While I didn’t have many expectations of Ha Noi, the city itself was far different than what I imagined it would be. Granted my impression is based mainly on what I saw in a small 5 mile radius but since that area included both low and high end sections I believe it is pretty consistent with the rest of the city. Since this was also my gateway into Vietnam it was also my impression that the rest of Vietnam would be similar. While my trip to Sapa did not change that, my return from Laos to central Vietnam certainly did.
In Ha Noi, I did not see restaurants as we would define them. Rarely did I see something with a front door for someone to open and close, a normal table and chairs, and don’t even think about a table cloth. What Ha Noi does have though is something I frequent often while traveling, street food.
You can barely walk 20 yards, sorry…20 meters, without the ability to buy something to eat. Whether it is an old lady selling sweat breads or noodle soup, cold salads or kababs, purveyors are everywhere. If you want to eat at a restaurant, saddle up on the sidewalk. Rather than dining in, people in Ha Noi dine out. Restaurants have large open fronts, rarely seating inside and even more rarely used if had. The equipment they use is basically the same as any street vendor just more and larger, so less mobile. They have plastic chairs and tables that we in the US would buy for children to play with, and curb space in the middle of tight, small, and busy sidewalks (we jokingly called the seats little boy chairs and couldn’t figure out for the life of us why no one actually had adult size furniture).
A common ingredient in all food in Vietnam is coriander (what we call cilantro) and as many of you know, I can’t stand cilantro. Therefore, I quickly learned how to say three things in Vietnamese; hello, thank you, and no coriander. I ate a lot of different foods and because of my new found language skills, I enjoyed most of what I ate. The favorite meal had to be Bun Bo which I now understand to mean, noodles with beef. It seemed some places served it as soup (similar to Pho) but the place we frequented the most served it dry, and it was delicious.
For those that are squemish about kitchen hygeine, sterile food preparation, and identifiable ingredients, Ha Noi may not be the place for you. While there I coined the term, if you have to ask, you don’t want to know. That basically summed up every meal in Ha Noi. While most of it was very good, it was always a question of what were we really eating. If you asked someone if it was chicken, they would say yeah, yeah, chicken. If you asked them if it was pork they would say yeah, yeah, pork. You could even ask the same person the question twice in a row and get different answers. They basically said it was whatever you wanted it to be.
One thing that the Vietnamese eat which was never mentioned to us is the delicacy of dog. As far as I know I did not eat any in Ha Noi. I did see some roasted to a golden brown similar to how a chef prepares a peking duck (and have pictures for anyone that so desires to see), but to this day I am going with, I did not eat any. Yeah, yeah, pork.
I arrived back in Vietnam from Laos in Da Nang. Vietnam’s third largest city, the largest city in central Vietnam, and where China Beach is located, a popular geographic location from the Vietnam war. This is where my impression of Vietnam changed.