Hanoi sidewalk tea's spirit of the streets

By Nguyen Chi   June 30, 2024 | 01:00 am PT
In order to truly grasp the essence of Hanoi, one must visit a tra da via he (sidewalk iced-tea stall), where one can listen, observe, and fully immerse oneself in the city's vibe.

Finding common ground in Hanoi often begins with an invitation for iced tea. A glass of bitter, chilled tea with a few frosty ice cubes not only quenches the thirst in the scorching 40-degree heat of summer, it also the embodiment of several of this capital city’s distinct cultural element.

While Saigon is synonymous with iced coffee, Hanoi is inseparable from sidewalk iced tea.

These tea stalls can be found throughout the city: nestled in the maze of the ancient streets of the Old Quarter, in bustling wet markets, beneath the run-down residential complexes dating back to the 1960s, or around new high-rise office towers.

Men of different ages sit around a sidewalk iced tea stall in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

Men of different ages sit around a sidewalk iced tea stall in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

Patrons of these tea stalls come from all walks of life. Whether they are old or young, rich or poor, dressed in business suits or casual shorts and tops, they are all treated equally. Once seated around the plastic chairs encircling the shop's tables, they share a common affection for Hanoi's unique cultural space—the sidewalk iced tea.
Even longtime Hanoi residents may not be able to pinpoint when iced tea first appeared in the capital, but over the years, the beverage has become an inseparable part of daily urban life.

These sidewalk tea shops are places where community stories resonate, they are a hub of social interaction, and even a reliable source of news. They are esteemed enough to be considered trustworthy "brands" in and of themselves: "If you need to know something, just ask the iced tea lady."

An iced tea stall owner serves her customer in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

An iced tea stall owner serves her customer in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

Here, all segments of society cross paths, and there are always groupings of sparse yet regular patrons, from morning until late into the night. Tourists visiting the capital for the first time might wonder why Hanoians have so much free time. On every corner, one can spot these sidewalk stalls, where patrons leisurely sip their tea, flip through nostalgic newspapers, and casually engage in discussions ranging from socio-political affairs to everyday life.

Thus, it is often said that to understand the true spirit of Hanoi, just visit any old sidewalk tea shop, where you can listen, converse, observe, and fully experience every facet of this city.

These tea stalls have been the main source of income for countless families through difficult times. Starting as small ventures by hardworking parents, they have enabled generations of Hanoians to access education, succeed, and become world citizens. The price of a glass of iced tea is almost a local currency unit in itself. People often refer to something inexpensive by saying it costs "just a few glasses of iced tea." This simple yet profound beverage has embedded itself deeply into the collective consciousness of the city's inhabitants.

A glass of tea sits on a chair on a Hanoi sidewalk, as a vendor walks by. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

A glass of tea sits on a chair on a Hanoi sidewalk, as a vendor walks by. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

Previously priced as low as VND500 (US$0.02) per glass, the cost has gradually increased with each stage of Vietnam's economic development. Even so, it remains one of the most affordable drinks in Hanoi, accessible to people from all walks of life, from laborers to intellectuals, as well as curious visitors wanting to experience Hanoi's culture.

In these sidewalk stalls, strangers become friends with ease, once they "tune in," they can discuss everything from the mundane to the profound as if knowing each other for years. Elderly locals who do not wish to stay indoors while all other family members are out, often gather at these tea stalls, where they watch the hustle and bustle of passersby and engage in nostalgic conversations about life's ups and downs.

After a long day confined within walls of the offices, many white-collar workers find solace in these tea shops. Despite spending all day in cool environments, the stresses of daily life remain inescapable.

Speaking of tea, one cannot overlook its significance among students. In the past, when finances were tight, iced tea outside school gates served as a classic meeting point for discussing studies, exchanging notes, and reviewing lessons before exams. Even those who did not particularly enjoy tea became accustomed to it over time, often forming close bonds with the owner. Some alumni, years after graduation, may forget their teachers and classmates, but they will never forget the tea vendor who served them and kept tabs on their debts.

Signs of the times

Delving into its flavor, what makes this beverage universally appealing? Historically, there were times when tea was considered a luxury beverage, reserved exclusively for royalty and the elite. Due to its value and cost, tea came with intricate customs and elaborate manners—from the process of scenting the tea, brewing it, to savoring it. These were sophisticated rituals that were not meant for the working class.

However, over the years, tea gradually transformed into a humble drink for every household. The method of enjoying tea became increasingly commonplace and approachable, including the advent of iced tea.

Tea is poured on top of a glass of ice at a sidewalk stall in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

Tea is poured on top of a glass of ice at a sidewalk stall in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

While the Vietnamese tea-drinking tradition was originally established thousands of years ago, the combination of tea and ice is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only about a century. During the French colonial era, the people of Vietnam, particularly those in Hanoi, were first introduced to the concept of cold ice. The French colonizers, unable to endure the sweltering summers in the north, constructed an ice factory on Tran Nhat Duat Street to cool food and beverages. Initially, ice was reserved for the colonial troops, high-end hotels, and bars catering to Westerners.

By the early 1920s, everyday residents of the capital had gradually become accustomed to using ice to iced drinks like coffee, orange juice, and lemonade. There were times when ice was a luxury item due to increased demand and limited production capacity. At that time, a glass of brightly colored syrup with ice was a coveted treat for many children. With such a scarcity of ice, there was hardly enough to spare for tea. After the subsidy period, as the nation's economy grew and living standards improved, households began to acquire refrigerators, and ice production facilities sprang up everywhere. This led to the widespread habit of adding ice to tea.

Sidewalk stalls typically offer a similar menu of traditional drinks like tea, nuoc voi, nhan tran (traditional herbal leaves tea), and sometimes apricot or dracontomelon juice, along with a few treats like peanut candy, gumdrops, lollipops which are simple snacks yet integral part of one's childhood.

Essences of Hanoi

Tea usually comes in two varieties: traditional dried tea and fresh tea. Traditional dried tea is the most prevalent, made from processed and dried tea leaves, featuring a natural, rustic aroma. The finished product is black, with tea leaves curling into a hook shape. The strong, robust flavor of traditional tea is ideal for tea connoisseurs who prefer a "stronger taste," and this drink also helps maintain alertness throughout the day. In contrast, fresh tea is brewed directly from tea leaves without undergoing any processing. The flavor of fresh tea is mild, not as stringent, and it does not cause insomnia like traditional tea, making it popular among young people and women.

Peanut candy is an essential accompaniment to tea. Despite significant changes in people's dietary preferences over the years, iced tea shops continue to sell peanut candy. The rich, nutty flavor of the peanuts, the sweetness of malt, and the aroma of sesame blend harmoniously with a cup of bitter tea, creating an irresistibly addictive combination.

For young people who have grown up with the fads of lemon tea and milk tea, they often find themselves wanting to reconnect with the slower pace of life from their "grandparents' time" as they get older. Iced tea is not just a drink; iced tea shops are not merely places for conversing and making friends. They have become iconic tourist check-in spots that embody the essence of Hanoi.

Young people stand by plastic chair set up by an iced tea stall along Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

Young people stand by plastic chair set up by an iced tea stall along Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh

Many longstanding tea stalls have transformed into "virtual check-in spots" thanks to their nostalgic settings, deeply embedded in Hanoi's heritage. From the cozy corners on Chau Long and Hang Bun streets to the scenic tea shops by West Lake, Sword Lake, and Truc Bach Lake, or near the iconic St. Joseph's Cathedral – each of which exude the essence of Hanoi.

Picture a mossy street corner with a weathered French building, where doorframes beckon with an array of snacks and candies, comfy on the exposed sidewalk of Hanoi, all perfectly framed. Observing such sights, one can’t help but utter "This is what makes it so Hanoi." It's as if the essence of the entire city converges in the quaint confines of a small shop.

Amidst the ever-changing culinary landscape of the capital, where new and exciting dishes emerge daily, iced tea remains resilient, standing silently one of most Hanoians most indelible memories.

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