Asia, Food, Travel

Hanoi, Vietnam: The City of Dichotomies

hanoi vietnam city of dichotomies

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How do I feel about Hanoi? It’s a question I was asking myself constantly and one that is still on my mind, looking to get answered. I don’t know how I feel about Hanoi.

Vietnam and Hanoi in particular seems to be one of those places that people either decidedly hate or love. To me, Hanoi is a city of dichotomies. 

hanoi Vietnam city of dichotomies

I feel like I loved it and hated it at the same time. Hanoi felt gritty, yet at the same time sophisticated. Modern yet traditional. It felt like the greatest but it also felt the worst. And I know while I was there, I felt my greatest but I also felt my worst.

I’m sure a large part of this was due to external circumstances surrounding my trip to Hanoi. I was really only in the city to go Quest Festival, only book-ending the festival with a couple of days in Hanoi on each side.

Not enough time to go to Halong Bay or Sapa or Hoi An or any other part of Vietnam.

The festival got very last minute cancelled although there was always hope that maybe it would be put back together again. The whole time everything felt very up in the air which made it hard to commit to anything other than just hanging out in Hanoi.

While not always a bad thing to hang out in just one city for an extended period of time, it really gives you a chance to see how it feels. To experience the ebb and flow of the city throughout the day and throughout the week.

hanoi vietnam city of dichotomies

You can get a sense of how it would feel like if you lived there. How the weather changes, when the street noise picks up, to discover many new places yet at the same time to return to your favorites without feeling guilty about it.

Vietnam is regarded as one of the best countries to eat in and to experience street food. But yet, I was surprised by how unimpressed I was by the food in Hanoi, even at places that are reviewed highly and at others that are regarded highly.

Part of me wonders if it was just so different than I was expecting that it was hard to reconcile my expectations from the reality that was in front of me.

Knowing that we would be going back to Hanoi instead of spending the weekend at Quest Festival made me want to go on the search for the best pho around the city. But after having a few bowls of somewhat disappointing pho around town at a myriad of places, it just didn’t seem worthwhile. That theme seemed to continue on throughout my days in Hanoi.

It was the things that I was not expecting to like that surprised me the most and the things that I was expecting the most from that disappointed.

Maybe there was some other food I should be eating, trying, experiencing. We were in Hanoi after all. The city of the famous Obama and Anthony Bourdain meal over the city’s classic meal: Bun Cha. And I had so much Bun Cha. Some bowls better than others. Just like the pho. But nothing really truly outstanding. 

Is my palate just not discerning enough for these nuances of flavors? So many people were raving about pho broth at certain places being “light” and “clean”. To me, this translated into: not very flavorful.

A large part of feeling the food was disappointing was knowing how much I enjoy Vietnamese food in the states. I’m not even talking about Vietnamese food in New York City. The best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had is in Tucson, Arizona in an unassuming strip mall restaurant ran by the sweetest Vietnamese lady and her sister.

Even with years going by between visits, she would remember your order. Unfortunately, that particular restaurant has shut down and become another Vietnamese restaurant that will hopefully live up to the quality of its predecessor.

I almost feel bad saying this, uncultured or basic even, but my favorite dish in Hanoi was from a pizza place. Which sounds absolutely crazy, I know. But, after having so many mediocre meals, it didn’t feel like I would be losing out on my last chance to get my any of the traditional Vietnamese food by trying something new.

Hanoi Vietnam city of dichotomies

The restaurant was still in Vietnam and Vietnam-based after all and unique and wasn’t meant to be a touristy, Western restaurant to appease travelers who don’t like the traditional Vietnamese cuisine. It was a fancy pizza shop meant for locals and expats to gather and celebrate. 

Pizza 4P’s showed up on a couple of very thoughtful lists about foods and places to try in Hanoi. It would come up on the “splurge” category but I think the most expensive thing on the menu was 250,000 VND (~$10.75 USD). Most of the pizzas were closer to 100,000 VND to 150,000 VND (~$4.30USD to $6.45 USD) from what I can remember.

Given that some of these pizzas were meant to be shared, it didn’t seem like a massive splurge, but the prices are something to keep in consideration depending on what budget you are traveling at. It is a far cry from the 30,000 VND to 60,000 VND ($1-$2 USD) priced meals that are readily available all throughout the city.

It was here, on my last day in Hanoi, at Pizza 4P’s that I had my best meal in Vietnam. Namely, my best dish. Their Burrata with Parma Ham and Mixed Tropical Fruits. It was divine. A large tenet of the Pizza 4P’s restaurant is their in-house made cheese. Since cheese can be difficult and expensive to find in Vietnam, the restaurant took it upon themselves to make their own homemade cheese and it is nothing short of amazing.

P.S. You can buy some of this homemade burrata from the front of Pizza 4P’s in Hanoi for only 100,000 VND (~$4.30 USD). That’s way cheaper than I can find in New York.

This burrata tropical fruit salad was the most flavorful thing I had in Hanoi but it still felt like an Asian meal since most of the fruit was fruit I could not easily find the United States.

Like so many other neat places within Hanoi, this restaurant was nestled off of an alley full of street food, salons and motorbikes. But once you walk in you are greeted to three-stories of open-air seating among brick-lined walls and views of two massive pizza ovens.

hanoi vietnam city of dichotomies

It completely throws you for a loop. It is this dichotomy again that keeps showing up throughout the city of Hanoi and with everything that touches it. A modern, huge, contemporary restaurant surrounding by the traditional shops and sidewalk seats.

This is not the only place where this fascination with old and new, modern and traditional seem to be at play throughout the city. It is the same with a couple of cocktail bars in the Old Quarter of Hanoi as well. Most notably at The Mad Botanist and Polite & Co.

The dichotomy between these sleek, modern places and the gritty, traditional street food stalls is further highlighted by their difference in price. A cocktail at Polite & Co could cost 450,000 VND (~$20 USD), while you could walk outside, sit down at the place next door and have a beer for 10,000 VND (~$0.43 USD).

hanoi vietnam city of dichotomies

Those $20USD could buy you 4 nights of a bed in a 8-person hostel room. It could buy you between 10-20 meals. It is such a stark difference.

The cocktails in Hanoi were amazing, the bars were they were served were fascinating, sleek and lovely. But, it was hard to justify and think of the price of these drinks when those dollars could stretch so much further in the region.

This dichotomy between things was what I think was unique about Hanoi. In Singapore, the price of things doesn’t really cross your mind. The whole city-state island comes across as fancy, rich and expensive even though there are plenty of restaurants and hawkers were you can buy an amazing, sometimes even Michelin rated meals for a couple of bucks.

Vietnam as a whole doesn’t even show up as country rated by Michelin. Somewhat surprising given that it seems to be universally regarded that Vietnam has amazing food.

These cocktail bars felt perfectly at home in art-centric, classy Hanoi while also completely out of place in a city with insane traffic and an abundant amount of street food available.

Everything in Vietnam only compounds on this dichotomy more and more. Old and new. Modern and traditional. East and West.

The city still shows such a footprint of french colonialism, while still feeling very Asian.

Maybe it was this balance of forces and war of forces of so many things so unlike the other. Of each integral part of Hanoi only expressing itself with such a contrasting counter piece that gave me feelings of love and hate for this city.

Feeling like it was so many things at once and yet only this one, beating, throbbing, thriving heartbeat of a city.

hanoi vietnam city of dichotomies

I feel like I saw and experienced so much of Hanoi yet I also feel like I completely missed everything. It felt like a hard balance to strike when nothing in the city felt balanced at all. With everything completely at odds with each other it felt hard to try a fancy French restaurant when there are so many street foods to try.

One of my favorite places that I got to eat at was a Parisian cafe specializing in Bahn Mi. Bami An Bread. One of the cutest cafes you will find along a street that seems to be full of mechanic shops. The bahn mi sandwiches here were amazing, as were the egg coffees and smoothies.

They also serve up incredibly, overwhelming indulgent, rich and strong Vietnamese coffee. And that amazing “boiling soup” that I mentioned.

The feelings of should I eat at this cafe when there are so many street foods to try that I can’t get at home? kept crossing my mind.

Even though I only went to this cafe because it was around the corner from my hotel. It was a place that I stumbled upon and ended up loving.

It felt hard to venture out and try one of the many dishes listed in those thoughtful food guides of Hanoi when there was so many different types of pho, bun cha and sticky rice to try.

It was hard and easy and maybe there needed to be much more deliberate choices being made while I was there to get a fuller picture. Yet, it still felt like I experienced so much of the city.

My week in Hanoi felt unique. I think the way I felt and the experience I had will be unique to me but it was also a unique way for me to travel, much different from the way I traveled Amsterdam, Versailles or Singapore.

What do you think of Hanoi? Do you love it or do you hate it? Are you undecided about how you feel about it? Do you agree that it is a city of dichotomies?

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Elyse is a Road Twenty author focused on writing about New York City, local and international travel guides & food and cocktail recipes as well as other lifestyle topics. She is based in New York City and has a love for cheesy Christmas movies, tacos and the sunshine.
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About Elyse

Elyse is a Road Twenty author focused on writing about New York City, local and international travel guides & food and cocktail recipes as well as other lifestyle topics. She is based in New York City and has a love for cheesy Christmas movies, tacos and the sunshine.
View all posts by Elyse →

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