My Hanoi with Quynh Nguyen of nightcactus

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Over the years, I’ve asked friends from around Asia, met through my online and offline adventures, to share their must-stop spots in South, East, and Southeast Asia’s great cities.

Today, welcome Quynh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-born Amsterdam-based freelance writer. She blogs about travelling, living abroad and #lifehack at www.nightcactus.net. You can also check out her work on her website, www.quynh.nl. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

And now, over to Quynh…

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Must eats? One thing I love about living in Hanoi is the snack time. After work and before dinner, I sometimes go out with my best friend for some nom, a salad made with green papaya, carrot and beef jerky mixed in a tangy fish sauce and topped with roasted peanuts. There is a little stall run by an old lady near the church on Ham Long Street. It has a plastic table and a few blue stools on the part of a pavement where you are not allowed to sell food officially. Whenever a police car drives past, we have to stand up and pretend that we are not eating there and that we are just two random girls holding up some random plastic plates. We keep coming back despite the trouble because her nom is so good: it is fresh and full of flavour. On those plastic stools, my best friend and I have shared countless stories about friends and family, the rivalry and the loved ones, or sometimes just random gossip.

As soon as the summer heat eases off, I go for lau, or so-called “hotpot”, in Quan Ngay Moi (New Day Restaurant) on Ma May street. They offer three types of soup base (standard, tom yum and spicy) with a large selection of toppings from seafood and freshwater fish to thinly sliced pork and beef. They serve leafy green vegetables, different kinds of tofu (fresh as well as cooked), and various mushrooms on the side. The ingredients are fresh and of high quality, and the staff are friendly and efficient. The restaurant offers other foods such as rice dishes and beer snacks. If I arrive at the restaurant starving, I order these snacks while waiting for the hotpot to be ready. They are also pretty good and reasonably priced.

Living in Hanoi has the luxury of a wide choice of pho (noodle soup), inarguably the most famous Vietnamese dish abroad. I love Pho ga chat Ton Duc Thang where they only do pho with chicken in thick chops including both bone and skin. Their chicken is tender and tasty while their broth is just perfect for the tongue, the nose and the eyes. They must sell at least fifty chickens per day because the restaurant is always packed whenever I go for a slurp or simply drive past. Even though I prefer pho with chicken, I do sometimes go to Pho Thin, a small and rustic restaurant near Hoan Kiem Lake, for its excellent pho bo, the beef version.

I like street foods because they are so yummy and they don’t fill you up too quickly. When I want to introduce Vietnamese street food to my foreign friends, I take them to one of the Quan An Ngon restaurants, which are on Tran Hung Dao Street or Phan Dinh Phung Street. Their concept is to bring different types of street food into a restaurant setting, which means that guests can sit on proper chairs and tables, instead of on tiny plastic stools by a busy street like at a typical street food stall. There, you can find everything from banh cuon (steamed rice crepes filled with minced pork and mushrooms) to banh goi (deep-fried pastries made with pork, vermicelli, mushrooms and sometimes eggs), all types of noodle soups: bun (rice vermicelli), mien (glass noodle) and pho (flat rice noodle), as well as che – a type of dessert made with beans, coconut milk, jelly and many other random ingredients, and served either hot or cold.

Must dos?

I like going for bia hoi (draught beer), and my favourite place is the bia hoi junction, where Ta Hien street meets Luong Ngoc Quyen street. It is very crowded with backpackers sitting right on the junction, but I do squeeze into the crowd when I am in the mood for people-watching. When I’m not, my boyfriend and I sit at a larger place about 50 metres away. The establishment includes ten to twenty plastic tables, setting up on the pavement outside a school. We park our motorbike inside the school and get a table, a few beer snacks and a lot of beer. The draught beer is made within the day at one of the breweries around town, and its alcohol level and quality vary widely. However, the main attraction of bia hoi is the taste of freshness on a summer evening. People, young and old, come to this place to unwind casually after a long hard day. It’s so full of life the way they drink, eat, talk and laugh away.

There is a blossoming cafe culture in Hanoi, where you can find many different styles of coffee shops from chic and modern (like Joma or Hanoi Social Club) to retro classic (like Cong Caphe or Cafe Lam). I like going to Cong Caphe, sitting on the floor by their low tables, and watching the coffee drips coming from the phin (the Vietnamese version of cafetière) into the glass.

Must sees?

The Old Quarter is something that you have probably read about in every guide to Hanoi, but you really must see it. I like to drive my motorbike very slowly through all the hang – a kind of street on which the shops historically sold only a single type of product. There used to be about 50 streets like that, but nowadays only a handful remain in their original form: selling incense sticks, spices, silver works, and lanterns etc. Each hang has their typical colour patterns and scents, which always give me a sense of nostalgia as I wander past.

I am generally not a big fan of mega malls, but I do find the newly built Royal City’s Mega Mall pretty impressive. The underground shopping mall covers a total area of 230,000 square metres. It has six hundred-and-something shops, two hundred-and-something restaurants, two movie theatres, a water park, and the most exciting thing: a full-size ice rink. When I last went, the majority of skaters were beginners, and it was so fun to watch tropical Hanoians giving it a try at a winter sport.

When I feel like taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the city life, I opt for visiting the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. It is located in one of the newly developed districts and is about 10km away from the centre. The main exhibition displays everyday objects from various ethnic groups, as well as their tribal art inside a modern structure. However, I most enjoy what lies outside the main building . Here are examples of traditional village houses, such as a house on stilts or a long commune cottage. I find it fascinating to learn about the different ways of living that are so close to my birthplace, but somehow so remote to me.

Must art?

I still remember the first time my parents took me to see water puppets. I was ten and seeing the colouring puppets moving in the water was like magic. Adults also find water puppets fun and graceful so grab a show at the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre if you have never seen it. For more modern forms of art, I go to the Jazz Club on Quan Su, chilling with a glass of wine and listen to the live band. Or else, Hanoi Opera House has many big gigs of well popular singers and bands. I also go there for the venue, which is absolutely gorgeous.

Must gos?

I get around Hanoi on a scooter because it is a fast and convenient way to manoeuvre around busy roads. I sometimes take the bus, especially to go to the new part of town, like Cau Giay or Thanh Xuan districts. There the roads are wide, busy and dusty so the bus could be a temporary safe haven on a very hot day. Taxis are plenty in Hanoi, especially around the centre. The fare is quite reasonable, especially with smaller taxis like Van Xuan. I would take Mai Linh sometimes because their service is probably the best in the city, but they are not cheap. If you want to take a taxi, make you sure you learn the names of some big taxi companies so you can recognize them. There are a lot of scams so even if the brand looks familiar, you should always check if the car has a proper meter reader running.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Quynh Nguyen; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)