Grabbing something decent to eat in Hanoi during the early hours is really just a matter of knowing where to go.

By Story: Hasham Wali on October 18,2017 02:24 PM


Photo: PUKU

It’s late. Very late. Night has crossed over into morning. You’ve just staggered out of the bar and now you’re hungry. Very hungry. At this point, nothing could possibly matter more than getting something absurdly delicious down your hatch. Sleep can wait. Your friends can join you if they like but they’re mere background noise. What’s important is food, food, food.

This scene has been played out countless times in cities, towns and villages all over the world. The rule of thumb tends to be that the more rural a place, the more difficult it will be to procure something hot and tasty after the midnight bell has struck.

This should mean that in a cosmopolitan capital like Hanoi, getting your hands on some late night eats would be a doddle, right? Unfortunately, there exists in our fair city this pesky little thing known as the curfew, preventing the service industry from selling food and booze after midnight. In recent years, this law has been relaxed somewhat, as bars and restaurants in Hoan Kiem district are now able to ply their trade until 2am on weekends, offering some much needed sustenance to both backpackers and local people intent on painting the Old Quarter red.

But what about those who are out late on a weeknight? Or those that find themselves in a different part of town? Well, for a long time there was little choice for us partygoers but to lug ourselves over to Tong Duy Tan, more commonly known by natives and expats alike as Food Street. This semi-pedestrianised strip in the middle of town is the sole government-sanctioned oasis of early hours dining in Hanoi, helping satisfy the appetites of late night revellers spilling out of the city’s clubs and bars since before I arrived on these shores.

While this area is truly great for people watching - after all, who can resist the sight of high-society ladies rolling out of supercars and plonking themselves down on broken plastic stools to slurp down a bowl of noodles with reckless abandon? - the food leaves much to be desired. Despite the quantity of street food options available, quality tends to be lacking, with better versions of each dish easily found in other parts of the city during daylight hours.

As for non-Vietnamese fare, Food Street is also home to two cafés that have formed the backbone of the post-midnight dining landscape for a number of years now: Xofa and Puku. Located right next to each other, they have provided a haven for those looking for a giant burrito or burger to soak up all the alcohol swirling around in their stomachs in a vain attempt to stave off the inevitable hangover. The transformation that occurs at these institutions is always something to behold as they metamorphose from fairly normal coffee shops when the sun is still up to eerie meeting places of the damned once the witching hour has descended. To say the clientele at this time of night is eclectic would be a gross understatement.

Picture the scene. Here you see the quiet couple just wanting to get something simple to eat when everywhere else is closed. There is the traveller with the early morning flight, nursing a cup of coffee until it’s time to head to the airport. In the corner is the group of Vietnamese university students fervently working to meet their project deadline. The big table is occupied by a bunch of rambunctious expats, not keen on the night to finish anytime soon and as much there for the availability of beer and spirits as they are food. Interspersed among them all are the staff, sleeping in a variety of positions that would make Picasso proud, only rousing when called to action by one of the patrons, more often than not the table of drinkers in search of more fuel to add to the already raging fire. Navigating your way through this motley crew is what has characterised satisfying the midnight munchies for the longest time in Hanoi and been something of a rite of passage for anyone new to town. In the eyes of many, no one is a true Hanoian expat until they spent the wee hours of the morning slumped against a table in Puku.

However, the more time you spend in this city, the more of its secrets you uncover. People need to eat at all hours of the day and if you know where to look, you can get a good feed regardless of what the clock says. If you’re in Ba Dinh district and want to get a decent meal after drinking the night away at Ete then you need look no further than the building directly opposite for one of the best bowls of cháo sườn, or pork rib porridge, around, even if it is a bit pricier than elsewhere. What’s more, if you fancy phở instead, then just around the corner is one of the best places to get it, late night or otherwise. Don’t be distracted by the nem lụi, or grilled pork rolls, the main event is definitely the beef noodle soup. Whereas the rendition on Food Street simply fills a hole, the version here really lifts the soul, ushering in a second wind to an individual suffering from the effects of imbibing far too much - I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is a good or bad thing.

Another option that is often neglected, perhaps due to the fear of accidentally stumbling into a hostess bar, is the variety of Japanese establishments located in the Linh Lang area. Amid a sea of scantily clad girls beckoning salarymen into their sake dens are a couple of late night gems of real note. And none of these jewels shines more resplendently than Paku Paku, which boasts the golden combination of late opening hours, delicious food prepared by an actual Japanese chef, friendly but not overbearing service, and exceedingly reasonable prices for all but the highest of high-ticket items.

As with most things here, the situation regarding late eats is in constant flux. Though supported by a few ever-presents, we seem to be at the mercy of whatever the latest regulation or decree might be. However, things seem to be moving in the right direction and with every loosening of restrictions, more and more options become available and we, as the degenerate night-walkers that we are, are the ones that are benefitting.

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