As a solo traveller, I have conquered India, China and Turkey. I’ve survived cancelled flights in Bali because of pesky volcanic ash, and a head injury in Cao Bang that could have been fatal. I’ve photographed the Taj Mahal, the Sistine Chapel and Delphi. I’ve ridden the subway in Tokyo like a ninja and tackled the various vagaries of Grab here in Vietnam. I think nothing of navigating various airport security systems and immigration protocols while avoiding taxi scams.
There is little that scares me about solo travel, except one thing.
Even with a book, mobile device or a friendly waiter, the experience is rarely pleasurable and I race through my meal, eager to get back to the cocoon of my accommodation. Restaurants tend to cater for couples and groups and tables are often set up for two or more people. Requesting a table for one, please often invokes pitying looks from restaurant staff — and other diners — as well as a seat in a spot that is less than ideal, like next to a bathroom.
With the number of solo female travelers increasing rapidly (Hostelworld data revealed that there has been an 88% increase in this demographic over the last four years), many eateries are looking to capitalize on the trend with community tables. For the uninitiated, community tables are long tables that seat singles, couples and groups together. They make dining alone more comfortable because the nature of community tables encourages conversations and connections between diners.
Hanoi is no exception and a growing number of restaurants, bars and cafes are set up specifically with community tables. Starbucks on Ly Thuong Kiet Street has a large oval table that dominates the cafe. G-Spot (yes, that’s it’s name) on To Ngoc Van Street has a curved bar that faces the road, purpose-built for conversations between strangers. Go to any street food vendor in Vietnam and you’ll find solo Vietnamese diners eating with couples and groups, sitting on tiny, plastic chairs at aluminum tables, chowing down on their phở gà, bún riêu or bún chả.
Never an awkward silence
Iconic Highway4 in Hang Tre Street has been a Hanoian dining institution for more than 20 years. Known for its expansive menu of Vietnamese dishes and award-winning distilled rice liquor, the restaurant is also a haven for solo diners, providing a warm dining vibe for those flying solo. Although travelers do stop by—and are welcome — the restaurant caters to a mainly middle-class Vietnamese customer base.
On the first floor, a small, wooden community table with bench seating and colourful cushions is located in the centre of the restaurant, but it’s on the upper floors that the magic happens. Long tables line three walls, Japanese style, seating up to 44 diners per room. Manager Andy Ponyiczky, who has been with the restaurant for two years, said that when the restaurant is full, the atmosphere is vibrant — code for loud — particularly as customers are local: “You never have an awkward silence at a Vietnamese dinner table!”
Ponyiczky says the restaurant is popular with Vietnamese for a few reasons: higher disposable income, and the community tables concept marries well with shared food, which is a hallmark of Vietnamese culture. At Highway 4, there are no entrees or main courses as such. “Vietnamese know how to order and what to order,” he said. “It’s natural to go out and share food. It’s part of the culture and familiar.”
Solo diners can be seated upstairs, in amongst the action, or downstairs where it’s quieter, but in high season when things get busy, preferred seating is valuable real estate. If a guest is dining alone, Ponyiczky explains the menu and advises them to eat slowly: it should take around 90 minutes to enjoy a good range of dishes. Vietnamese take their time, with meals often spread across three or four hours of eating, drinking, chatting, resting and more eating.
Popular dishes include catfish spring rolls, grilled sun-dried pork belly, fried chicken in pandan leaf, lotus shrimp salad, and minced pigeon in crispy fried sticky rice. Highway4 also caters for those who prefer their meals on the more vegetarian side.
“Eating is functional for westerners,” said Ponyiczky. But for Vietnamese diners, it’s contextual, relational and very, very social.”
A single slice of life
New kid on the Ma May block, NYC Pizza, has been purpose-built with solo travellers in mind. Smack dab in the epi-centre of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the cosy pizzeria is based on the New York concept of serving single slices of pizza. It has one long table in the centre of the room, repurposed from the renovation. Facing onto Ma May are benches for one or two, the large windows perfect for diners who prefer people watching rather than talking.
Unlike Highway 4, NYC Pizza’s customers are mostly those travelling alone, and skew towards female, with more than half of diners being women. The single slice of pizza is a major drawcard: no one really wants to eat an 18” pizza on their own. Owner Matthew May credits the pizzeria idea to his wife, Hanh. While on their honeymoon in New York, she thought that a New York style pizzeria selling single pizza slices would do well in Hanoi. No one else was doing it.
May also credits Hanh with the community table idea. “We had a night out [in New York] and stopped to eat at a pizza place that had one long table. Everyone was chatting with each other.” Hanh wanted to replicate that concept back in Hanoi. “We didn’t know if it would work. But we’ve been open for six months and we were gobsmacked to find we’re #1 on Trip Advisor. We thought it would take a couple of years [to get our name out there].”
The best selling slices are pepperoni, cheese, and spicy sausage. And vegetarian pizza slices available, and they are very, very good.
May said that that one community table has forged friendships and relationships, with many a date being organised from a random conversation. “I can always tell if people want to chat [to others]. They’ll sit two chairs away instead of four. If there’s one person [on their own] I’ll talk to them, but if it’s groups, I’ll let them go.”
Like the New York pizzerias it’s modeled on, a photographic history of the restaurant is displayed on the wall. Thanks to the community table, who knows what marriages and births will be among the photos in the future?
Located at the end of Quang An, Tay Ho, and famous for its lake views across West Lake, Pépé la Poule is also known for its Chinese-Italian fusion cuisine. The restaurant is named for its French Manager, Perrine Corgié, has a Japanese chef and Vietnamese staff, and attracts mostly Japanese diners, with the number of Korean customers increasing. Foreigners stop by out of curiosity.
While the concept, food and customers are multi-cultural, the central counter — designed for solo diners and in close proximity to the kitchen action — is typically Japanese. Corgié said that Japanese eat out often in restaurants: “They work long hours, and often eat alone. It’s the duty of [counter] staff to check whether guests want to speak.”
Counter dining also circumvents the need for a booking: rather than waiting for a table, customers are shown directly to the counter. Corgié said that many conversations and links are made between diners at the counter, particularly Koreans and Japanese who are in Hanoi alone and work long hours.
She has seen an increase in Vietnamese diners in the five years the restaurant has been open. With a growing middle class, children at international schools and cultural exchanges the norm, parents are open to trying food from different countries. “Visas are easier so Vietnamese are traveling more, studying abroad and know more [about different food options].”
“There are not so many restaurants in the [immediate] area, so we attract [Vietnamese] customers from the neighbourhood,” said Corgié. Ten years ago, it was a different story with street food the only choice for Vietnamese, and international food was only for foreigners. “Now, Vietnamese families will order dumplings and gyoza, and sit at the counter not speaking to each other and everyone is on their phones!”
Human beings are social animals and are not supposed to eat alone. Throw people together and you instinctively get conversations —and connections. It’s reassuring to know that Hanoi caters for those who, for whatever reason, dine alone. What’s also important to note is that the restaurants featured here are committed to reducing single use plastic and sustainability, and sourcing produce that is as organic as possible.