food travel

The top 5 things to do in Hanoi

Hanoi was a DREAM, you guys.  I loved it.  Of the cities I've visited in Asia, I think Hanoi might have been my favorite.  It's the ideal mix of gorgeous European architecture and the chaos of an Asian city.  It's small enough to explore on foot and cheap enough to avoid constant concern about blowing your budget.  (My budget is in a fight with Hong Kong.)

I spent four days in Hanoi with my trusted co-pilot and staff photographer Sadie (probably more of an intern as she is decidedly unpaid). We spent one day in Ha Long Bay, but otherwise basically ate and drank our way through the city.  Here are some of my favorite things we did.

Food Tour with Mark Lowerson - Mark is an Australian who has been living in Hanoi for over fifteen years.  With him we ate pho, several noodles dishes, a roasted banana tapioca dessert, a banh mi and some of the best spring rolls of our entire stay in Vietnam.  It was fascinating to get his perspective on the ex-pat experience in the city and how it has changed.  The tours are expensive, but I would recommend them above almost anything we did while in the city.

Noticeable French influence on these spring rolls:  the wrapper is super flaky and light, almost like a pastry.

Noticeable French influence on these spring rolls:  the wrapper is super flaky and light, almost like a pastry.

Hanoi Cooking Centre - Cooking classes are fast becoming one of my favorite ways to get to know a place. In this one, we made spring rolls, pho, bun cha, and a delicious fruit salad with coconut milk. We also got a tour of a nearby food market, which was fascinating. I, like lots of other people, am always hoping to make contact with a local when I'm visiting a new place, but it is always harder than I think it will be.  I find it is fairly rare to meet someone who speaks good English and is interested in talking to me, so the cooking instructor and tour guides I met on this were the best opportunity I had to ask locals about their lives in Hanoi. They were informative, open and very kind. They also let you drink as much beer or wine as you want during the cooking class, which felt like a very authentic cooking experience to me as that is typically how I operate in my own kitchen.

Looking out of the market across the lake.

Looking out of the market across the lake.

The Vietnamese Women's Museum - Because we were only in northern and central Vietnam, we didn't do much of anything related to the Vietnam War (also known as the American War). The only exception was the third floor of the Women's Museum in Hanoi, which was dedicated to the stories of women who were involved in the war.  Their letters and diaries describe, firsthand, the atrocities that they experienced and what it was like to specifically be a woman in the war.  It was a perspective I'd never heard before and I was fascinated. Get the audio tour, because it includes translated readings of these documents.  The whole museum is good, but we particularly enjoyed the third floor.

Coffee - Vietnamese coffee is DANG GOOD, y'all.  I'm working on some recipes to keep us cool and jittery (my ideal state) throughout the summer, but in the meantime you should probably start planning a coffee-centric trip to Hanoi.  I think of Vietnamese coffee as strong coffee served over ice and sweetened condensed milk, but that is only the beginning!  Hanoi is famous for egg coffee, which sounds weird but is SO GOOD.  It was invented in the 1940s during a milk shortage, and has become a total cultural icon, attracting locals and tourists side by side in a way that I've found is fairly rare. There's lots to do in Hanoi, but some of the most wonderful moments we had involved sitting in a street side cafe or by the window in a hidden upstairs spot, just removed enough from the chaos of the city to appreciate its beauty.  Some highlights were Cafe Dinh, Cafe Giang, and Oriberry Cafe (where you can buy single origin Vietnamese coffee) (I brought home approx. ten pounds).

Egg coffee from above.

Egg coffee from above.

Weekend Night Market/Party - Every weekend after about 7pm, most of the streets north of Hang Dao in the Old Quarter become pedestrian only and street performers and market stalls are set up.  It's a hilarious mix of family fun and people being wildly drunk.  Local families come out and wander the streets, or post up at one of the tiny outdoor tables and just watch the world go by.  With beer at approximately 50 cents a pint, it is basically required to be a good time.

Coffee menu.

Coffee menu.

Top Ten Food-centric Japan trip moments

Hi!  I just returned from a week in Japan, racing between Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.  We went, we ate, we almost never got to leave.  Japan is small, so I thought a week would feel like a lot of time, but I could have spent a lot more days in each city.  Here are my top ten experiences from our food-centric week in Japan.

1)  Tsukiji Market

Tsukiji Market is where the largest and most expensive tuna in the world are bought and sold.  Because we didn't want to get up at 3am and wait for hours in the freezing cold, we skipped the tuna auction but we did not skip the action!  We ate enormous fresh oysters, scallops in their shells, the fattiest tuna I've ever seen, plus grilled eel skewers and many more delights.  It was overwhelming in the best possible way, with so much to eat and see.  We spent probably 2 hours there but I could have entertained myself for many more.

Scroll through for a selection of market pictures.

2)    Sunset over Tokyo

Our first day was long, and we ended it with a visit to the 33rd floor of the Prince Hotel, where we drank expensive cocktails and watched the sun set behind Mt. Fuji.  We arrive at about 4:15, in time to watch the city slowly light up.  It was a clear day, so we could see pretty clearly about 60 miles west, making for an unbelievable view of Mt. Fuji and the sun.  My mom loves good views, so treating myself to a pricier cocktail or glass of wine as rent to enjoy a lovely view has become an important part of my travel plans, wherever I go.

3)    Dominique Ansel Bakery

Have you heard of the Cronut?  I assume you have because it is a croissant donut hybrid AKA delicious fried butter bread so anyone who hangs out around these parts of the Internet certainly has their ear to the ground in terms of donut innovation.  You might not realize that the Cronut is actually legally trademarked by Dominique Ansel, who is basically the baker of my generation.  He has a very important ability to invent delicious items that also go viral on social media.  I actually really recommend following him on Instagram.  We happened to be near the Tokyo branch of his bakery and stopped by to check it out.  I intended to haughtily be put off by the line and keep walking but all three of us were immediately sucked in and waited in line for 20 minutes in order to purchase approximately 8 pastries. (We had to get breakfast for the next day!) 

My favorite was the frozen s'more, which has a core of vanilla ice cream, surrounded by chocolate cookie crumbs, surrounded by marshmallow and then torched in front of you.  See my Instagram.

My mom liked the DKA, which is Ansel's version of a kouign amann.  It is similar to a croissant but lightly sweet, with a really satisfying caramelized outside. UGH. I'm hungry.

4)  Shin Udon

My mom has a video of me staring in the window of this restaurant and then turning around and exclaiming "This is my favorite thing we've done in Tokyo!"  Ramen gets the headlining spot in the Tokyo noodle scene, but there's also delicious udon and soba noodles. Udon noodles are thick and chewy, usually served in a lighter broth than ramen. These particular udon were made in front of us by a noodle man who kept flicking water at the window through which I was watching his every move.  We really bonded.

My mom had a bowl of very traditional udon, but I opted for a carbonara-style udon with tempura bacon and tons of black pepper and parmesan.  It's basically the combination of two of my very favorite things in the world - Italian pasta and Asian noodles.



5)  Flea Market at Tomioka Hachimangu

We went out to this flea market on a bit of a whim, but it ended up being a fun way to get an idea of what day-to-day life might be like for an average citizen of Tokyo.  The flea market surrounds a beautiful temple/shrine/religious sight, so there was a long line of people waiting to go in and pray the whole time we were walking around and shopping.  The market has everything from old old whaling photographs to small furniture and cool old kimono-like items.  I didn't buy much but I think seeing what kind of old stuff is floating around Japan is a fun way to understand the culture a bit more.

The flea market sellers were not supportive of my camera, so these photos are mostly from the shrine and surrounding area.

6)    Onsen in Hakone

Hakone is sort of between Kyoto and Tokyo, near the base of Mt. Fuji.  It's a resort town known for natural hot springs and really beautiful views.  We spent one blissful night at Hotel Okada, soaking in the hot springs, getting massages and eating a traditional Kaiseki-style meal, served in our room by a very stern older woman.  Kaiseki was something I really wanted to try in Japan - it's similar to a tasting menu, in that they serve lots of tiny dishes.  Because very few people spoke English, we didn't know what we were eating but it was really fun to taste everything and try to guess what was what.

7)    Fushimi inari-taisha in Kyoto

Kyoto was a very mixed bag.  We had some AirBnB mishaps, as well as a very uncomfortable tea ceremony.  I hadn't done much research about Kyoto before we arrived there, so I thought it was going to be a pretty small and very charming city.  It turned out to be a lot larger than I'd expected, and the charm was contained to certain areas which we did eventually find.  The cities main claim to fame is numerous temples that are still largely intact because Kyoto wasn't destroyed during World War II.

Fushimi Inari-taisha was my favorite of the temples we visited.  The day was so grey, so it felt like walking around in a world that had been photoshopped to make the orange torii (those orange gate-like things you see below) really pop out.

8)    Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

My favorite thing to do while traveling is go to food markets, which is why there are two on this list.  Nishiki Market is a lot smaller than Tsukiji in Tokyo, but it was a lot less crowded and a bit less overwhelming, so good for people who are maybe a bit intimidated by the intensity of Tsukiji.  There are more tourists at Nishiki than Tsukiji for that exact reason, but it was still so, so fun to spend an hour or so wandering through eating takoyaki (doughy octopus balls) and looking at all the beautifully laid out food.

9)    Shopping for Home goods, everywhere

Because the Japanese take food so seriously, they also take kitchen tools and accessories very seriously.  While in Japan, I bought a carbon steel kitchen knife, a set of beautiful ceramic bowls and several beautiful scraps of cloth that I intend to use as kitchen towels.  My mom bought a bamboo ice basket with copper accents, which delighted her.  I knew I wanted to buy a knife while in Japan, but I was surprised by the number of kitchen stores with really beautiful items all over the cities we visited.  Constant temptation mostly lost to the idea of carrying everything I wanted to buy in a 35L backpack, but if I went back I would bring a large hard-side suitcase and stock up. (Another reason I can't afford to return to Japan anytime soon.)

10)    Tsurugyu for Kobe Beef, Osaka

We spent one night in Osaka in order to be closer to the airport, which turned out to be a huge mistake - the trains were complicated and we ended up missing our flight and having to completely rebook.  Let's never speak of it.  That night in Osaka was almost worth the pain it ultimately caused because of the meal we had at Tsurugyu.  They serve Kobe beef at a significantly lower price than normal because it isn't certified - I found the recommendation here.  You cook the food yourself at the table, except the waitstaff is wonderful and basically does it for you.  I had a really good time being teased by our waiter for cooking things wrong.  Love connection.

Y'all, I'm gonna be straight with you.  I failed you because I mostly forgot to take pictures.  They brought out each order of meat in beautiful presentations - on banana leaves and gorgeous ceramic bowls with different dips for each one.  I was so focused on getting the food in my mouth that my camera felt really unimportant.  Guess you have to go to Japan.

my one and only precious photo from Tsurugyu.

my one and only precious photo from Tsurugyu.

And then we got stuck in the Osaka airport for one million hours, so don't be too jealous.