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Jun 23, 2024 / 20:40

Snacking in alleys of Hanoi's Old Quarter

Aside from the sidewalk food and drink stalls, citizens are keen on wandering the small alleys of downtown Hanoi for irreplaceable tastes and vibes.

A common pastime of many Hanoi residents and foreign visitors is strolling around the city's alleyways, indulging in street foods and drinks.

 The serene interior of Cafe Pho Co (Old Quarter Cafe) on Hang Gai Street. Photo: Giang Dinh

One summer morning, Phuong Nga met her friend at a cafe tucked away in an alley on Hang Gai Street. To get there, she had to park her motorcycle on the sidewalk and walk through a dark alley between two silk shops.

"First-time visitors to the Old Quarter hardly notice that there is a coffee house in such a deep alley, concealed by streetfront silk shops crowded with foreign tourists and locals," she stated.

Separated from the hustle and bustle outside, the three-story café with its beautiful courtyard offers visitors a wonderful feeling of peace, as if they have entered another world. The cafe is a 100-year-old house with dated wooden doors and horizontal inscribed boards. The side walls are quite mossy, while faded wooden shelves display porcelain, a rare sight these days.

 The small alley leading to the Cafe Pho Co.

The entrance to the cafe is just wide enough for one person to pass through at a time.

The owner, who has been in the coffee business for decades, caters to the residents of the street who want a quiet place. Initially, the shop was just one floor, but as it became more popular, it was expanded, with the roof offering a unique view of Hoan Kiem Lake.

As well as the locals, more and more foreigners come to the café on recommendation. At weekends, it is always full, but still quiet. 

"We can only seat about a dozen people. If there's no more room, I have to put up a notice outside," Nga said.

 Nice installations in the courtyard of the café.

Having lived in Hanoi for many years before moving to Ho Chi Minh City, Giang Dinh and her mother have retained the habit of going to the coffee shop whenever they have the chance to visit the capital.

"The café still retains the inherent beauty of Hanoi, which reminds me of my childhood," said Giang.

The café attracts a wide range of customers, from young to middle-aged, local to international. Jessica, a tourist from Australia, shared her experience at the cafe: "While walking down an old street in Hanoi, some friends and I suddenly saw a large group of foreigners walking down a tiny alley. Out of curiosity, we decided to follow them and find out about this wonderful place.

"Perhaps if you look hard enough, you will find something beautiful. We were very impressed by the space, the decoration, and the taste of the coffee here. These are things we have never experienced at home or even in other countries," she added.

Hanoi is a snack lover's paradise. At any time of the day, you can find delicious fast food restaurants in Hanoi, whether it is pho, porridge, vermicelli, bread, or sweet soups.

 The wonderful “hand-carried” dish of pho at an eatery in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Photo: Mon ngon Hanoi

Every day at 3pm, a pho stall called Pho Bung, 'bung' or 'hand-carried', in a small alleyway on Hang Trong Street in Hoan Kiem District, is packed. The name comes from the fact that diners have no choice but to hold their bowls in their hands as they eat - there are no tables due to the cramped space.

For residents of the Old Quarter, pho can be a meal for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even an afternoon snack. Pho Bung is famous. The broth is slightly sweet, the beef is tender and buttery, and the noodles are not too filling.

According to the eatery's owner, before 2016, this stall was on the sidewalk at the intersection of Hang Trong Street and Hang Bong Street.

"When the city started to clear the sidewalks, it was moved to the second floor of a house in this alley," she said.

Before dining, guests must enter an alleyway more than five meters deep and just wide enough for two people to pass each other. Then they follow the sign up a spiral staircase to the second floor. According to the owner, most of his customers are local or come on recommendation. The place is busiest outside office hours.

 The small alley leads to Qua Ngo Nho restaurant in Dong Da District, Hanoi. Photo: Le Phong

A regular since she was a student, Phuong Thao likes the pho here for its rustic atmosphere and flavor, which suits her taste. "The most exciting thing for me is to enjoy a hot bowl of pho in an old room that few places in Hanoi still have," said the 27-year-old office worker from Cau Giay district.

Qua Ngo Nho, or Small Alley Snack, tucked away in a small alley in Hang Bot, next to Hanoi's iconic Temple of Literature, is packed at lunchtime. Thanh Tung, the owner of the tiny restaurant, is a familiar figure to Hanoi audiences. The 60-year-old has been running the stall by himself for decades.

Although there aren't many advertisements, just a sign in front of his tiny house, regulars still come in search of the comforting taste of Hanoi's authentic specialties. Many of them agree that it's a lot of fun to eat a simple but wonderful meal in a modern setting on a lonely street in the heart of Hanoi.

"Many of my frequent customers don't need to place any orders. I already know what they want, so they just have to wait a few minutes to get their food," Tung said.

The truth is that many diners still flock to the small restaurants tucked away in the Old Town because they feel nostalgic and want to keep the traditional way of life alive.

Phuong Hai, a culinary expert from Hanoi, said that before the Doi Moi reforms were implemented in 1986, the abundance of shops in downtown Hanoi made it a popular place for residents to eat out. At that time, the living rooms of houses were used as trading places due to lack of space. Since then, eating in the depths of alleyways has become a habit for locals.

"There, people not only enjoy Hanoi's famous dishes but also immerse themselves in the

vibes of old Hanoi and feel very relaxed," Hai said, explaining Hanoians' hobby of eating out.