Diners sit on low red plastic stools and use an additional stool to hold the serving trays. When the meal is done, a bus boy swiftly takes it all away, including the paper trash that has been thrown to the ground, so the stall remains spotless even during the midday rush.
Phuong Vu Manh, a resident of a nearby district and a well-known Hanoian artist, often stops by for breakfast and lunch. “This banh cuon is famous throughout Hanoi and many folks come from all over for the warm sauce and the fried sausage,” he says.
The food here is full of flavour and the atmosphere is fresh and clean. Its understated excellence is representative of Hai Ba Trung, the district it resides in.
Welcome to Hai Ba Trung
Depending on who you believe, somewhere between 700,000 to 1.2 million people live here, making it Hanoi’s most populous district. Its geographic boundary already makes it Hanoi’s largest in square kilometers.
The people who live here span the great divide of Vietnam’s social economic strata. The northern part of the district is riddled with high-end apartments fetching a cool US$1,800 in rental per month, while a two-bedroom apartment in the southern end — where four of Hanoi’s most prestigious universities sit — can cost as little as US$200. This southern apartment may house as many as six students on the floor on straw mats while ones in the north offer an expat or monied-up middle class Vietnamese couple modern conveniences like enclosed showers and AC in every room.
But on any given evening of the week, you can find both of these groups, and everyone in between, enjoying the latest Hollywood blockbuster on the top floor of Vincom on Ba Trieu. The Megastar Cinema is the only place in Hanoi that shows 3D films. Tickets cost VND150,000.
Further north-west of Vincom, near the western edge of the district, it is possible to spend a mere VND30,000 for another form of entertainment — and this one is live. The Hanoi Circus (Tran Nhan Tong, close to Le Duan) has existed for more than 50 years and offers four performances every week. Here, humans prance around like animals and animals perform like humans. Monkeys ride bicycles and bears drive motorbikes. It’s quite the spectacle. The parking lot outside is one of the only places in the entire area where tour buses linger, and this lack of tourist traffic makes Hai Ba Trung one of Hanoi’s more “local” districts — unlike its foreigner-dependent neighbours to the north. But what Hai Ba Trung lacks in crowded tourist attractions, it makes up for with convenient local amenities.
Keeping it Local
It’s the best neighbourhood for everyday needs. Just off of Pho Hue and housed within a large, Soviet era multi-level building is Cho Hom, a local market selling everything from fresh meat and groceries to underwear and socks. Just a few blocks south off of Nguyen Cong Tru is a handyman’s paradise, Cho Troi. Here it is easy to get lost in the maze of stalls lining the crowded alleyways selling everything from lights for the Honda Dream to circuit boards for a DVD player. Nowhere else in Hanoi can you buy ingredients for your dinner and parts for your bike within the span of a few blocks.
Finding the ingredients to cook dinner is easy here but finding the desire to cook is a touch harder. This district is full of top quality eateries. Trieu Viet Vuong and Mai Hac De streets are Hanoi’s version of Little Japan. Ky Y (166 Trieu Viet Vuong) is a perennial favourite, with its Japanese style banh xeo, or pancake, and its grilled eggplant in the chef’s own special sauce.
On the other side of Pho Hue is Chim Sao (65 Ngo Hue), a great place serving straight up traditional Vietnamese dishes in a stylish old Vietnamese house. Be ready for an authentic, but back-stiffening experience. The delicious plates of lemongrass chicken, clay pots of fish stew and bowls of sour soup with minced pork are to be enjoyed while sitting on the floor. If you’re smart you will pick a wall to sit against when eating upstairs.
Every neighbourhood has cafes, but Hai Ba Trung has Hanoi’s coffee street — Trieu Viet Vuong. Cong Caphe (152D Trieu Viet Vuong) offers unique drinks like the Cong Coffee, Caribbean inspired and spiked with a shot of Buon Ma Thuot grounds, amid humble furniture befitting the walls covered in vintage Communist photographs and paraphernalia.
Just across the street is Tadioto (113 Trieu Viet Vuong), one of the district’s greatest cultural contributions to the city. It is a café, a bar, a restaurant, an art gallery, a concert venue and a place for artists, writers and thinkers to gather and exchange ideas. Visiting poets hold readings here. Traditional — and often experimental — music emanates from the second floor gallery space. Even the design of the place oozes artistic inspiration.
Nguyen Quy Duc, Tadioto’s proprietor, beams with excitement when asked about this area. “I chose to open my place here because it’s real. It’s a place where people live normally,” he says. “Hoan Kiem is too crowded and although it tries to be old Hanoi it is not anymore because of the number of tourists. And West Lake caters mostly to foreigners. “I wanted a place local Hanoians would embrace as their own.”
There is so much more to Hai Ba Trung district. It has the highest concentration of top notch karaoke bars and Czech beer halls in the city. Very soon it will unveil Hanoi’s largest public park in time for the 1,000 year anniversary celebrations — Union Park.
But being big is not the point. What makes this place special is what it has to offer to the people who live here. The district’s residents, or any Hanoian for that matter, can enjoy the best coffee, entertainment and food all within the boundaries of Hai Ba Trung.
A two-bedroom apartment can range from US$200 in the southern end to US$1,800 in the northern end
Houses / Villas
Same pricing as apartments. Dependent on area, street and location.
Ca Phe Sua Da
VND15,000 (Cong Caphe), VND12,000 (standard café)
VND15,000 to VND20,000, depending on portion size and location of restaurant