In many ways, Hanoi feels like a quant time warp – a place where shoulder poles abound, shoe cobblers still cobble and old people ward off the midday torpor with paper fans.
In others, it feels like New York – a place where every transaction can turn into an argument and strangers are regarded with spite and suspicion.
Traveling to Hanoi from the sunny, foreigner-coddling environs of Ho Chi Minh City can prove especially jarring.
So, before getting off the plane at Noi Bai International Airport, please review the following fun facts to help you better enjoy your stay.
1) Nobody thinks you are handsome here, so wipe that stupid grin off your face.
2) No one is amazed by your rudimentary grasp of Vietnamese. In fact, no one has any idea what you are saying.
3) “Yuh” is “zuh” and “hoi” is “oto.” Also, “you” are a “jerk.”
4) If you have any questions or concerns, write them down on a piece of paper and mail them to someone who cares.
5) Your new name is Ong Tay (Mr. Westerner) or just Tay, for short.
Now you are ready to hit the town!
What it lacks in warmth, it makes up for in food.
Head for the first tented sidewalk café you can find.
Fifty cents buys you a stout rip of tobacco and a tart glass of green tea. You will need it to brace yourself for everything that will follow.
Dish: Mì gà tần thuốc bắc
Address: Intersection of Hang Bo and Hang Can streets
Hours: 6 p.m. – late
To many, this tangy charcoal-colored chicken noodle stew represents a flavor that is as old as Vietnam itself – an ancient cure-all derived from smoky medicinal berries and liquorice flavored herbs.
The dish (which translates as “northern medicine stew”) usually contains the whole body of a gaunt silkie.
At some point, an old couple began serving the broth with pads of instant noodles and chicken thighs under a banyan tree in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Every night, throngs of Hanoians crowd around plastic tables at this busy intersection to take their medicine.
When they run out of thighs they add chicken innards and pig heart – so get there late!
Dish: Bún riêu cua
Address: On the sidewalk across from 31 Hong Phuc Street
Hours: 2 p.m. – 6p.m.
The key to bún riêu is sourness.
But the agent of that flavor is regional.
In the South, fresh tamarind provides a broth that’s sweet and tangy.
In the North, fermented rice (mẻ) makes for a pure, mouth-puckering goodness.
Follow your nose down this quiet old street to the unpleasant woman seated on a narrow curb astride a shoulder pole. Her broth is a simple liquid emboldened by stewed tomatoes, ground paddy crab and a cultivated distaste for her customers.
She warned me not to take her picture or “put her on the Internet” before I even sat down. I had to insist on a spoonful of mắm tôm – the stinking purple shrimp paste.
I do not think I got much.
Regardless, her broth packs a punch. I believe the crone must add a special drop of spite to every bowl to achieve such a perfect sourness.
Breakfast in a cup
Dish: Cà phê trứng
Address: Café Vườn Phố Cổ, 11 Hang Gai Street
Hours: All day till late
Apparently, coffee served in a whipped egg was a popular beverage in Ho Chi Minh City until bird flu gave everyone the willies.
Luckily, this spire-like café still serves Vietnam’s answer to the zabaglione all day long.
The café can only be accessed only by walking down a long dark hallway at the rear of a tsotchke shop. Order from the gruff young ladies on the ground floor, then head for the crow’s nest up top to enjoy a gorgeous view of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Stir it quick and drink it hot.
Squint your eyes and see if you can spot the ancient turtle that continues to supply the nation with secret weapons for expelling foreign invaders.
The perfect bánh cuốn
Price: VND25,000 per plate
Address: 72 Hang Bo Street
Hours: 4 p.m. till late
Celebrity chef Bobby Chinn spent nearly two decades in Hanoi setting up restaurant after restaurant.
Chinn battled business partners, suffered staff walk-outs and nearly got beat up a few times, according to his cook book “Wild Wild East.”
But, he says, he was protected.
“Vietnam is one of the rare countries where an outsider can become an insider,” he said during a recent interview. “If you spend enough time here, you can become a part of it.”
Among his confederates was a third-generation bánh cuốn vendor named An.
Chinn claims that, after years of asking, An shared her batter recipe with him – a nearly unheard-of disclosure from cook to customer.
I found her sitting at the doorway of her restaurant, hovering over a pair of steamers with the air of a long-distance trucker.
When she heard Chinn’s name, she let out a deep guffaw.
“He still sends someone over here to pick him up some bánh cuốn whenever he’s in town,” she said, peeling an impossibly thin crepe off a steaming swath of cheese cloth and plating it with a soda can full of chicken and mushroom hash.
Perhaps it is possible to feel at home in Hanoi. It just takes a few decades.