Vietnam’s capital is the bustling center of the north. Traffic lights and signs are mere suggestions, but there is a rhythm that allows pedestrians, cars, and scooters alike to flow organically. We stayed in the Old Quarter, which is most convenient to tourists with its accessibility to taxis/scooters (We recommend the Grab app if you have a local number!) and packed shops/restaurants. The Old Quarter is also comprised of many themed streets (Need silk? There’s a street for that. Eyewear? Walk over to this one. Sandals, stainless steel faucets/showerheads, toys, and so much more).

Pro Tip: Exchange crisp $100 USD bills at a jewelry shop for the best exchange rate. It will be more favorable than any bank or airport exchange (my US bank did not offer VND currency).

Our first meal was right around the corner from our hotel at Phở Gà Nguyệt. This place earned a Bib Gourmand and was one of the best establishments from that list. Chicken is fresh, flavorful, and separated between light and dark meats (though you can request both), and there are soup and dry options. Of the three pho restaurants we tried (plus pho from homestays/hotels), this one was our favorite! Northern style pho is much simpler than most of the pho (southern style) we have in the states, usually topped with just green onions rather than an array of herbs.

In the morning, we also had a delicious bowl of fried fish soup with red noodles at Bún Cá Sâm Cây Si. This stall is located in a small bend of an alley and was pretty empty when we visited. A large stock pot sat in the corner with a small tower of deep fried fish on the rear counter. Water celery adds a satisfying crunch and there is a slightly sour taste from pineapple and tomatoes.

Since Hanoi is home to egg coffee, I decided this was the place to try it. Made with egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk, this drink is decadent. We ended up preferring the iced version as it had more flavor and helped decrease the intensity of the coffee. Cafe Dinh is run by one of the inventor’s granddaughters and is located upstairs of a narrow, grimy-looking staircase.

Imperial Citadel of Thang Long

As much as I loved visiting Vietnam, there were definitely some downsides. It’s clearly a developing country, and Hanoi ranks among the top of the world’s worst cities in air quality. It seems that a large contributing factor is its inadequate garbage system. We say many people burn trash to help get rid of it more quickly. It doesn’t help that developed, western countries have shipped their waste over as well. So, you’ll often see these beautiful landscapes and walk through historical sites with fumes of cigarettes, smoke, and exhaust filling the air. On the plus side, the pollution sometimes makes for more dramatic shots. 🙃

Temple of Literature

There were several moments in Vietnam where I felt distinctly “American.” For one, we only encountered a few other American tourists; most were European or Asian. Reminders of French colonialism and the Vietnam war were inescapable. We’d read a plaque at the Hoa Lo Prison Relic talking about how the US bombed Vietnam, captured pilots lived in the prison, but they were treated well. Or how young Vietnamese people fought for better conditions of the jail and well, what can I say but … the winners tell a patriotic, valiant story. For much of the trip, I felt self-conscious, a sickly-squeamishness of being an American in a country where the US committed so many atrocities.

The most quintessentially Asian American experience we had were multiple Vietnamese people asking where we were from. We would reply with “the US,” and they would look at us quizzically before saying, “But your face is Asian.” I have many mixed feelings about all of this, and it’s something my ignorant American ass probably should have thought more about before.

As a a foodie, Vietnam was as good as I imagined it to be. As a foodie and tourist, my best advice is that if there are more than 50% non-Asian tourists at a restaurant/stall, it will likely be disappointing. Before applying this guideline, we experienced multiple hyped but less than stellar food. Of course, there will always be exceptions, but too many Google reviews led us astray! Your best bet is to walk around until you find a spot with enticing food, decent turnover, and a majority of locals/Vietnamese customers. Since we don’t speak Vietnamese, Google Translate became our best friend.

The downside is that with this wandering method, some places simply don’t have an accurate location I can link to. This bun rieu place was actually labeled as something else, and there was a delicious dessert tofu shop on a corner in the Old Quarter I got on our last night that had lots of locals stopping by everyday.

That said, a friend recommended Ne Cocktail Bar, which is best known for their pho cocktail (I got a fruity mocktail). This drink definitely lived up to its reputation. It’s unexpected, pleasant, and you can really taste all the savory herbs and spices. The bartenders recommend drinking it as is first, and then adding lime and/or chili later for extra depth.

Chè Lộc Tài was my favorite dessert place! It is a super cute shop with two floors, renovated from a 100 year old building and retains some of the antique decor. I ordered the mixed toppings over ice (lotus seed, longan, cendol, jelly, taro, and coconut milk). Jay had the rice ball in a hot ginger soup (which is similar to the Chinese style). Both were the perfect amount of “not too sweet” and had the “Q” textures. My only regret is not going back another day to try the fried banana dessert, as they were sold out.

Other special mentions are Alluvia Chocolate (lots of flavors and gift boxes, fruitier cocoa) and Thái Đạt (bbq skewer spot at night. really slow but flavorful and cooked well).

There’s something charming about squatting on a tiny plastic stool on the sidewalk while a person cycles by with the recorded drone of a voice selling street coffee or tofu. Walking by and seeing just how one can balance a bicycle stacked with ceramics will always be a wonder. Outside of Old Quarter and historical areas, Hanoi seems like any other modern city, yet the delicious food, complicated history, and kind locals have me wanting to visit again.