Everyone raves about the food in Hanoi. However, we found our street-eating selves a bit stymied the first few days of our visit. Not sure if it was the fickle weather, our outlook, or the fear of being served a surprise chicken foot or pig ear, but our initial impression of the cuisine was not quite impenetrable, but less than accessible.
Many street stalls offer only one thing that is mostly hidden in big cauldrons with a sign above in Vietnamese. For the first few days, all we could discern with certainty were the pho stalls. Eventually, we got the hang of it.
Here's what our three weeks in Hanoi taught us about what to eat.
Hanoi Restaurant Recommendation
Quan An Ngon – To gather your wits and get your street-food footing, head to Quan An Ngon. It's a chain (also in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon) whose owner took in his favorite street vendors, spiffed up their carts and offered it all under one roof. The Hanoi outpost offers a garden-style restaurant oasis, folks from all walks, and a break from Hanoi’s ceaseless honking.
Dishes run about one-third more expensive than you'd find on the street, but that's a small price to pay for accessibility, cleanliness, and authenticity. The menu is in English and Vietnamese and makes for a veritable Vietnamese street-food dictionary. The stalls are well marked with the names of dishes in Vietnamese and the staff are approachable if you have questions (what is it? what's in it?). Once you've gotten your orientation here and found the Vietnamese name of your favorite dishes, street food will be marginally de-mystified and you’ll be prepared to hit the streets.
Try the Chau Tom – charcoal-grilled crab paste over sugar cane. The sugar cane serves as a sort of popsicle stick for the crab paste and is served with rice paper rolls, vermicelli noodles and lots of greens. When the staff serve the seafood-sicles, they’ll tear the meat off for you and help you roll your own. Watch closely and you’ll learn to roll meat, noodles and greens tucked and tight so your rolls don’t fall apart.
Address: 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hanoi
Favorite Hanoi Street Eats
Vietnamese meat paté with cinnamon and star anise finger sandwiches. Distinct smells of cinnamon and hints of star anise highlight these toasted finger-sized baguettes (think Lil’ Caesars crazy bread crossed with a lady finger) spread with the earthy, meaty, and somewhat mysterious banh mi style meat pate.
Location: Ly Quoc Su, between Au Thien and Hang Gai
Hanoi Banh Goi
Meat and vermicelli-filled dumplings. Continue up the street in the direction of St. Joseph’s Cathedral and you’ll run into a series of dumpling stalls. Try the substantial fried meat dumplings (in the shape of a samosa crossed with a cornish pasty). The old woman running the stall will provide hot sauce and make sure everything is spun nicely in plastic bags for takeaway. As odd as it may sound, we paired ours with an Australian Shiraz from The Warehouse on Hang Trong and noshed away on our balcony.
After you’ve finished lining your luggage with pirated CDs, shun the culinarily deprived haunts in the backpacker ghetto area of Bao Khanh, round the corner of Hang Trong and Hang Henh. There you’ll find some women rolling banh cuon, freshly steamed rice rolls stuffed with ground pork and mushroom, topped with crispy fried onions and cilantro.
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a few servings of the iconic Vietnamese beef soup (or chicken soup, if you prefer). We indulged in a street side serving of pho ba (chicken) for our inaugural street meal. Satisfying, if a bit grueling because of the juggle-and-eat balancing act required – bowl in hand, a spread of condiments, soup spoon and chopsticks, and a maximum 3 inches between your rump and the ground.
Hanoi Guesthouse offers pho for breakfast. One morning, as the chill came in and Dan began to suffer from a cold, our hosts delivered just what his inner doctor ordered – a star-anise and lime-juice laden serving of pho bo (beef soup).
Pho (imagine big red letters) on Ly Quoc Su in the vicinity of St. Joseph’s Cathedral also offers a few decent, if spendier, versions of pho bo (with stewed, raw, or semi-cooked beef).
The turmeric fish hot pot specialty at restaurant of the same name, Cha Ca La Vong, about which too many words have already been written. A dramatic, popping frying pan filled with fish, oil, and turmeric is placed over a coal fire at the table. A bowl of greens (including dill and green onions) are stirred in with some rice noodles; peanuts and a bowl of cilantro are served to top it all off. Tasty enough, but we were expecting something more exotic. Though we never got around to it, La Brique is supposed to offer a version that's worth a taste.
Lau (Vietnamese Hot Pot)
Phung Hung is the street to get it. You’ll find between 50 and 100 restaurants all cleverly named “Lau” and numbered – Lau 1, Lau 26, Lau 36. You get the picture. Crowds of Vietnamese at small tables sitting on tiny stools, marinating greens, noodles and chunks of meat. Think of lau as Vietnamese broth-based fondue.
Our experience began by making eye contact with some guys as we walked down the street. After a charade-laden conversation, they direct us to a lau joint across the street that offers shrimp, fish, squid, beef, tofu and various other bits of mystery meat. Point and shoot, we indicated the general tenor of the hotpot we desired (seafood, not much red meat, no chicken feet or pig ears, please). We sat down and watched our lau experience assemble at our table – a giant pot of greens, a massive plate of meat, a hefty bowl of various dried noodles, a plate of tofu, a condiment plate, and a giant metal pot of broth over a heating element in which to cook it all.
Oh yeah, you might also get a plate of something that looks like chips/crisps. This is some kind of dried animal rind. Chicken skin, more than likely. Use it to flavor your broth. Don’t try to eat it like a potato chip, or you’ll elicit laughter from the crowd around.
Dakshin Southern Indian Vegetarian Restaurant
We may have found God in the form of southern Indian cuisine here. You'll also find north Indian and Punjabi favorites (all the creamy stuff that most of us are used to eating until we fall asleep at our favorite curry haunts). In a nod to majority, Dakshin serves these, lists them under the “gravy train” section of the menu, pulls back on the cream and doses up the herbs instead. Here is a sample of what you can find. Highly recommended.
- The Special Vada, spinach – (think small, savory donut laced with spices and greens) transcends and is served with a coconut and toasted black mustard seed chutney and a tomato/chili/onion sambar.
- Paneer Mattar – who knew that paneer (Indian-style cottage cheese chunks) and peas could taste this good. Here, the paneer is tasty, firm and chunky. The sauce – a combination of onions, peppers and an array of spices is pleasantly softened and reduced until there’s no need for the usual dose of cream you’ll find in this dish.
- Dal Makhani – rich creamy preparation of small, black lentils and whole spices like cumin, anise and black mustard seed.
- Banghin Barta – sweet grilled eggplant mashed with spices to yield a mild and naturally creamy Indian specialty.
- Mango and chili chutney, hari green cilantro/mint chutney
Address: 94 Hang Trong Street
Fanny’s ice cream
French-style ice cream (think gelato). Try the not-too-sweet golden hued young rice (think sticky rice) flavor and pair it with dark chocolate. If those flavors don’t float your ice cream boat, choose from over two dozen others. Next, take a stroll with your cone or cup around Hoan Kiem Lake.
Address: 48 Le Thai To Street (near Hoan Kiem Lake)
When the French departed, they apparently left a vault of baking secrets somewhere in old Hanoi. French pastries here are for real – fresh, flaky, buttery, and likely to stop your heart – just the way they should be. Pop on into Le Croissant in the morning for a dose of fresh plain, chocolate or almond croissants. Proceeds go to support hospitality training for underprivileged youth, so you’re helping a good cause while you indulge.
Address: 35 Quang Trung Street.
In our opinion, Vietnamese coffee belongs in the category of world class. Thick, dark, and usually mixed with condensed milk, it tastes like dark chocolate.
Have it straight up or “ca phe sua da”, where the straight-up brew with condensed milk is poured over ice. We ran into so many people traveling in Vietnam who’d never heard of or tasted the stuff. Don’t let the scruffy little streetside café stalls scare you off. Those are the real deal. If you want something a bit more refined, try Café Smile (5 Van Mieu Street, across from Temple of Literature).
Early morning treats at Cathedral Café
How this place, right on the square of St. Jospeph’s Cathedral, is not swamped with tourists and locals all day long remains a mystery. It offers a pleasant view of the cathedral, has friendly proprietors, and makes for a perfect breakfast stop. We dosed up on a very reasonably priced combination of coffee, croissants, fruit, and yogurt just about every morning. Around 11:00, watch the “procession” of jumpsuit-clad school kids pour out of the school next door to be greeted by their parents (on motorbikes, of course). Later afternoon (16:00-17:00), witness the end-of-day procession and follow the kids down Ly Quoc Su…watch what they buy and eat from the street food stalls.