The more beautiful twin of the big cities in Vietnam, Hanoi straddles that fine line between modernity and history. The city itself is picturesque, laid out amidst sprawling lakes, narrow streets lined with ancient houses, streetfood vendors encroaching every inch of sidewalk, raucous bars vying for custom and the odd temple speckled about with traditional music soothing the blaring traffic.
It takes a few days of walking to get the layout of the city, and thats the best plan for Hanoi. Walk. Walk everywhere, get lost, figure out where you are and start joining the dots until you have an overview. Some of the best food here is found on the street, small plastic chairs are the way to go. We spent a week in both cities researching, gorging, critiquing, returning, sampling and discarding. At no point did we get sick of Pho, as you can witness by the last paragraph in this post.
The first bowl was enjoyed in typical Hanoi style. Sidewalk, low table, achilles crunching chairs. It ended up being the best one we ate there, which is funny because Anthony Bourdain had eaten there too, unbeknownst to me.
Phở Bò Gà
Perfectly cooked noodles, great broth, decent condiments, good meat, large portions and all for the measly sum of a couple dollars. Plus as a bonus you get to breathe in unadulterated car and scooter fumes to really add to the experience. The cacaphony of sounds really does make it an all-immersive experience.
Like peaches and cream, a decent meal needs to be followed by a couple of gin tonics. Wandering around the old town bar streets can be a dizzying affair.... thousands of people crammed into tiny shacks with chairs spilling all into the street causing traffic jams and utter chaos. And in that bizarre labyrinth of boozing and food, you can sometimes find a spot that becomes your regular. Madame Thu's bar "King Pirates" became ours. Her American husband has an annoying tendency of over-talking so be aware of that. Luckily for us, the first two visits to Hanoi he was away for work so we could drink our (extremely) generous-pour Gin Tonics for a pittance.
Surely enough, after a couple of drinks the time came for more Pho, and Madamn Thu highly recommended a spot that was 50 meters down the road. We headed there, had to wait a while for a seat, and dove into the bowl like ravenous animals. This was not as good as Bo Ga, but it was definitely the second best bowl we found in Hanoi.
A tiny, slightly rough around the edges, place guaranteed to put a smile on your face with the rich broth, tender meat, perfect noodles and condiments, and all for a fraction of the price of most tourist traps. This is a definite hole-in-the-wall discovery that you'll keep going back to.
The following day was raining, and we headed out for the final bowl in Hanoi before heading down to Saigon to see what all the fuss was about. I know there are regional differences between Northern and Southern Pho, and from a neutral standpoint I (controversially) prefer southern. Last on the list was Pho 10 which had garnered splendid reviews online.
Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su
Truth be told it was a fine bowl of Pho, but still didn't match up to Bo Ga. Definitely on par with Vui with rich, delicious broth, good noodles but the only thing that took away from the experience was the meat. It had a strange "off" smell to it, hard to pinpoint but it just took a bit of the joy out of carving canyons in the soup.
One more day spent at Pirates, had some balloons at a random balcony bar (when in Hanoi) and ended up scarfing a pretty bloody spot-on pizza at 4P's (judge for yourself from the photo)
Doing this labour of love entails trying a lot of different places, and only finding a few real gems. That is pretty much the journey of life too. Having had so many amazing bowls of ramen or soup at "chain restaurants" in Japan and Asia, I am not necessarily put off by the term. However, mom + pop stores specialising in one certain style, almost always beat out the competition.
In true style tho, boarding my plane down to Saigon... what did I do at the airport? Ate another bowl of Pho.