Notes on Hanoi

Places that I like to eat on Hang Dieu:

Loc Tai bakery

The Loc Tai bakery on Hang Dieu makes cakes, sells fluorescent jelly desserts but most importantly bakes sweet bread hamburger buns (Banh Tao) and croissant-shaped rolls (Banh Cua Bo) that I eat at least 3 times a day. It is an addiction. I can’t walk past the bakery without ducking in, buying an armful, and tearing viciously into their soft white flesh with the predatory focus of a T-Rex. I can barely go for a piss without buying a couple in case I get hungry on the way. In an effort to combat these urges, I’ve started to take alternative routes to avoid it, but the smell tails me, waits for me like Orson Welles, round and doughy, in a doorway.

At 3000 VND (9 pence) and 5000 VND (15 pence) respectively, they are cheap. It is not a £200 a day crack habit we’re talking about here. They also have the benefit of being a fixed price, fresh, hygienically-prepared, and tasty.

The girls that work there look at me strangely each time I appear, trying to work out just what this skinny westerner does with so many buns, searching for some pattern or semblance of logic in my habits that will reveal my secret. But there is none – sometimes the buns are breakfast; other times a mid-afternoon snack to accompany mild sun-stroke or extreme soggyness depending on the Hanoi weather; sometimes they are a late night and drunken necessity, thrown down into the pit of my stomach to absorb the beer Hoi that gurgles there dangerously.

Ban Bo

Thick noodles, slices of tender beef, peanuts, fresh mint, chunks of apple, herbs, and spring onion covered in a rich broth, finished with a squeeze of lime and some freshly chopped chilli – ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, I give you Ban Bo. A lip-smacking treat of the highest order.

And as far as I’m concerned, the place to eat it is on Hang Dieu. An efficient production line greets you when you enter the eatery, with endless bowls filled with noodles and herbs piled up ready for the next order. You get the sense that if you wanted to eat this meal again and again and again you could. The flavours are complex: the sweet bite of the apple; the salty boldness of the broth; the almost chemical heat of the fresh chilli; the delicate floral notes of the fresh mint and herbs; and the thick absorbent noodles binding it all together, unravelling in your mouth like playful baby snakes spitting out the tastiest venom.

Corner of Hang Dieu and Hang Non

Crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside – the baguettes are stacked efficiently in a glass cabinet next to a camping gas stove and a small lady sat on a stool. For the equivalent of 50p, she cracks two eggs into a plastic cup, adds liberal amounts of salt, then fries them in a blackened but much-loved pan over her gas stove. Whilst the eggs solidify slightly, she slices the baguette and layers with cucumber. She then adds the completed omelette, a squirt of chilli sauce and wraps it up in a sheet of someone’s maths homework. One time I was stood there waiting for my baguette when her friend brings her over a helium balloon of a cartoon rabbit. Without taking her eyes off my eggs, she ties it proudly to the drainpipe above her gas stove. It hovers lovingly over her for the rest of the evening.

21 Hang Dieu

Located unsurprisingly at 21 Hang Dieu down an unassuming, slightly unsavoury-looking, narrow concrete passage off the main road, this little nook of a place serves delicious noodles. At the end of the passage is a woman presiding over a range of ingredients from pork to wanton and some food stuffs that I don’t recognise. She is like a character from Labyrinth. All I know to do is walk down, smile, and point to the peanuts and then cross her palm with notes. What I receive from this most basic of processes is a bowl of sweet noodles with pork roll and spring onion, topped with deep fried garlic and peanuts, and covered in a tasty broth. It is awesome.

Places I like to drink:

Panacea Cafe

This place is for teenagers, at a stretch young adults. I don’t really belong here. It is a place where smoking is a fashion statement, where a single coffee or energy drink is sipped for hours on end, where dramatic heart-break ballads really speak to you. But with a piano in the corner, the nostalgic smog of cigarette smoke all around, vinyl-seating, big windows and a neon sign on the wall, I want to belong. I sit and drink coffee here and write, occasionally pick up an acoustic guitar just because I can, because it’s a young, foolish thing to do when you can’t play for shit.

There are real musicians here. For starters, The So Good Fusion Band, a quartet of young and hyper-talented musicians that play jazz-fusion covers complete with mind-blowing fiddle of Maroon 5, Barry White, Michael Jackson and even Lionel Richie in the evenings. The quality of the musicianship shines through, breathing a bizarre new life into these smoother than smooth classics – there is an innocence in their set list that reflects the oddness of the music scene in Vietnam. Overly-dramatic ballads dominate to the extent that there is no other discernible genre. I want them to play Dirty 3 and Do Make Say Think but that, I think, is what an adult would want.

Beer Hoi on the corner Hang Vai and Phung Hung

Locally brewed fresh beer at 8000 VND (25 pence) a glass, delivered to your table with a ruthless efficiency by omnipotent waiters each time you reach the crisis point of 2 sips remaining – yes, this place exists. And to celebrate men drink topless in the evening fug, occasionally arm wrestling, always shouting about onething or other. When the beer has worked its hoppy magic, plates piled high with tiny birds, beaks and claws intact, are bought round to satisfy their drunken cravings. The menu features everything from the no-nonsense ‘stomach with peppercorns’ to ‘pig ears boiled or grilled’ depending on your predilection for gunk or crunch. I drink but skip the food.

Café on West Lake

The café is unremarkable really. A small counter, no menu, a few basic seats around cheap and undeniably kitsch tables on a quiet, shady enclave of West Lake. The views are spectacular; the hazy apparitions of skyscrapers on the north shore, fishermen wading up to their necks as they check their nets for fish, and the strangely inspiring sight of a lone swan peddelo dwarfed by the great expanse of water.

The café also makes the best iced coffee in Vietnam. 7 mm of condensed milk stuck like the sugary glue it is to the bottom of the glass; 2 shots of Vietnam’s finest rocket fuel coffee followed by a crowning caramel-coloured froth that is born in the moment of immaculate conception. And the 2 pieces of ice bob merrily, enough to cool but not dilute. There is a glass of water to persuade the tasty tar to leave your gums and teeth. It is divine. I spend two hours there and drink two. I would love to drink more but the sun that once dimpled through the leaves is now burning hard and bright, and my jaw is beginning to nibble at my cheeks.

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Tom Spooner

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