During the 45 minute or so cab ride from the airport to downtown Hanoi, I contemplated what the city might be like. I knew very little about Vietnam or what to expect from Hanoi other than what I had concocted in my head after obsessively watching Anthony Bourdain's travels unfold on Netflix. As I gazed at the city's "suburbs" passing by in a flurry of bright colors, mopeds and rice fields, my anticipation grew; I knew something good was to come.
After getting dropped off at my hotel in the Old Quarter and taking a brief glance at the sights around me, I was overcome with the nervous excitement of a new love, and the object of my desire, Hanoi. In the next 48 hours I crammed every waking moment taking in the city, strategically weaving my way on foot through the chaos of oncoming motorbike traffic, shopping for handicrafts and artwork at the abundance of colorful shops, fending off highly motivated (may I say aggressive?) street vendors, people watching my way around Hoan Kiem Lake, sipping thick Vietnamese iced coffee sweet with condensed milk, downing $0.25 Bia Hoi beers at "Beer Corner" and my favorite, sampling as much street food as physically possible.
If you eat a single meal in Hanoi at an actual restaurant or even an establishment with a menu, you are wrong, no two ways about it. The street food in Hanoi is unmatched, with street carts or one-man, one-woman, and on several occasion, one-child operations serving a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes and snacks from their overturned bucket perch. While you may question the "sanitary" conditions of such makeshift operations, I actually found comfort in getting to see the exact ingredients I would be eating and how they were prepared and found myself enjoying shopping around for who seemed to have the freshest products and most efficient processes before I took a squat and indulged (plus I've watched enough Restaurant Impossible to know that 1/2 the restaurant kitchens in America are probably less sanitary than these prideful street vendors).
A full meal from a street cook typically cost me less than $2 and undoubtedly put even the best Vietnamese food I had tried previously to complete shame. Some of the highlights included the most flavorful beef phở (called phở bò) imaginable, rolled-to-order fried pork spring rolls, charcoal grilled chicken bánh mì sandwiches and stir fried garlic beef and rice noodles (cue lustful reminiscent drooling). Vicariously eating through Bourdain's Vietnamese adventures no more, my own deliciously fond memories of Vietnam will keep me going until my next encounter with my newest love, Hanoi.