week 1: what to eat when in hanoi

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Hanoi oh Hanoi.. where to begin with Hanoi.. Your reassuring baby stools that decorate every sidewalk and make it almost impossible to walk on. Your hustling and bustling motorcycles that put all tourists in an adrenaline rush. Your bitter sweet caramelised corn coffee dripping from a funny dripper I’ve never seen anywhere else. And the Pho.. oh good lord the Pho.. I could just daydream about you all day.

I’ve actually heard people say that Hanoi does not live up to the standards of foodie paradise as other South-East Asian cities such as Thailand and Singapore. I have to disagree. I have never eaten so much during a holiday in my life. At the end of my trip, the only thing I had to complain about was that I gained 2kg during my short 10 day stay. I can confidently say that aside from Bangkok, Hanoi is definitely one of the best cities to just stuff your face. And this is coming from someone who lives in Singapore aka the city where people cook the least because cheap good food is omnipresent. With Chinese and French influences, food culture in Hanoi is definitely a marriage of interesting flavours and textures. Eating there is a unique and fun experience. Like many other big Asian cities, Hanoi offers an interminable variety of street-food. Ranging from world-famous eats like pho, banh mi, nem rolls and the like.. to… dog intestines anyone? You just have to know which stalls to flock to and overcome some language barriers.

Anyhow, if you have Hanoi on your plans and don’t know what to expect (or what the hell you’re about to eat), here are some tips and addresses that I’ve gathered from my last stay there. They are in no way complete and are only based on my personal taste and experience. If you have some other tips and/or addresses of good eateries in Hanoi, feel free to chime in the comment section below.

Tips to good eating in Hanoi

  • Avoid restaurants (in the traditional western sense) at all costs. They’re way overpriced considering what you can get from a street-food vendor… and the food just doesn’t taste as good. Some of the best food I’ve tasted in Hanoi, I ate on a sidewalk. And when I did venture to a restaurant, I regretted it as soon as I came through the door. There was this supposedly “famous” restaurant revered by guidebooks. The place even had a picture framed on the wall of Anthony Bourdain hugging the owner affectionately. But the atmosphere spoke for itself. An eerily empty restaurant on a Friday night (8pm to be exact) is just not a good sign. Be it in Hanoi or anywhere else in the world. And as we ate quietly our (tough) smallish portion of lemongrass duck in the imposing silence of the room, it dawned on us why no Hanoian would ever come nearthat place. And no Anthony Bourdain picture can safe the place from its ailment: overpriced mediocre food. We left the restaurant feeling gutted, and still hungry. Luckily for us, a street vendor was selling good Bun Rieu Cua (Crab Noodle Soup) down the road for a fraction of the restaurant bill.
  • Forget guidebooks. Follow your instinct. Go where the crowds go. If what they sell looks/smells good, it probably is.
  • Some people might think that hygiene can be an issue with street vendors. I have found that it’s not really a problem. Street vendors usually just offer one type of dish. They make it day in, day out, all day long, for years. So they’re pretty good with organising their food. I’ve seen that most vendors wear gloves when serving their food and that they’ve provided buckets of soapy water that they change regularly to wash their dirty dishes. And don’t be concerned by the freshness of the food. As long as they have a high turn-over, the food will always be fresh. But if you’re really concerned, bring your own chopsticks.
  • Choose vendors who offer baby stools rather than those dignifying adult-sized chairs. Managing your weight on those stools is part of the fun. And no, you won’t look ridiculous because everyone else is doing it. And somehow, for reasons I cannot explain, the food just taste better.
  • Several words I picked up along the way: bo is beef, ga is chicken, bun is rice noodles, nuong is grill, ca phe is coffee. When in doubt, just point your fingers to the food you want.
  • Always ask how much a dish costs before ordering to avoid nasty surprises. Although uncommon, some sneaky vendors may overcharge tourists for their dish.

Pho Bo: Beef Noodle Soup

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It would be a sin not to start with Vietnam’s most treasured dish, the breakfast of champions: the holy Pho Bo. Every guide books seem to agree that the best Pho Bo to be found in Hanoi is in an old joint called Pho Gia Truyen tucked up in the heart of the Old Quarter. We were told to go there early at 7 because people say the place tends to get crazy with the long lines for breakfast. So off we went at 6.30 in the morning to locate the place but  to our dismay, the place was closed. We went back in the afternoon and also the next morning but its doors were still firmly shut. By our fourth try, we were already in serious need of our pho dose and decided to try the pho joint next door, which were always full of customers. One slurp of the soup, and we were already kicking ourselves of not giving it a chance sooner. The broth was clear and subtle. The noodles perfectly cooked. The rare beef pieces melted in our mouths. And contrary to southern Vietnamese Pho, no hoisin nor fish sauce were to be served with the soup. The elegance of the broth spoke for itself. You wouldn’t want to cloud it with impurities such as hoisin sauce. The only condiments tolerated were chilli slices, some lime and chunks of Chinese doughnuts. During our 10-day stay in Hanoi, we went back to the place 5 times. The so-called “most famous” pho house next door did not open once but honestly, we didn’t care.

47A Bát Đàn, Hanoi — 35 000 Dong a bowl, 5000 (or is it 10 000?) for a plate of Chinese doughnuts

Barbecued Chicken: Chicken Street Hanoi

Okay, in case you haven’t heard, there is a street for everything in Hanoi. Silk St, Coffin St, Flag St, Christmas Decoration Corner, etc. But if you call yourself a true foodie, the only street you’ll need to know is chicken street. No, it is not called Phố Gà (lit. chicken street) in Vietnamese, and no it is not located in the touristy Old Quarter. You will have to earn your way to the grilled chicken heaven. Grab a taxi, or better yet, hire a motorbike for the day and head to Ly Van Phuc which is located south of Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum. Try to go there on a Saturday night where you’ll catch a glimpse of what being young is all about in Hanoi. When you’re there, ignore confidently the near-empty eateries that try to lure you in with their adult-sized chairs and head straight to the end of the cul-de-sac to the more familiar baby-sized stools. Order a tall glass of bia Ha Noi, some honeyed bread and/or sweet potatoes and point to the chicken parts you want. I dare you to resist picking the bones clean.

Phố Lý Văn Phức, Hanoi — Sorry I forgot to note down the prices, but a shared meal for two with two glasses of Bia Hanoi costs around 150 000 Dong

Bun Cha: Rice Vermicelli with Caramelised Pork

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No trip to Vietnam would be complete if you haven’t had a go at Vietnam’s second most treasured dish: Bun Cha. It has a southern origin but its popularity hits through the roof in the northern capital. It’s basically a rice vermicelli dish with a serving of fatty pork patties and caramelised pork belly that has been grilled over charcoal. The meat pieces drown in a tangy sweet and sour fish sauce. A mount of fresh Vietnamese herbs on the side. Add some minced garlic and slices of red chillies and you’re good to go. It’s hard to miss a Bun Cha stall as you’ll see the smoke and smell the inviting aroma at least from 100m away. My husband who just couldn’t resist the combination of grilled pork and tangy fish sauce, insisted that I try a bite. Now, I’m normally not a huge pork fan. I tend to shy away from it but this time, the aroma got me salivating. I took a bite of the juicy pork slices and wow! I could not believe how tasty pork can be. And the good thing for me was that it didn’t taste porky at all. The honey caramelised the edges of the meat into perfection. And the smoke form the charcoal made it taste like.. chicken. Every dunk into the tangy fish sauce was a riot of flavours. It was too good to miss, even for a non-pork eater like me.

36 Hang Cot, Hanoi — 35 000 Dong a bowl

Cha Ca: Turmeric Fish with Dill

Cha Ca is a delicate, fancy-ish dish of fish marinated in turmeric and served with a healthy heaping of dill and spring onions. The taste is nothing short of awesome. Especially since you get to fry and season it yourself. There are street-food versions but many refer to a restaurant that offers only one dish on its menu: Cha Ca. They have been doing this one dish for almost a century, passing down their secret recipe from generation to generation. Their restaurant has become an establishment of sorts in Hanoi that people always refer to when speaking of this dish. Sure, the waiter is not very friendly. And yes, it’s a whopping 160 000 Dong per person (S$10). BUT! But, I have to say, it is one of the best fish I’ve had in a long long time.

Cha Ca La Vong: 14 Pho Cha Ca, Hanoi — 160 000 Dong per person

Bo Bun: Rice Vermicelli with Beef

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What can I say about this dish other than that it’s the epitome of yum. Just like its close cousin, Bun Cha, this dish is made out of rice vermicelli noodles with a tangy fish sauce to go with. It is then topped with some crunchy bean sprouts, fried onions, peanuts and perfectly cooked slices of beef. A heaping of fresh herbs is never too far away. I love love love it. You would too. Now, the most famous Bo Bun place is in the Old quarter. I have to say that it’s more expensive (55 ooo Dong) compared to other places. I suspect that this is because of the coverage that the place has been getting from guidebooks and the likes (good for them!). But of course, 55 000 Dong is less than $3.5 and for a bowl of this bad boy, no complaining here.

Bun Bo Nam Bo: 67 Hang Dieu, Hanoi — 55 000 Dong a bowl

Bo Sot Vang: Beef Stew in Red Wine

If you happen to be in Hanoi during the chilly winter months, then you would appreciate this warming hearty bowl of beef stew. Although influenced by the French — with the addition of wine during the cooking process and the use of baguette to mop up the sauce, the flavours are definitely Vietnamese. The seasoning and spices are screaming: STAR ANISE! CINNAMON! CARDAMOM! CORIANDER! I also suspect that fish sauce is involved, as you would with any Vietnamese dish. The result is that familiar comfort you would get from a bowl of tender pieces of beef that have been stewed for hours, but also surprising with those big bold Asian flavours. For a quick and warm pick-me-up, I recommend you order this on a cold winter night, after a long day of sight-seeing (that may or may not involve fighting with a taxi driver over the correct fare).

Thanh Thuy: 15 Hang Cot, Hanoi — 30 000 Dong a bowl, 5000 for a baguette

Bo Nuong: Grilled Beef

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This has got to be the perfect dish when you’re out with your rowdy drinking buddies on a Saturday night. Marinated thin slices of beef, grilled with butter on a hot plate, with lots of vegetables on the side to mop up the juices. Bia Ha Noi is a must!

Thanh Thuy: 15 Hang Cot, Hanoi — 180 000 Dong (for two)

Coconut Milk Ice Cream

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Stuck in traffic on Trang Tien Rd? Want to know what the fuss is all about? Head down to Kem Trang Tien Ice Cream Parlour and fight your way to the counter (watch out for the rib jabs and shin kicks) to grab a cone of coconut milk ice cream (old-fashion style), and you’ll see why traffic on Trang Tien Rd is so bad.

Kem Trang Tien: 35 Trang Tien, Hanoi — 15 000 Dong a cone

The only restaurant worth considering: Quan An Ngon

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You think you’ve tried them all.. well you haven’t until you go to the gargantuesque restaurant that is Quan An Ngon. If you’re a bit sick of street food (or just want to sit on a normal sized chair) but still want to taste that unique Vietnamese flavours, then I highly recommend Quan An Ngon: a restaurant that has probably close to a hundred stalls that sell a plethora of Vietnamese food. You name it, they’ve got it… They have a menu for over a hundred dishes (good luck with choosing!) that saves you the time of going over to each stall to order (although it is fun to watch how they prepare your food). The menu is both in Vietnamese and in English. Highly practical. I had the Bo Loc Lac (shaking beef) and my husband had an oyster porridge. They were both very good! The beef I had was very tender and the porridge was bursting with lemongrass flavour. And all at a reasonable price too. A little bit more expensive than street food stalls but not that much! The porridge was something like 48 000 (if I may point out, it had real oysters) and the beef I had, costed 80 000 Dong. Great place and great fun to start or to end your eating adventure in Hanoi.

Quan An Ngon: 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoan Kiem Dist. Hanoi; or 34 Phan Dinh Phung, Ba Dinh Dist. Hanoi

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2 thoughts on “week 1: what to eat when in hanoi

  1. Pingback: week 4: indonesian street food | the spicy lemongrass

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