Saturday, January 7, 2012

Hanoi confidential

Executive summary by Darmansjah

Hanoi street fare is more than just a steamy bowl of pho, freshly baked baguettes and roubst coffee. The better portion lurks in the maze of narrow side streets and alleyways. Therein reside foodie haunts and well-hidden delicacies. Beware that the search for these hidden gems will require some patience, comfy shoes and, a pocket-sized phrasebook. Writer Nga Hoang tracks down her top seven hiden eateries and cafes in her native town.

Dinh Cafe And Giang Cafe

Dinh & Giang are two exceptional hole-in-the wall cafes in Hanoi. They both share a three-generation coffee trade family legacy, dating back to the French colonial occupation. Each has a secret recipe for brewing and roasting coffee passed down from their late father, Mr.Giang, who used to work at the Metropole hotel as a bartender in the 1920s and later opened his own cafes.

Free of signs, Dinh Cafe is nestled surreptitiously behind a backpack shop at the north end of Hoan Kem Lake. It is the longest-running student cafe helmed by the family’s second daughter. And it is old to its core: a 30 square metre room blasting 80’s rock music and always filled with thick plumes of cigarette smoke that seem to linger on and seep into its walls. If your prefer some frest air, step out onto the balcony to take in a magnificent view of Hoan Kem Lake. Either way, time almost apporaches a standstill as your sit there; the minutes passs by as slowly as the coffee brews one drop at a time through a filter.

The porprietor, Mrs. Bich, was a high-school teacher for nearly twenty years but quit for health reasons and opened Dinh Cafe in 1984. in its 90s heyday, word of mouth brought the influx of Hanoi’s student population and it has since maintained a firm fan base. Almost three decades on, what began as a family’s livelihood has now evolved into a source of pride and pleasure. This age-old cafe stand defiantly as a resistance to change and draws on what is left of ‘old’ Hanoi.

Mrs Bich uses coffee beans from Buon Ma Thuot in the Central Highlands, Vietnam’s largest coffee growing region. Her husband spends much of his time visiting coffee plantations and crefully picking the finest coffee beans. Mrs.Bich then creates her own blend of ground coffee using half Arabica and half Robusta so the coffee is strong yet not bitter.

Meanwhile, the aptly named Giang Cafe is largely conceived as a place where the proprietor, Mr.Hoa, shares memories of his deceased father. Tucked away down a nondescript passage int a little courtyard, Giang Cafe looks like a luxuriant garden surrounded by home-grown, potted plants.

Many people pop into Giang Cafe only to have the house specialty: a cafe trung (hot coffee with a raw egg and milk whipped into it), otherwise know as a Vietnamese offshoot of the cappuccino. For coffee aficionados, the distinct drink tends to inspire either love it or hate it relationships.

Mr. Hoa uses a blend of beans:L Busbusta, Liberica and Arabica. He prefers to use Arabica coffee beans from the lesser-known region of Phu Quy in the northern province of Nghe An, known for tis ditinctly rich flavours. Upon roasting the coffee, he sprays a little bit of rum over it in order to stimulate the aroma. Following the success of his cafe trung, Mr. Hoa has made some others renditions including cacao trung (cocoa), dau xanh trung (green beans), rum trung (using Cuban rum only), and bia trung (using 333 premium beer only).

Fast Facts
Cafe trung US$0.75; Rum trung US$1.50
Dinh Cafe 13 Din Tien Hoang, Hoan Kiem District; 84 4 3824 2960
Giang Cafe: 39 Nguyen Huu Huan, Hoan Kiem District; 84 4 6294 0495f

Giang Cafe's speciality , cafe trung 

cafe giang

 customers on Dinh Cafe's balcony, overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake

Bar Betta Resto-Bar or Cafe

Housed in a renovated French Villa along the short stretch of Cao Ba Quat Street, and a welcome respite among the street’s hotpot stalls and motorbike repair shops, Bar Betta bar-cum-cafe is a must-visit for nostalgist and vintage collector alike. The name Bar Betta plays on the name Babetta, a model of the Czech motorbike that used to fill the streets of Hanoi in the early 80s. Bar Betta is the brainchild of three best friends hai, Quang and Cuong. Hai, an interior designer, spent a couple of months working painstakingly to restore the building to its original state.  Many different families previously occupied it during the Subsidy Period of 1976-1986, resulting in the building losing tis character and grandeur. Hai later took on the daunting task of converting the residential building into a refreshment bar.

As an avid vintage collector of furniture and knicknacks, hai’s collection of vintage goodies was beginning to clutter his house, so he decided to turn Bar Betta into a public showroom. Up along flight of stairs, you emerge into a living room that harks back to the bygone Subsidy Period. The room brims with antique home furnishings: a granfather clock, a Danda radio, a Victor phonograph, and a rusty typing machine that has seen much better days in Ba Dinh Square. On the lime green walls hang old vinyl records and posters of iconic moviestars of yesterday. With sooting jazz playing on the sound system, it is like hopping on a time machine and going back to the swinging ‘60s and ‘70s.

Bar Betta has something that few other bars in Hanoi offer; bespoke coctails. Bartender Cuong alludes to his fruit concoctions as being like a lush meadow filled with natural flavours. The menu changes on a monthly basis, largely depending on what is available in a particular season. Bar Betta’s signature thought, are its coctail beers – a blend of 5 percent beer and various fruits, juices and liquor. Out of the seven available varietes, I recomended Peach Beer made from Carlsberg draught beer, blue Curracao, Calvados cognac, and peach liqueur; and Punch Beer made from draught beer, coffee liquer, and Vaccari Sambuca.

Fast Fact

Average price for coctail beer US$4.75

34C Cao Ba Quat, Ba Dinh District; 84 4 3734 9134

Le Croissant
With Veitnam a former French colony, it comes as no surprise that Hanoi is home to some of the best patisseries outside of France. In an unlikely backstreet just off Tran Hung Dao Street sits a French-style patisserie. Le Croissant is hailed as one of the icty’s best and unrivalled bakeries, serving bonafide French-style croissants and pastries. It is operated as a social enterprise under the management of Hoa Sua, a Hanoi-based cooking school that offers vocational training primarily designed for disadvantaged teenagers.

Although the Vietnamese capital has its fair share of deli bakeries, few stan as strong. Le Croissant’s established reputation is closely tied to tis unwavering commitment to stay true to the French standard of baking. Since its opening in 1995, le Croissant has relocated several times before ssettling down where it is now. Each time, the crowd followed.

In the early mornings, Le Croissant is a hive of activity. Motorbikes and cars, one by one, squeeze into the quiet, narrow street and crowd the shop front, fighting for space with the minivans waiting for bags of wheat flour to be unloaded from its trunks. The air is filled with the unmistakable and tantalising smell of freshly baguettes. Inside the shop, trays of pastries, fresh out of the oven, are rusehed out every few minutes, struggling to replenish the row upon row of goodies on offer as quickly as they are swept up by hungry customers. I’ve tried the Tiramisu topped with cinnamon powder and slathered with rich cream and cheese, but my favourite is Tarte Au Citron (a traditional French lemon tart) delicately perfurmed with butter and lemon. It melts in the mouth after the very first bite. Of the 250 baked goods available, the best sellers are croissants, baguettes, tiramisu, and fruit tarts. The clientele base is equally split between expats and locals. Le Croissant also offers a popular a two-week crash course in baking (US$150 to US$250).

Find Out More
Croissant US$0.05; Seigle US$1.25; Tiramisu US$1,20; cheesecake US$1,20; Tarte Au Citron US$0.05; Tarte Coco Au Chocolat US$1,20
21 Ha Hoi St, Hoan Kiem; 84 4 3943 6707;

gbr. Freshly baked loaves on offer at Le Croissant every morning
gbr; contemplating the various choices;
gbr; baking a new batch of cinnamon rolls.

Truong Xuan Tea House

Truong Xuan Tea House is so well hidden that i would never have found it had I not been lost and stumbled upon it accidentally. Judging by its appearance, it could easily be dismissed as just another Chinese teahouse. But there is more to it than meets the eye, for the story of this teahouse tells of a hard-frought battle for the survival of traditional Vietnamese tea that spans six generations.

When I tiptoed into the room, I found my self immersed in tranquil retreat. It is a world away from the frenetic hubbub of city life. Its quaint appeal  echoes everywehere : a bamboo hut reminiscent of summer days in the countryside, a birdcage dangling in the breeze, and walls adorned with traditional calligraphy. The tearoom is scattered with carved, low wooden tables and cushioned seats. Idawdled over my jasmine tea and opened my ears to Anh Suong, the youngest son of Xuan Truong, the country’s most respected tea guru.

The father-and-son team have devoted much of their lives to resecarching and promoting home grwon tea. The Vietnamese tea industry took shape in the late 19th century when the French seized control of the country. It was then that the first tea plantations were established in northern Vietnam. Nowadays, Vietnamese tea is culitvated on the steep slopes of the remote mountains stretching from Thai Nguyen to Lam Dong in the Central Highlands. Hanoi has a thriving tea culture with makeshift roadside tea stalls littered across the city. If you have reservations gulping down tea on the street, you’ll be gald to know that there has been a recent proliferation of upscale teahouses in Hanoi.

Truong Xuan Tea House opened in 2001, when the popularity of Vietnamese tea was suffering due to widespread rumours of pesticide residues in the leaves and the influx of foreign tea brands lke Lipton and Dilmah. Since then Suong and his father have stepped up their efforts to restore Vietnamese tea to the status it deserves while reviving tea-drinking custos that have begun to fade away over time.

Suon demonstrated how Hanoians make their own cuppa. He started off by warming the teapot with boiling water. Then he placed sponfuls  of dried tea leaves into the prcelain pot and waits for it to brew. After a few minutes, he poured it out in a tea pitcher and from that into samll cups. With an equal amount of tea, every cup tastes the same. But just as important as the cremony is the way Vietnamese people drink tea. With a steamy cup fo tea in hand, Suong gently looks into it, sniffs and takes a few small sips, jus tlike a sommelier.

Truong Xuan Tea House has rounded up a superb collection fo forty assorted tea samples, mostly handmade. It is divided into three main groups: green, herbal and floral teas. Lotus tea (fresh lotus blossoms blended with green tea leaves), know as royal tea, is the most expensive (preveiously a kilogram of lotus tea was the equivalent of 10.25 grams of gold) and, despite the price, is the most sought-after.

O Quan Chuong Snail Noodle Soup

This humble noodle soup stall lurks inconspicuously at the corner of a roadside bistro facing the historic city gate O Quan chuong at the juction of hang Chieu St and Tran Nhat Duat St. You could easy walk past it every day without ever acknowledgeing tht it was there ata all. Slow down a bit and the inviting aroma wafting from bowls of snail noodle soup will infrom you that you’re at the right place. Up close, many youh hip Hanoians crouch dwon on low footpath stools slurping down the bun oc and shouting out: “One more bowl!” this unassuming stall sells the very classic bun oc nguoi (cold snail noodle soup), a speicalty from  Hanoi, and it is probably the most unerrated breakfast treat in Vietnam no thanks to all the phohype. This dish is not for those who want to fill up their bellies but rather it is a dish for those who are looking to savour a unique combination of textures and flavours in a modest portion. Bun oc is simply comprised of only a plate of packed rice vermicelli and a small bowl of boiled snails and soup; no green onions, basil leaves or tomato sauce. Less is more in this case as the absence of embelishment allows the flavours of the boiled snail broth to take centestage.

By noon, the soup stall gets a little less busy. The proprietor Ms. Xuan unveiled the secrets behind her soup: quality ingredients. The rice vermicelli is made out of freshly ground rice that cost twice as much as ordinary rice. Mr.Xuan only uses earthbound molluscs that live on rock moss in Ninh binh province, and which cost twice as much as freshwater snails. Most imprtantly, the rice vinegar is made out of fermented, sticky rice with yellow flowers from Van village. She cooks the snails in a stew redolent with rice vinegar bubbling away and out comes a perfect blend of spicy, sweet and sour flavours in one bowl.

Retaurant 1946

Whenever I crave Vietnamese food, 1946 is always my first port of call. Cosily nestled in a small alley. Just 10 metres off Cua Bac Street, Restaurant 1946 has two floors; the first with just a few tables and the second with floor seating only. Opened in 2007, the clientele is almost 90% locals. The restaurant serves up pure traditional hanoi fare at reasonbale prices, a welcome anomaly amid Hanoi’s burgeoning trend in fusion cuisine.

Originally known for sophistication, subtlety of flavour and small portions, Hanoi cuisine has morphed into a culinary melting pot with an influx of flavours from neighbouring provinces and beyond. One of the traditional Haoian delicacies, bun rieu (broth with crab, tomato and fermented shrimp paste), is now melange of North and Central Vietnam in one bowl, with a blend of beef, tofu, cha gio (pork meat loaf or Vietnamese sausage), and trung vit lon (fertilised duck egg).

The young owners Nam and Kien have teamed up with local historians in an attempt to keep traditional Haoian gastronomy alive. The historical benchmark of 1946, as Ken explains, is largely a reference to the ceclaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, something not only evident in the restarurant’s  decor but also in the food.

The entire restaurant oozes retro vibes of Indochinese Hanoi in the 1940’s. The walls are adorned with the reprints of old Hanoian postcard photos, taken by the French in the 1900s. I was personally drawn to the crcked bowls and plates that are used, which would have been what my granparent’s had in their homes. The owners spent almost three years collecting antique housewares in Bac Giang and Thai Binh provinces.

The menu of over 100 dishes is a compilation of flowerly prose and poems. Every dish is paired with a literary description of the dish’s origins. I always start off with lac rang (roasted peanuts peppered with slat and chili powder) and ua muoi (pickled cabbage sprinkeld with salt, sugar, garlic and chili). These two dishes are always at hand in a Vietnamese family meal. The saltiness of lac rang and the sour and sweet crunchiness of dua muoi is a refreshing way to start a meal.

Next up, dau phu tam hanh (deep-fried tofu topped with green onions) slathered in fish sauce. This dish is a simple yet exquisite blend: cripsy on the outside and soft on the inside. And then, the besua Moc Chau (stir-fried diced veal miexed with chili, lemongrass, and lime) a sumptuous delicacy and appetising mix of tart and spiciness. But my favourite dish has to be the canh chua thit bam (sour soup with minced pork), as its soothing flavour is always a delicious and nostalgic reminder of home.

For those of you who are hankering for a real taste of Vietnamese cuisine, look no further than 1946.

Essentials Hanoi
Graceful and atmospheric, yet pulsating with energy, Hanoi is a city of sharp contrast but instant appeal. Its sweeping boulevard, tree-fringed lakes, ancient pagodas and compact historic centre is best explored on foot.

Getting There; from singapore, fly dirct to Hanoi with Sq (, tiger airways ( and vietnam airlines (, air asia (, malaysian airlines ( and vietnam iarlines fly direct from Kuala lumpur.
Getting Around; Hanoi’s traffic is famously chaotic. Taxis are the best way to travel long distances, but cyclos, though slowly phasing out, are a cheap way to make shorter trips. For lone travellers, motorbike dirvers can be found virtually everywhere. Always negotiate fares beforehand.
Further Reading; Lonely palnet’s guid to Vietnam has a chapter on Hanoi which can be downloaded from

The Final Word; ‘A day of travelling will bring a basketful of learning- Vietnamese proverb.

Staying There
Budget; Trying harder than most bog-standard budge places. Especen Hotel has a great location near St. Joseph Cathedral. The big, airy and light rooms – most with balcony and all with wi-fi – are in good shape and, while the location is almost tranquil. The two barances are a few doors apart and have idntical facilities(; 28 P Tho Xuong & 41 P Ngo Huyen).

Midrange; Cinnamon Hotel is a hip new hotel with outstanding design, combining the historic features of the building – wrought-ironwork and window shutters – with japanese-influenced interior and modern gadgetry. Of the xis roomss, all with balcony and tropical names, ‘Lime’ has a commanding perspective of St Joseph Cathedral. There’s wi-fi and a small bar-restaurant. Book well ahead ( – 26 P Au Trieu).

Luxury; The historic Sofitel Metropole Hotel is a supremely refined place to stay. Boasting an immaculately restored colonial facade, mahogany-panneled recetion rooms and two well-regarded restaurants, the hotel has an old wing with rooms offering unmatched colonial charm, while the modren Opera Wing has suptuous levels of comfort ( – 15 P Ngo Quyen).

See And Do

The holiest of the hoiles for many Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum Complex is an important place of pilgrimage. If you’re lucky. You’ll catch the cahnging of the guard outside Ho’s mausoleum – the pomp and ceremony displayed here rivals the British equivalent at Buckingham Palace (entrance corner of P ngoc ha and P Doi Can).

The Temple of Literature is a rare example of well-preserved tradtional Vetnamses architecture. The temple complex, comprising of five coutyards, is extensive and well-kept, and a welcome retreat from the frenetic streets of Hanoi (P Quoc Tu Giam).

A large, non-touristy market in the Old Quarter, Dong Xuan Market consists of hundreds of stalls, and is a fascinating place to explore if you want to catch a flavour or Hanoian street life 

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