Discovering Hanoi’s Alleys

As my husband and I complete our tenth visit to Hanoi in the past twelve years, we are still finding new nooks and crannies everywhere we go in this fascinating city. We enjoy our time here as artistic advisors to the Hanoi New Music Ensemble, and we are especially proud of the ensemble’s recent concert performed for almost 1,000 attendees!

In addition to our musical activity, our wonderful Vietnamese friends make certain that we experience their favorite places — endless street stalls, restaurants and cafes. No matter how many times we return, we make new discoveries everywhere. What is difficult for most visitors is the opportunity to enjoy local places because many of these special places are located in small alleyways that connect the beautiful tree-lined boulevards.

Trung Yên is my favorite alley in Hanoi, a culinary paradise. On one of our first visits, composer Vũ Nhật Tân, who knows Hanoi intimately, made certain to take us to his favorite beef noodle stall. It was our introduction to street food, and Phở Sướng remains our favorite. Over time, we felt confident exploring the alley as it winds its way to a large daily market at the other end. This alley must be one of the greatest food streets anywhere — beef noodle soup (Phở Bò), goose noodle soup (bún ngan), fish noodle soup (bún cá), and rice pancakes with pork and mushrooms (bánh cuốn). There are numerous other people selling dishes that remain to be tasted on future trips. In between are stalls selling fruit, meat, poultry and vegetables, beautifully clean and fresh.

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However, it is not just street food that is found down numerous alleyways. Some lovely cafes are hidden, just waiting to be found. One of our favorites, especially when we are missing food from California, is the Hanoi Social Club. The ambiance is refurbished French colonial, the food is delicious, and some of the staff are trained at KOTO (Know One, Teach One), an NGO dedicated to providing vocational skills in hospitality to disadvantaged youth. And, at any restaurant or cafe in Hanoi, check to see what is upstairs as there are usually additional levels to explore. The restaurant is also a venue for music events.

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Often we discover a new place. We found Loading T cafe while wandering one day, curious about what was inside a semi-renovated French villa. There was no signage for the cafe, but we quickly found that Loading T has some of the best coffee in Hanoi  And, there was a hallway, an internal alleyway, that led to an outstanding small ceramics shop run by the artist son of one of Vietnam’s premier ceramicists, who we had visited in a past trip at his home in the countryside. When we brought some friends to visit our new “find,” Dam Quan Minh almost cried as he told us that as a child, he used to play with the children of the original owner of the house!

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Another favorite cafe down a very small alley is Tranquil Cafe, easy to miss. Its book-filled shelves, inside/outside quiet seating, and delicious coffee provide an oasis in the busy urban landscape of Hanoi.

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Areas around large markets in Hanoi also provide very interesting alley activity. Near Tranquil Cafe is the Hàng Da market where an alley across from the market building provides daily provisions for locals. The flags hung in the alley mark the Hung Kings holiday celebrating Vietnamese history.

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Also near Đồng Xuân, the largest market in Hanoi, are food alleys that have a huge variety of meals and desserts. Ngõ Đồng Xuân provides breakfast, lunch and dinner for market employees as well as local residents and tourists. With barely room for a motorcycle to drive by, this narrow alley is easy to miss!

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Some of the alleys have history attached to them. Hanoi is famous for a local creation called egg coffee (cà phê trứng), which is delicious Vietnamese coffee, sweetened condensed milk with the addition of a whipped egg yolk on top – stir vigorously before drinking! Everyone agrees that it was created in 1946 at Café Giảng when there was little milk available after World War II. We had to find the original location, and we were glad that we did. This alley is narrow, dark, and then opens into two floors of local history with the feel of old Hanoi.

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Throughout Hanoi, and most cities in Vietnam, alleys provide quiet respite from the noise of the city. When we visit our friends at their homes, located a short distance from the main boulevards, there is true peace and quiet in the alley. Their homes are often 5 stories in height, with more space than a moderate American home.

Businesses also take advantage of quiet alleyways. I fortunately have time to take advantage of Yakushi Clinic, which offers their services with their highly trained clinicians at 1/5 of the cost of an American massage. Birds sing outside the windows of the relaxing facility, just a block from a main street. Next time you are in Hanoi, do stop by!

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Modern alleys have also sprung up around the city. Phố sách Hà Nội (Book Alley) is a block-long street in the center of the city that has small kiosks featuring books on various subjects such as children, political publications, business, fiction, and many other topics. There is the requisite coffee shop in the center, and the street is closed to traffic. Cultural events take place on a central stage on weekends. It is a wonderful place to browse despite few books in English.

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Finally, I would like to return to food, one of the many important reasons to visit Vietnam. The culinary treasures are endless and make each alley a delight to discover. Here are some photos of a famous food area in the center of Hanoi, the intersection of Tống Duy Tân and Ngõ Cấm Chỉ alleys.

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With an array of Hanoi’s finest dishes available 24 hours daily, these food stalls, modern cafes, juice bars, dessert restaurants and bars have it all — unique atmosphere, delicious food, friendly people and an ambiance unlike any other place I have been. And, for an after-concert party for the Hanoi New Music Ensemble, it was the perfect location to raise our glasses in celebration!

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