The Hanoi Experience

The Hanoi Experience

By Phạm Hồng Ngọc (Cecilia)

A Business Administration student at VinUniversity (Class of ‘25). She cannot help talking obsessively about the books and movies she recently read and watched, although she knows it is annoying. Ngọc believes that anyone who claims they do not like Harry Styles is just fooling themselves.

“Get on your dancing shoes
There's one thing on your mind”
- Arctic Monkeys -

There is, indeed, only one thing on your mind.

The chilly breeze sweeps through the back of your neck, sending jolting shivers down your spine. It is late-November. The midterms are, pray to God, finally over. After two months of online classes, you are officially moved in. VinUni’s campus is magnificent, and the dorms could not be any lovelier. Everything you have seen is exactly what you have always imagined.

Yet, you cannot shake the feeling that something is missing. You have heard it all - the flashy TV commercials advertising the capital city, the exciting touring vlogs of celebrities, the countless posts and blogs praising its diverse cultures. Only a proper introduction to the wonders of the city remains. Hanoi shines bright in front of your eyes like an island of a thousand sparkling suns far away, beckoning you to enter. Now, finally with some time on your hands and a distance that could not be more convenient, you buckle up, send a message to your friends, and plan a tour into the city. You want to try everything Hanoi has to offer, in a short period of 2 days. Promising cuisine, culture, history, and uniqueness, the weekend awaits.

First Day

This Saturday, you get up at 7.30 a.m. You and your pals book a ride down to the city centre. The best place to start the day is The Old Quarters.

Mão Bookstore - No.3 Alley 3, Đinh Lễ Street

What better way to spend the morning than surrounding yourself with the smell of old vintage books?

To get into Hanoi’s first ever bookstore, you have to venture through quite a many twists and turns once you go into Alley 3 - a true hidden path deserving of the store’s reputation! Find the second last store with the jade green wall on the 2nd floor, and you’re there.


Taking in a first look, you can’t help but feel enchanted by the old, mysterious, yet peaceful atmosphere that lies ahead. Walking into Mão is like walking back in time, into a different world exclusive for book enthusiasts only. You wonder at the display of literature, consisting of pieces coming from all corners of the world, from all periods in time. The modern selection is not too impressive, but you bet you can hardly find any other collection in which Vietnamese historical values are so richly depicted, so deeply explored, and so nicely complimented.

You browse the rackets for a bit, sit in the completely free read-in section to flip through some books, pick up some small books for HASS classes, and walk out feeling completely refreshed from such a blissful experience. Since you are already in the neighborhood, let’s try some of the local cuisine for lunch.

Bún đậu Hàng Khay - Alley 31, Hàng Khay

This local Hanoi dish is only less than 2km away. You decide to take a walk, not only for the purpose of sightseeing and breathing in the air of Hanoi’s business, but also to build up your appetite. It is appreciated, definitely, for this course will not be small.

Photo: @vananh.gram on Instagram

Bún đậu mắm tôm is already a monumental piece of Vietnamese culinary traditions that no true Hanoian can live without. Order a large mẹt (a combo for a few people), and you get a large plate full of bún, fried tofu, pork meatloaf, some stuffed organs, and side vegetables. This dish is an explosion of flavors - a well ground mix of salty, sweet and astringent that attacks your senses and leaves a strong mark on your taste palette. Mắm tôm (shrimp paste) sauce is, unfortunately, too strong for your friend; however, since you are a caring person and cannot bear for them to miss out on this wonderful food, you order a couple of mixed fish sauce bowls instead, which are readily available.

Like an addiction, you leave the place not wanting any more, but knowing full well that you will be forced to return in a couple weeks’ time.

Avocado Ice Cream - 90 To Hien Thanh Street

It is time for something light and fresh to beat the strong lingering tastes of lunch. A dessert calls. Wandering down south to Tô Hiến Thành Street, your group comes across a small place called “Kem Bơ Bánh Bèo”. The place pales in comparison with the grandeur of the street, but it is more than meets the eye. The cup of coconut vanilla ice cream mixed with avocado smoothie is topped off with some sprinkles of coconut slices. The secret lies in the balance of ingredients. You are impressed at the complete absence of bitterness in the avocado, and the complementing lightness of the coconut. The whole thing sings of a summer holiday, tainted with a few scattering rays of the sun and the occasional draughts keeping us on our toes. It is electrifying, the taste of something cold on a growing cold day.


The afternoon approaches. You hop on a bus and explore other districts of the city. You figure, how about doing some shopping?

Đông Tác market - Khương Thượng Complex

Second-hand clothings gets so much unnecessary hate. These shops and markets are the best shot one can have at finding vintage 90s and 00s Hanoi attire, which is totally coming back these years. Glancing through the aisles, some out-of-style fashion first strikes your eyes. But you know better than to give up on the first try. A true second-hand shopper will dig deep into the backrooms of these stores, at the hidden sections, where clothes are rarer, cheaper, and way more trendy than one considers.


The whole process of browsing and constantly reconsidering purchase takes your group the whole afternoon, but who is to say that is too steep of a price to go back to school looking like you’ve been given a makeover by Tyra Banks herself?

Mì vằn thắn noodle soup Hải Yến - 136 Đông Các Street

The physical and mental energy spent on digging through mounds of clothes deserves to be compensated with a harmonious dish of Oriental flavors. You take a ride to Đông Các, an intersection of all street markets in Đống Đa district, and land here, in a small but well-known noodle place.

You see great influences of Chinese cuisines in this bowl, nevertheless the originality of our touch remains. The star of the play is definitely the sauce - a fine combination of sweet and savory, uppering the tastes of other ingredients with its soothing smell. The experience extends - you find it funny that contrary to popular belief, the owners of classic places are not at all rude, going so far as to make you feel like the children they never had.

Photo: @hanjiun_ on Instagram

Your group decides to circle back to where you came from. Some of the finest signature desserts of The French Quarters are not to be overlooked.

Chè khúc bạch - 31 Đào Duy Từ Street

Photo: Foody

There is a strict code for Hanoi comers - you have to try this soup while walking alongside Hoàn Kiếm Lake and reminiscing about the good old days of youth. Young or old, you are not about to break that rule. After a day of trying heavy and stuffy food, there is nothing more satisfying than a cup of light soup, added in some khúc bạch (jellyish) to ease your stomach and loosen you up for a nice walk in the wind. After all, nothing could possibly make you feel more like a main character!

Obviously, a young person full of life and carefreeness would finish off a tour day with some partying.

Nê Cocktail & Wine Bar - 3B Tống Duy Tân Street.

You are headed to Tống Duy Tân, the street that never sleeps. Everyone falls in love with the classy, intellectual, almost 20s feel the bar exudes. You don’t want to order something that you can make at home, or something that you can order off any semi-professional bartender online. Your group go for the signature cocktails - Hanoi Autumn and Phở Cocktail.

Photo: Focus Asia Travel

After you’ve tried some of the drinks, you are not sure if you want to taste them again, but more worldly and experienced you most certainly felt. The place not only offers drinks, but also sells sentiments. That, and the cute bartenders constantly giving you the winks, ignite a sort of attachment to the bar, and to the city that such a bar so proudly represents.

It is midnight. You call it a day and head back. The tips of your fingers and toes tingle from excitement. You are engulfed in the joy of being included in all the fun, all the beauty, all the sensations a city of lovers can present, knowing very well that you will be invited the next day. The journey isn’t over.

Second Day

You feel like getting up early. Today, you want to venture further. Not everything worthwhile is in The Quarters. Your friends suggest Ba Đình District. It sounds splendid.

Hoa Sen Market - D4 Complex, Trần Huy Liệu Road

This place is rather well hidden. It is discretely located inside a maze of old residential apartment areas that look completely identical. After a few minutes of scavenging, you find a long food court standing opposite to an elementary school called “Hoa Sen”.


The clock barely strikes 7 a.m. It is way too early to down something carb-heavy. Luckily, the vendors see through the wanderers like no other. A selection of light yet energy-packed dishes, exactly designed for the beginning of a long and exhausting day, are laid for your liking. Cháo sườn, bún riêu, trứng vịt lộn (pork porridge, noodles, balut) - all strictly Northern Vietnam cuisines, made right in front of you. The meals are not trying to impress, as they are neither polished nor heavily seasoned, but the wandering scent in the open air right under the sky, coupled with the sounds of residents hurrying the day along creates a harmonious experience of the senses, like an invitation of the inner city luring you in with a cooperation of all its inhabitants.

Don’t forget to ask the vendor ladies to tell you about the food! It can be more insightful than any culinary classes you will ever take.

Boat pedaling on West Lake - Đạp vịt Hồ Tây - Thanh Niên Avenue

What a beautiful morning! It would be too much of a waste not to spend some quality time chit chatting with your face soaking in the sun and chilly winds in the midst of open water. You rent a couple of ducks - these tiny swan-like two-seated boats that allow you to pedal your way to the middle of the lake. Once you travel far from the banks, all the noise is muted, all the buzzing disappears. You suddenly remember how literature lessons in high school talk about intimacy when one is surrounded by nature, and you finally see it personally. What a Jack and Rose “I’m the king of the world” moment!

Photo: Báo Nông Nghiệp Việt Nam

No one ever claims they have come to Hanoi without having felt what all the West Lake is about.

While you are in the neighborhood, you walk a bit alongside the lake shore, and you come across an enchanting music store.

Victory CD & DVD - 110 Yên Hoa Street

Streaming platforms are so prevalent that barely any old school record stores survive to this day. However, you are an ardent music lover, and you cannot bear to skip this CD place. Once again, the contemporary music here is quite limited, but you find the collection of war and post-war Vietnamese ballads completely mesmerizing, containing rare pieces that only ring truest on the right vintage speakers. You ask the owner to play some records, and the place goes back 30 years in one blink of an eye.

Photo: Janis In Wonderland on Instagram

And let’s be honest with each other, you know that this place makes a killer Instagram post!

After heading back to the food market Hoa Sen for an easy lunch, you guys realize that it would be a sin not to see some historical monuments in such an old-timer city. You don’t want to see sculptures that are too available on the Internet. You crave atmosphere, experience, and walls that talk. You know just the place.

Hỏa Lò Prison - 1 Hỏa Lò Street, Trần Hưng Đạo

What is Hanoi without the prevailing marks of war? Used to incarcerate political prisoners during French Indochina and Vietnam War periods, the remains of the prison feature quite a grim display of cells, torture grounds and kits that attest to the unspeakable crimes of colonists to Vietnamese patriots. The experience as you walk into the barely lit corridors is utterly surreal. The figurines displayed inside only adds to the horrifying atmosphere that creeps into every inch of your skin. You, admittedly, hope to see one of your friends scared or even run out, which is totally a possibility.

The place is not for the fainthearted, and it promises to stay with you for quite a while.


After such a gut-rousing experience, you doubt your group would want to dive right into a three-course feast. You walk a bit to a lovely French-influenced lineage of streets, where you see a famous snack location in an empty turn. All that are in between the two tall opposite buildings are a few tables of couples enjoying the late-fall cold.

Chén trứng nướng Cô Ty - 24 Nguyễn Quang Bích Street

The food here is not to fill up your stomach. It is more like an energy-boost for a night of walking in the wind. The street vendor serves stoppers, a round of eggs baked on a coal burner, with some fried onions and sausages sprinkled right in. You quickly point out the resemblance of the place to eating a street corner’s hotdog and walking around Central Park in New York, and you all laugh at how unoriginal that thought is.


This kind of food is perfect for a transition at sunset, at 6 p.m. Order in a bit of every pieces on the menu (they have eggs, oysters, spring rolls, chicken feet, and meatloaf), and you are full enough to feel as if you have tried every cuisines in the world, and hungry enough to be craving for something more just a while longer.

After walking for a bit longer, visiting museums, seeing churches and pagodas, sitting in front of Hoàn Kiếm Lake for a moment of peace, you guys feel like calling it a day.

Going back to a string of college days where time is again a scarcity that no one affords, you still dread the pressure, dread the assignments, dread the long nights of cramming. Yet, now your heart fills up a little, because you know that you’re just a little more welcome into the city where you now live, and it will always welcome you in its arms when you feel the need to come to it, to explore, or simply just to find another good diner for a simple lunch!