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Hanoi: Language and Food

Learn Vietnamese on the Street

Article and Photos by Alice Driver
Hanoi crispy shrimp sweet potato pancakes from “Quan An Ngon” restaurant.

A personal language teacher is an excellent and affordable way to enrich your Vietnam experience. In Hanoi a private language teacher for two people costs $6 to $7 per hour. The Applied Language School on 38 Hang Chuoi St. offers wonderful teachers who will help you learn a few basic phrases, or as much as you are willing to take on. They can be reached at 011-84-4-971-0630 and will either come to your hotel or invite you to have class in their homes. If you attend class two hours a day for seven days and study like your life depends on it, you can learn enough basic Vietnamese to get around. A teacher can also provides invaluable advice about local customs, restaurants, and the prices of goods. Practicing your Vietnamese is a rewarding experience, and you will find many willing conversation partners.

The many gastronomic experiences offered in Hanoi, from French restaurants, to traditional pho vendors, to openair markets, provide a great opportunity to use your language skills. The traditional pho, a steaming bowl of noodles, meat, and green onions can be eaten at any time of day from a street vendor for 10,000 dong (60 cents). A constant stream of customers flock to Pho Gia Truyen on 49 Bat Dan St., a small street vendor known for his fresh ingredients. Eating at a street vendor forces you to use your language skills, as many of the street vendors do not speak English. The people are generous and curious and will likely try to strike up a conversation and offer to share some of their food.

Dragonfruit are sold at the local markets and on every street corner.

You can practice your language skills while ordering food at Quan an ngon on 18 Phan Boi Chau St., a mecca of gastronomic experience in traditional Vietnamese dishes. Offering a plethora of dishes and a variety of juices and smoothies, this restaurant is a great introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. The restaurant, unlike other tourist-only eateries, is filled with Vietnamese people. Seating also puts you at the same table as other families and couples. Sweetened sticky rice with sesame and coconut and Hanoi crispy shrimp sweet potato pancakes are recommended dishes, as well as the fun and fascinating drink Che Suong Sa Hot Luu (under desserts on the menu) with jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pearls, and coconut milk. The large outdoor pavilion is covered by bright yellow triangles of fabric and cooled by fans spraying a fine mist. There is also air-conditioned seating inside.

Kin Do cafe on 252 Hang Bong St. is a nondescript little eatery with a hum of customers who flock to its flaky pastries. Try the raisin cream cake and homemade yogurts. The menu also includes warm French bread with butter, omelets, sandwiches, smoothies, carrot cake, and lemon, cream, or chocolate tarts. These are just a few of the delights you will find at this humble cafe. Even though the servers speak some English, be sure to practice your Vietnamese when you order. If you don’t pronounce a phrase correctly, they offer polite correction.

For another kind of food experience you can try one of the many open-air markets. At the entrance to Dong Xuan Market are flower sellers, tables of fruits and vegetables, and fish sellers with bowls, tubs, and buckets of water filled with shrimp, giant squid, eels, turtles, and fish of all sizes and scales crowded together. The woman selling fish periodically picks out a big one and chops it in half. Many foods are packaged in banana leaves and tied with twine—neat and beautiful in an origami way.

After a good meal, a walk to Hoan Kiem lake is recommended. People flock to the lake to practice Thai-chi, stretch, run, do push-ups, kiss under the weeping willows, and eat ice cream.

Women in park in Hanoi
It is 6 a.m. at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, and a group of women have gathered to dance and perform their morning exercises.