Roadside stands top Michelin stars in Hanoi, Vietnam

As a food writer, I relish in the luxurious routine that goes into preparing for an upscale meal out.

I like poring over the menu at lunchtime; choosing the most interesting entrée and the most calculatingly-paired appetizer. I like taking my search to the internet and digging up photos of intriguing dishes. I like drinking just a tad too much wine and feeling courageous enough to say things I normally wouldn’t. I especially like coming home just exhausted enough that I don’t feel the need to put my purse away and instead, know I’m in for a solid night’s sleep.

When I travel, this becomes much more fun. I can check out restaurants I’ve only read about, try foods I can barely pronounce and delve far beyond my usual 20-mile dining radius.

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So, when Mike and I headed to Hanoi last week on the first stop of our Vietnamese tour, I was already armed with my guidebook, highlighted with the coolest restaurants in town. Mike, a decidedly much more low-key eater who loves a New York hot dog as much as he loves foie gras? Not so much.

Mike was ready for the street food scene that defines Hanoi. Throughout the city, the winding street corners – stuffed with zooming motorbikes and unyielding traffic at pretty much any given time which makes for a loud and nerve-wracking wander – are filled with little old ladies hawking questionable sticks of doughnuts, stands with lined-up skewers of meat ripe for grilling, and waves of colorful plastic tables and chairs that make for a fitting combination of pandemonium in this unhinged place.

I, however, am not exactly on the same page. The parade of motorbikes – which don’t care if you’re a person or a discarded beer can – don’t stop when you cross (they don’t even care if you’re on the sidewalk, they drive there too). The roar of people and honks and music is piercing, always. And the one thing I wanted to help me bring my heartrate back to a reasonable rate was a calming meal out.

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So, on our second night, I pick the restaurant. There’s a lot to pick from, but I choose Old Hanoi, a Lonely Planet-recommended “sophisticated eatery in a restored French colonial villa.” It fits the bill. It’s romantic, lavish and quiet. Actually, too quiet.

It’s Friday night, but the only people here are two other – clearly American – couples. No Vietnamese are in sight, sans the smiling servers. The food is fine. I order ribs, and about four come out on a big white plate with a weird excuse for garnish. I feel jipped and kind of dumb for bringing Mike here, but luckily he doesn’t complain.

Our walk home adds insult to injury. Our awkward, lonesome dinner is highlighted as we stroll past Vietnamese raucously laughing at streetside food stands, every plastic chair full as they pile up plates and slug from beer bottles. The streets may be dirty, they may be loud and there are surely rats within feet. But these people are having an impossibly good time and dining on the real deal, and I know I screwed up.

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In most places, the best places to eat are those with thousands of Facebook reviews, Michelin stars and the best Instagram photos. But in a city as raw and lawless as Hanoi, that’s not the case.

In travel, you have to just go with it. If everyone else is ordering that funky-looking dish with a possible set of eyes, tell the waiter you’ll have what he’s having. If they’re in shorts and a t-shirt, leave the dress in your suitcase. And if they’re having the best pho in town at a plastic table in a dirty alley, get in line.

What are some of the most unlikely places you have found a killer meal? Let me know in comments. 

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