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By RICARDO PAMINTUAN Published May 16, 2024 5:00 am

There’s a Vietnamese saying: “Ăn khổ như Bắc, mặc thoáng như Nam,” which means “Eat hard like the North, dress loosely like the South.”

I don’t know much about dressing up like the Vietnamese, but I do know about their food, and from what I’ve experienced, the cuisine in the northern capital of Hanoi does differ from that in the southern city of Saigon (let’s admit it, Saigon sounds much, much better than Ho Chi Minh City. “Miss HCMC” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, right?)

There may be other places in Vietnam with their unique take on food, but I prefer the tried and tested, so off to Hanoi we went.

This hole-in-the-wall food place on the fringes of the Old Quarter and the French Quarter rose to prominence after former US President Barack Obama was spotted enjoying bún chả with the late chef and adventure eater Anthony Bourdain.

The hotel actually served up our first authentic Vietnamese meal. Our breakfast of ph with pork turned out to be a real treat since it tasted homemade (translation: traditional) and even complemented the unremarkable combination of toasts with eggs and strawberry jam and/or margarine. As expected, the house brew of strong (robust?) Robusta came with condensed milk, a whole carton of it. That was the beginning of our coffee adventure.

Before our scheduled food tour, we walked around the hotel, bumping elbows and every other body parts with other tourists of all colors, many of them reveling in the exoticness of Hanoi and its coffee shops around practically every corner. If the roads had been wider, you’d think you were in Seattle (though Boston and Washington D.C. actually have more coffee shops per capita in the US).

Phở good: The dry version of this quintessential Vietnamese dish

We settled for KAFA Café, just because it was there when we got weary from casing the neighborhood for later shopping. No Americano, latte, cappuccino or mocha for us. We went for cups of java with peach, lemon slush with coffee, and cocoa with cheese foam. A shot of caffeine bliss at 9 o’clock in the morning… by the time we returned to our hotel, we were pumped up to set off on our food tour.

As we strolled through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, guided by a millennial named Larisa, we navigated a sea of people, motorcycles, business establishments and vendors who only spoke through their calculators. Along the way, the tantalizing aroma of Hanoi’s culinary delights mixed with the reek of human sweat and cigarettes. Hanoi is old-school tobacco, so vapers were a rare sight.

Fresh spring rolls

Keeping up with Larisa’s relaxed gait, we began our gastronomic journey with the ever-popular bánh mì, a short baguette filled with meat, vegetables, and herbs and spices. I learned not too long ago that one of the vital elements of an authentic bánh mì is pig’s brain pâté. I don’t know if the one we tried from Bánh My Mama had this authentic ingredient, but it was definitely worth every bite. The bread alone was heavenly. We didn’t even have to eat on the sidewalk where Bánh My Mama’s stall stood, because the place beside it selling refreshments allowed people to eat inside, as long as you bought their drinks.

Egg-xquisite: Elaborate art on Vietnamese egg coffee

 To burn off some of that bánh mì, we walked a bit to Quan Goc Da. In a small room with kiddie tables and tiny chairs, we sampled pillow cakes resembling empanadas but tasting much better, meatier; fried spring rolls; fried fermented pork with mushrooms; and a sweet donut that looked and tasted like buchi or sesame balls. All these oily snacks were served with sauces and a variety of rolling leaves. The al fresco kitchen was set up under a banyan tree that’s become part of the house/restaurant. Considered sacred in most of Vietnam, banyan trees are hardly ever hewn down lest angry spirits haunt the heretic.

It was a good intro, but there was more to come. We took a cab to the legendary train street, where locals reputedly dance with total abandon while keeping an eye out for oncoming locomotives. Tourists have since joined the action, dancing and drinking along the tracks or taking copious silly selfies under the watchful eye of shopkeepers. It’s like something out of an indie movie, except that the real stars here are the coconut coffee and Hanoi beer. Remember to keep that beer bottle cap; when the train is near, you can put it on the tracks and take home a squashed cap as a souvenir.

Sticky rice with red beans or honey ginger

After an exhilarating “close encounter” with the 3:20 train, we moved to Bếp Bà Tâm. From its sedate balcony—most of the business establishments in Hanoi seem to have balconies—we observed the street action, the way life revolved around commerce in such frenzied pace that makes one forget Vietnam is run by socialists. It was our first time to try dry ph, but it also paired well with the fresh spring rolls (without peanuts, as pointed out by Larisa, in case any one of us had a nut allergy). That made for two kinds of ph and spring rolls in one day. Welcome to Vietnam, indeed!

To cap off our short tour, we had egg coffee at Café Minh. While it’s not my favorite type of coffee, just because I prefer to eat, not drink, eggs. I think it went well with the sticky rice snack from Soy Chè Bà Thin. The egg yolk topping the Arabica coffee (instead of cream) seemed to offset the sweetness of the red bean paste (or ginger honey) in the sticky rice.

Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain at Bún Chả Hương Liên in 2016: Thanks to this iconic moment, the Hàng bún chả Obama combo became the restaurant’s signature dish.

Shopping at the street mart and a whole-day Halong River boat cruise offered a respite from all the eating (although the meal in the boat was also considerable), but we promised ourselves that we would at least visit the celebrated Bún Chả Hương Liên.

This hole-in-the-wall food place on the fringes of the Old Quarter and the French Quarter rose to prominence after former US President Barack Obama was spotted enjoying bún ch with the late chef and adventure eater Anthony Bourdain. Thanks to that iconic moment, the Hàng bún ch Obama combo became the restaurant’s signature dish. Sure, the place may seem spartan with its wooden tables, monobloc chairs and cafeteria atmosphere, but the food’s definitely worth queueing up for 30 minutes or longer at lunchtime.

Bún ch is a dish of grilled pork served with a plate of white rice noodles, herbs, salad greens, and a side dish of dipping sauce. The cost of a full-course Obama meal with a can of Hanoi beer is also a steal at roughly around P250 per person. I’d recommend it to any Hanoi first timer. Just come early to avoid the crowd.

To be sure, there’s more to Hanoi than ph, bánh mì, and spring rolls. You don’t even have to be a celebrity chef to discover treasures like bún ch or many-flavored coffee. But unless you take that first step into the unknown, you will only get to scratch the surface of an incredible cuisine that inimitably reflects the rich culture of Vietnam. If someone says, “Xin mi!” just dig in.