and much of the western world know about Vietnam is largely informed by the Vietnam war—or the American war, depending on how you look at it. Maybe you’ve been informed by what you’ve have seen in national geographic. Or, more recently, you’ve been informed by what expats choose to share on their instagrams and travel blogs. Yet, after days of research and a week in Hanoi (and a dramatic stint in Sapa), I can honestly say I know next to nothing about Vietnam other than a few dishes, key phrases, and a deep desire to know more.
I arrived at Noi Bai airport at 11pm on Thursday and here’s what I was surprised to see: Hanoi is virtually unrecognizable at night. As I exited the airport and met my stoic driver, I was intrigued by the hazy, mysterious world we were driving so haphazardly into. Signs lined the streets; “Pho bo”, “bun oc”, “bun rieu”… the list goes on. A family of three drives by me on a single motorbike and I can’t help but marvel at the trust you have to possess to sit three on a motorbike; I don’t even give myself that much trust driving my own car.
Within forty minutes, I arrive at my AirBnB and I pay my driver. What’s Vietnamese for, “My bad, homie, I wish I could give you more”? My host takes me to the top floor of the house, and presents me with a room the size of an apartment and a private bath I would be lucky to see anywhere in the states. He hands me my keys and closes the door. A moment of silence. In the timespan of a day, I was now seven-thousand miles away from home. Alone. Holy sh*t.
I kick off my shoes, take off my pants, and flop into bed. I’ll take Hanoi in the morning.
I wake up at 7am because I can’t contain my excitement anymore. And rightly so. If only I knew the foods and coffees Hanoi had in stall for me… I throw on my a carefully curated outfit and order my Grab (the uber/lyft of Vietnam). My knight in a shining hyundai picks me up in seconds, and next thing I know I’m standing on a street in the middle of the Old Quarter, a few shops down from where Obama and St. Bourdain ate bún chả over a few Hanoi beers.
Immediately, a woman with baskets strung over her shoulder offers rice hats, baseball caps, and more merch. I politely decline and begin my nervous walk, let me say this, and I’ll only say this once: Do not stop walking in Vietnam. Don’t want to be hit by that family on a motorbike? Do not stop walking. Want to avoid being asked to buy merchandise? Do not stop walking. Want to cross the road? DO. NOT. STOP. WALKING.
My first eatery in Hanoi was the infamous egg coffee, cà phê trứng; a delicious cup of heaven. Vietnamese coffee topped with fluffy, cloudy, sweet whipped egg. This was the first cup of many. My recommendation is the second-generation egg coffee institution, Giang Coffee, with “Xoi Yen” right next door. You’ll find egg coffee all over town but I especially enjoyed Coffee 24 on Bat Dan, where I sat with a few friends on the street, people watching. After a cup or five of egg coffee I set off again.
From what I gather, cafe culture is a huge thing across Asia. This is no different in Vietnam, on almost every street, you’ll find a cafe. Some of the youth in Vietnam are opening very aesthetic, lovely cafes. The states could learn a lot from how a well-developed aesthetic and theme markets very well. Honestly, in my few days in Hanoi, I was not at a loss of places to eat
My absolute favorite cafe was Tranquil café. Tucked away behind dozens of mom-and-pop stores and apartments. Hidden down a small alley you’ll find this lovely shop piled with books and quiet staff (gotta be tranquil, y’all!). Iced banana coffee is a must—I find myself making it a lot at home now.
If you’re in Hoan Kiem here are some cafes you must check out:
- Floral & Book Cafe: cute flower store on the first level, and a quiet, stylish cafe on top. Be wary though, their cà phê đá (vietnamese coffee) is potent; I found my heart was about to beat out of my chest.
- La Sen: Beautie Kafe, for coffee and a manicure! They’re sweet there, and the view is phenomenal, especially during the night market. Don’t be intimidated by the dark, sketchy alley you have to go through to get there.
- Cong cà phê -If you want something consistent, Starbucks-like, this is the spot. They’re all over the city, and have amazing coffee, I’d say go for the coconut milk cà phê. Also, the bar is socialist themed; painted Vietnamese people behind decorative wooden bars gave me the chills.
So there it is. All of my cafe recommendations in Hanoi. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Hanoi adventures where, now that were well caffeinated from all that coffee, we’ll explore some more of the city!
Now let’s hear about some of your favorite cafes in the comments!