Hanoi, Vietnam (Part II)

Sunday, July 7, 2024

The simplicity and almost barren nature of our two days spent at Halong Bay made me crave for some of the more indulgent, excessive experiences available back in Hanoi, curated mostly for the tourist dollar. 

While I used to be somewhat of a "purist", trying to find the most authentic, local things to do as a traveller in an attempt to immerse myself into the culture, I've come to realize over time that there's also a beauty in acknowledging your own role in the ecosystem. If you're only in a destination for a week at most, there's no harm leaning into the popular spots to get a feel of the best that the country/ city has to offer, and many a times these spots were recommended for good reason. 

Or perhaps I've now become a jaded, working adult simply in need of a vacation, not trying to turn everything into a life-changing revelation or lesson about another country. And if I'm being honest I probably wouldn't be able to come up with a single original thought. 

Day 5 | 10 December

So on our last full day in Vietnam (read part 1 of Hanoi & Halong), we checked off every tourist 'must-do', starting with the Hanoi Train Street. For the unacquainted, this street is technically closed to the public, with policemen guarding the main entryways, as there had been safety concerns about hordes of tourists visiting and getting on the train tracks for photo opportunities, oblivious to incoming trains. 

However, from what I'd read online, as well as from tips given by friends who'd recently visited the spot, one would be able to enter the street if they have been "invited for coffee" by a local. 

True enough, we first got turned away by a police guard at the entrance that Google Maps had led us to, but decided to make a little detour to another nearby alley. There, we got approached by a man, presumably local, who told us we could visit his home for a coffee. In usual circumstances, this is not an offer I'd say yes to, especially not in a foreign country, but I'd done enough research to know that all he wanted from us was patronage to his "closed" cafe. Once we agreed, we were led to the train street via the backdoors of one of the units. 

We were one of the first tourists on the train street that morning and we were quickly ushered upstairs so the patrolling policemen would not chase us out. It was surprisingly how active they were, blowing their whistles whenever they caught sight of anyone loitering and taking photos. 

Vietnamese egg coffee – not the best specimen of the drink, we came to realize later on the same day, but not too bad for our first try. 

Another family joined us shortly after. 

The other thing to note about this famous train street is that there is no reliable train schedule. Getting into a cafe along this street takes a bit of street smarts and some luck, but spotting a train while you're there is all luck. Somehow, we were blessed with both on that day and even had one of the best seats to boot. 

I thought it'd be underwhelming, but this was definitely a highlight. The train came dangerously close – an outstretched hand would easily graze the exterior of the cabins – so I can see why the emergency brakes have had to be deployed when tourist crowds were out of control. 

A sneaky shot beside the tracks while leaving, before a policeman told us to stop.

And so from one tourist hotspot, we hopped over to the next. This time, to Bánh Mì 25, one of the city's most famous spots for the local sandwich. I love most Vietnamese dishes, but to be honest banh mi has never appealed to me. The French baguette is not my favourite bread type as I find it hard and dry, but I had to give this dish a shot at least once since I'm already there. 

Perhaps I was hungry, or that the ingredients were fresh, but I quite enjoyed this toasty delight. The brightness of the pickled vegetables and herbs contrasted well with the savoury and rich pate and meats, though I still would have preferred the ingredients atop a pillowy soft brioche bun instead. 

Tummies filled, we walked around the rest of the Old Quarter, and JX took some amazing street shots. 

We stopped for a little Mixue break – I can never resist the inexpensive milky ice cream cone, whether it's in Singapore or elsewhere. It was also interesting to learn that the Chinese brand's first outlet outside of the mainland was in Vietnam in 2018, and that it was able to expand so rapidly since, while remaining consistent in quality and taste. 

After a bit more walking, we headed to Café Giảng, another popular location. It's a traditional coffee shop, famous for its egg coffee, and boy this place served up a cuppa I'm still dreaming of till today, which speaks volumes considering I'm not even a coffee drinker. 

Though perhaps that's why–Vietnamese egg coffee should probably be classified more as a dessert. It's a strong brew topped with a heaping amount of a whipped egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk custard. Awfully indulgent, but worth every calorie. 

Silky smooth. This cup looked and tasted a lot different than the "egg coffee" we had earlier at the train street, but I suppose the latter was for the overall experience, not necessarily the coffee itself. 

The Christmas vibes around Hanoi were on point, made even better with the cold weather. 

As our anniversary falls in December, we decided to treat ourselves to a fancy schmancy sit-down dinner at Tung Dining, recommended by my dear friend. Definitely a bit of a splurge, but the experience was well worth it, especially when compared to some of the restaurants we have in Singapore. 

Service was attentive but not suffocating, and the food was unique but not pretentious. The best combination, I reckon. 

Tables were spaced out from one another, giving each diner privacy. 

Warm, homely lighting. 

The menu was minimalistic, with only the key ingredients for each course being listed. No over the top dish names that they'd have their servers memorize. 

Each plate came with its own description cards, placed down as they were being served, which was nice to refer back to as we ate (and honestly the only reason why I'd be able to name each one in the following photos). 

Oyster & Limnophila Rugosa. 

Salmon & Apple. 

Amaebi & Chorizo.

Cod & Aioli in the foreground; Eel & Garlic pierced with the heart shaped skewer.

Tomato & Parmesan. 

Thyme & Cinnamon.

Beef Pho–now, this dish, was mind-blowing. Somehow they managed to capture the deep flavours of the iconic Vietnamese rice noodle dish into this thin sheet of a gelatinous texture. I still think about this one often (and mind you, it's been 1.5 years) though I think their menu would've changed by now. 

Carabineros Curry.

Tooth Fish & Seaweed.

My view–

–And his.

Scallop & Sawtooth.

Lobster & Scallion.

Pigeon & Clausena Indica.

Pigeon & Clausena Indica part II. It also came with a broth–that bowl you see in the above two photos.

Beef & Galangal in the foreground; Sourdough & Black Garlic in the background.

A palette cleanser, Watermelon & Strawberry, before the dessert courses, one of which I somehow did not photograph, but it was a Whiskey & Coconut dish. 

Peach & Yogurt in the glasses; Milk & Sesame sandwiched and caught in the depths of dry ice fog. 

Lychee & Mango. 

Such a gorgeous line-up of twenty courses each, which set us back by around S$115/ per pax. I can't recommend this enough, for anyone visiting Hanoi looking to celebrate a special occasion. It was the perfect way to end our holiday in Hanoi, though not before strolling around the streets one final time and picking up a couple of snacks along the way.  

Rotiboy-style buns from a street vendor. 

Strawberry ice cream rolls. 

Despite it being a relatively short five-day getaway, we definitely got a good glimpse (and taste!) of both the traditional and modern aspects of Hanoi, and this city truly has so much good to offer. I don't doubt its status as a rising Southeast Asian go-to destination, and can see myself returning to the country, though as a self-professed city chick, I'll probably head to Saigon next. 

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