Hanoi Food Guide – a taste of North Vietnam

What to eat in Hanoi

Hanoi Food Guide – what to eat on a first visit and the street foods I enjoyed best.

Prepared for Fine Dining Lovers

My very first impression of Vietnam is of Hanoi, after three arduous connecting flights. It is 7 30 am and the locals are commuting, as are we, into the city. I watch them with heavy lids through the windows of our cab. Already, the temperatures have reached the 30’s. Throngs of motorbikes and scooters honk and zip by, some so heavily loaded with bags of snacks and plastic drums you can barely see the driver. The memory of the traffic and then, attempting to cross the street with scooters and cyclos swerving around each other and me, will remain a lasting memory of Vietnam. It is here, in Hanoi that I cross the street by myself on day two, to buy a raincoat for the second half of food tour I am on. Come rain or shine, in a city like this, the food takes precedent.

motorbikes hanoi

This is also the city where I eat my first mangosteen. I remain a convert for life.   

magosteen seller

magosteen seller

The Pho Quest

One of the dishes I plan to sample, and compare all over Vietnam, is pho. I read about it being plain in the north, spicy mid-country and sweeter in the south of the country. Having never eaten it before (authentic Vietnamese food is hardly available, if at all, in South Africa) I concoct an expectation based on reading recipe after recipe. Rice noodles in a star anise and ginger broth with beef and a mountain (or not, depending on region) of zesty herbs. My mouth waters in anticipation, even as I get off the flight, past the rigours of Customs and into the cab waiting for us. I go as far as mentally researching an article, I romantically title “Chasing Pho: one girl’s mission to find the perfect broth”.

I have my first taste of pho that very morning, ordering room service from our lovely hotel. I can’t decide what I need more, food or sleep, so I choose an option that affords me both. I know locals eat pho and rice for breakfast so at this point I feel very pleased with my choice. My pho is wheeled on a linen-covered trolley and the silver dome whipped out; I smile like the Cheshire cat. The herbs and condiments are served on the side.

The broth is bland and I am starving. I’m also significantly underwhelmed. No matter, I think. I’m not a girl to be put off by the first bowl of soup she meets. Also, we all know what they say about hotel food in a street-food culture like Vietnam, I console myself.

Throughout our journey to Hue and Danang, Hoi An, Saigon and the Mekong, I order pho from street vendors and quans, and smart restaurants that the concierge suggest. Each version is nice, but far from spectacular. I eat pho where the former president of the United States is said to have eaten pho. I make my own versions in our apartment in Saigon weeks later, armed with thin beef I successfully manage to get a butcher to cut up for me. I want to high-five her, so great is my joy! While I respect the significance and nutritional value, and would welcome a steaming bowl of pho on days when I feel the attack of the lurgy, I discover that there are other soups and broths I prefer.

chicken pho

chicken pho

For a very good chicken pho, with all the trimmings: Pho Ga, 42 Quan Thanh Street.

 

Street Food Exploration

street food vietnam

typical scene in the city

For food lovers, there is no better way to orientate yourself with a city and her bearings, than by going on a street food tour with an experienced eater, local or expat. I spend a full day with Mark Lowerson of Sticky in Hanoi blog, and it turns out to be the confidence boost I need to gobble almost everything I desire on the streets, for well over a month after. It is with Mark that I eat my first, and only balut (fertilised duck egg).  A protein rich pick-me-up, it isn’t bad at all, served with Vietnamese mint, garlic and lime. Mark is knowledgeable about local customs, foreign misconceptions and has a strong conscience about illegal trade of snakes and dogs, for example. Also, he whizzes me around the city on the back of his motorbike. I could not feel more hip!

Balut vendor, Hanoi

Balut vendor, Hanoi

balut

Balut with all the trimmings

A small selection of must-tries:

Bun Rieu Cha: an unusual, gutsy combination of grilled pork skewers served with crab and pork soup and herbs. It is sensational. You need to get here before she closes at 9 am. Yes, this is breakfast. Tuyết Bún Chả Riêu, 12 Phùng Hưng

bun rieu cha vendor

bun rieu cha vendor

Bún chả: the best one I’ve eaten to date. A combination of crisply grilled pork belly and leaf-wrapped pork patties also blackened, in a broth with thin rice noodles on the side, herbs, sprouts and chilli. 34 Hàng Than.

best bun cha in hanoi

bun cha in hanoi

Café Duy Tri: Iced yoghurt coffee. Housed in an old coffee house from the 1930’s, narrow and very low ceiling upstairs. They grind own coffee. Yen Phu Café, 43A Pho Yen Phu.

Che – different versions of cold ‘soup’ or bubble tea, some with beans, lotus seeds, chickpeas. I prefer the syrupy jasmine tea with blocks of black brass jelly, ice, tapioca and if you’re very lucky, jasmine blossoms. Can be found all over the city.

Vietnamese Che

I like my che quite plain

Contact Mark to take you on a street food tour of Hanoi: http://stickyrice.typepad.com/street_food_tours/

Cooking Classes

fresh herbs at the market

fresh herbs

If you opt for a class, pick one with a central market visit. Shopping with a chef gives a thorough overview of the market and you can come back and purchase with more confidence.

I enjoyed Hanoi Cooking Centre, with a sparky chef who lead the class where we made caramelized pork clay pot, banana flower salad with prawns, a wonderful, spicy bun rieu with crabmeat and crab sac. This is where I learnt how to cook with thien ly blossoms.

http://www.hanoicookingcentre.com/ – http://www.hanoicookingcentre.com/

Market vendor

vendor selling eggs and dry goods

Night on the Town

After a day exploring and shopping the 36 streets of the Old Quarter (and dodging the scooters), start with drinks at the Bamboo bar at the swanky Sofitel Metropole hotel. Then continue to enjoy a night of street eats or opt for dinner at Green Tangerine situated in a stylish French house in a vibey spot in town, serving French cuisine with a Vietnamese twist.

Hanoi Scenes

vendor smiling hanoi

vendor smiling hanoi

 

 

deep fried crab parcels from same vendor

deep fried crab parcels from same vendor

 

when it's too hot and you're too tired...

when it’s too hot and you’re too tired…

 

sitting pretty

sitting pretty

beautiful dragon fruit

beautiful dragon fruit

 


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15 Comments

  1. Randy Kalp August 21, 2013 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    Yum! Everything looks so delicious. We’ve been trying to get to Vietnam for sometime now. I’ll definitely be coming back to your guide when we do finally make it.

    • Ishay August 21, 2013 at 2:41 pm - Reply

      Hi Randy. It’s a wonderful, complex country and leaving was rather hard. We extended our stay in Saigon (that guide coming up soon) until we had to be back home in Cape Town. I have no doubt you will enjoy it, have a host of tips to share. Shout when you’re ready.

  2. Jo (The Blond) August 21, 2013 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    I found the food in Hanoi bland and tasteless. Just didn’t really like it. For some reason, I craved chocolate all the time (and I don’t like chocolate). Maybe it was lack of some vitamins. Plus, I became sick a few days after I arrived and I was sick during the next 20 days I stayed in Northern Vietnam. However, all of this didn’t stop me from falling in love with the crazy country 🙂

    • Ishay August 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm - Reply

      Hi Jo. You know what, my husband arrived in Hanoi with a flu and bout of cold sweats caught in Rotterdam, which got worse and he ended up at the clinic twice in Hanoi. Finally an IV sorted him out but he missed out on Hanoi and naturally he doesn’t have the fondest memories of the foods. He made up for it over the next month through the rest of the country. So sorry to hear you were unwell there. Changes the entire game. And agree, its a crazy lovable country overall 🙂

  3. Simone August 27, 2013 at 5:50 am - Reply

    Ooo those memories! I loved Hanoi and that traffic indeed is ridiculous…:) I still have a little movie from the highland coffee shop terrace showing the traffic and how everyone moves through it… Too funny… And the food… I love Vietnamese!

    • Ishay September 10, 2013 at 5:58 pm - Reply

      Good ol’ Highlands 🙂 it really is crazy, especially the first few days, trying to stay alive 🙂

  4. Jodi September 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    Awesome blog entry, everything sounds delish 🙂

    • Ishay September 10, 2013 at 5:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks Jodi. It was a fabulous introduction to Vietnamese food

  5. Loren December 30, 2013 at 10:42 am - Reply

    Hi Ishay, we are going to Thailand and Vietnam in January 2014. Your blog has been so helpful and looks delicious. We are looking into the food tour you suggested but if you have any additional tips that would be awesome.

    • Ishay December 30, 2013 at 11:09 am - Reply

      Hello there! I’ve got limited connection only on my mobile at the moment. I will come back to you. Can you send me some specific queries? If it’s food, Mark and his partner at Sticky Rice have all the answers and more. Really worth the spend. And cooking class plus market tour mentioned above.

      • Loren March 17, 2014 at 8:03 pm - Reply

        Hi Loren
        I”m also Loren. Going to Hanoi Christmas eve for 2 days. Defo going to book the street food tour with Sticky. Thanks for the info Ishay, it’s been extremely helpful. Hopefully we will be able to arrange a tour for Christmas day.

        • Ishay March 17, 2014 at 8:30 pm - Reply

          Thanks Loren. Hope you get the tours you want. They are worth it! Enjoy

  6. […] Hanoi Food Guide – a taste of North Vietnam […]

  7. Christoph June 19, 2014 at 6:04 am - Reply

    Hi,

    we’ll go to Vietnam in february, 2 weeks. I loved your guide, yummy. My concerns are more regarding kids, how “safe” is streetfood for a childs stomach, used to european cuisine? I am moreover worried that “the food looks strange”, (quoting a 8-yr old). He’s not too picky though, let’s see how it goes, but I would really love a couple of weeks far away from pasta, pizza or fries. :).

    Do you have any experience of visiting Vietnam w/ kids, in regards to food?

    All the best,

    Christoph

    • Ishay June 19, 2014 at 9:56 am - Reply

      Hi Christoph. I can’t advise you about eating with kids in the East, but will stress that eating foods prepared freshly in front of you are your best bet. Also ease him into it slowly. I think taking a guide on a street food tour at the start is important – it helps to instil confidence and your child will feel it too. Hope that helps, and happy eating and exploring.

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