The first order of business was learning how to cross the street. There are 5 million motorbikes in Hanoi among a population of about 7 million. They rush in and out of intersections like floodwaters. Pedestrian crossings are nothing more than something to speed over. Traffic lights serve merely as guidelines.
Yet a sense of order remains. While walking through Vietnam’s capital city could feel daunting, the onus was still on the motorbikes to not hit pedestrians, not on pedestrians to not get hit by the motorbikes. By the end of my first day in Hanoi, my instinct to hesitate had developed into an understanding that only by walking with a purpose would the motorists anticipate my movements and circumvent calamity.
Each morning began with a cup of egg coffee. The traditional Vietnamese beverage, also known as Cà Phê Trung, is a Hanoi specialty in which a soft, creamy egg white foam is perched atop a small glass of robusta coffee. Served hot, it’s consumed with a spoon and rests in a small dish of hot water to maintain its temperature. As sweet as any dessert, the unique texture and flavor profile isn’t for everyone, but for those it’s for, it’s an essential start to the day. Try a cup at the humble Giang Café, widely credited with creating the sweet drink in 1946, when milk was scarce and egg yolk filled in as a replacement. A simple sign above a small alleyway signals you’re in the right spot. Walk down to the end and have your life irrevocably changed for the better.
There was a lightness and effervescence to the city that made the simple act of wandering around a satisfying use of the day. Hanoi excels at street food, its broad avenues pulsating with honking cars, storefront venders and street peddlers to create an environment I found exhilarating. There was a sense that, as long as you avoided getting obliterated by a motorbike and had a little money in your pocket, you could do just about anything.
The Thang Long Imperial Citadel, Temple of Literature and Vietnamese Women’s Museum were three of the best historical sites I visited. Each proved instructive in gaining a greater appreciation for Vietnamese culture. The same could be said of the enchantingly bizarre North Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry, which is simultaneously exactly and nothing like what it sounds. The less you know about it the better, but please, please, please do yourself a favour and go.
Bún cha Huong Liên was a given. You can trace pretty much everything about my approach to traveling back to some episode of “Parts Unknown,” so when chef/writer/television personality, Anthony Bourdain, who passed away last year, shared a meal with then President of the United States, Barack Obama, at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in 2016… let’s just say it checked a lot of boxes for me.
So I wanted to see where it happened. I walked through the Old Quarter for a while as the sun went down. There were a few other people there, mostly Americans, Americans like me, feeling around for psychic resonance, asking the same questions in their minds, namely, Wait, is this the actual restaurant? Or is it that other restaurant, over there? And what even is “bún cha,” precisely?
“Obama?” I asked the cashier at the front sheepishly, and before I could finish, a waitress led me up a narrow staircase to a rear dining room on the second floor. Any sense of mystery vanished immediately. Positioned against the near wall, halfway across a space the size of a large bedroom, sat a stainless-steel table encased in protective glass, complete with empty beer bottles, chopsticks and staged dinnerware. A picture of Obama and Bourdain dining at the exact table hung above, just in case any confusion remained. “Not sure how I feel about this”, Bourdain wrote after posting a photo of the display on Instagram, which of course was the paradox of me being there in the first place; Bourdain selected this nondescript noodle joint specifically because of its unheralded nature. What are the chances I would have eaten there if they hadn’t done it before me?
I decided to cut myself some slack and took a seat at a table to the immediate left of the display, close enough that I would have been able to eavesdrop on their conversation about hot dogs and date nights with Michelle had we been there at the same time. A young waiter set down a bowl of grilled pork and unctuous broth, a plate of greens, a platter of shuddering noodles, and a sweating bottle of Vietnamese Beer. A cigarette butt lay below a “no-smoking” sign. I could see why they liked the place.