A 48-hour binge – Eating and drinking in Hanoi

As an Australian born Vietnamese who has only visited the south of Vietnam, I had a limited understanding of Hanoi prior to arriving to the capital. My initial thought was that I wouldn’t enjoy it and like most backpackers, would eventually move on after a few days. Two months later, I find myself unable to pack my bags as a result of the plethora of culinary options available. Just when I think that I’ve devoured ever possible dish unique to Hanoi, somebody would casually drop a few
more that should be tried.

The cuisine in the north is different to that of the south. Southerners would claim that northern food is bland whereas the citizens of the north would argue that it’s simpler and elegant thus requiring less use of spices and sweetness, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. For a visitor on a flying visit, deciding on where to eat can be daunting at the best of times. Trip Advisor is usually the first port of call, but inconsistent reviews can cast a cloud of doubt over the legitimacy of the medium. Here is a list of my favourite dishes and venues for eating and drinking in Hanoi if you were here for a short weekend of culinary indulgence. Start training and make some room. You will need it by the end of a weekend here.

Bun Cha
Ben Cha is arguably Hanoi’s most famous dish. It was the first dish that I was told to try and is now what I first introduce visitors to. On most days, it’s impossible not to be distracted by the scent of pork grilling along the foot paths. The star of the dish are the plump patties of pork made from pork mince, shallots, garlic, sugar and fish sauce and the pork belly strips resembling thick cuts of streaky bacon.

Ben Cha is arguably Hanoi’s most famous dish. It was the first dish that I was told to try and is now what I first introduce visitors to. On most days, it’s impossible not to be distracted by the scent of pork grilling along the foot paths. The star of the dish are the plump patties of pork made from pork mince, shallots, garlic, sugar and fish sauce and the pork belly strips resembling thick cuts of streaky bacon.

bun cha hanoi

Bun Cha, baby!

At Dac Kim Bun Cha on 67 Duong Thanh, there no problems messing up the orders as Bun Cha is the only thing that they serve. I had my first encounter with Bun Cha here and it’s been an intense love affair ever since. At street level, the restaurant is deceptively small with few seating options outside and inside on the ground floor, but climbing up the narrow spiral stairs reveals two additional levels that can accommodate up to forty extra locals and tourists who are seeking refuge from the Hanoi heat.

Within seconds of ordering, the porky contents arrive in a bowl of liquid, lightly flavoured with sugar and tamarind. The soup is delicate, perfectly balanced with sweet and sour with a hint of smokiness imparted from the grilled pork. Slivers of carrot and kohlrabi add a contrasting texture to the liquid where vermicelli noodles are loosened by dunking them into the mixture and devoured with a mountain of accompanying herbs. Very few walk away feeling unsatisfied.

Pho Bo
In Hanoi, pho is eaten any time of the day and it’s made with the philosophy that ‘less is more’. Fewer spices are used in the broth and plates of herbs, sprouts and a bottle of hoisin sauce won’t be seen anywhere. Prior to arriving here, I had never been served pho this way and it required a couple attempts to appreciate how the simplicity and lack of spices and condiments allows no room for error or masking of flavours. A plate of fried bread called gio chao quay is optional for extra volume but my approach to earting pho is “All thriller, no filler”. A dash of garlic infused vinegar provides enough zing to the dish.

Pho bo hanoi

Same same but different to the southern counterpart.

Pho 10 on 10 Ly Quoc Su Street near Hoan Kiem Lake is a place where I find myself coming back to for breakfast post my morning run. It’s one of the few places that has a broader range of Pho Bo on the menu and I find myself rotating between delicate Pho Bo Tai (rare beef) and the braised and gelatinous textures of Pho Tai Nam (Flank steak). From the moment the order is taken, I can count up to the sixty seconds it takes for order to be passed to the nearby kitchen station in full view of hungry patrons, assembled by one of the three women behind a perspex wall until then arrives to my table.

The bowl is piping hot with flecks of transparent blobs on the surface indicating the perfect balance of collagen and fat flavouring the stock. The topping is simple with only fresh spring onions for freshness and presentation, ready for some serious slurping action.

Bun Rieu Cua
When I feel like a change from Pho then Bun Rieu is my go to noodle soup dish. The soup is comprised of crushed rice paddy crab paste, with the plump ripe tomatoes adding sour notes. Fried tofu is added adsorbs any liquid flavour and delivers a soup explosion in the mouth with every bite, but the key to this dish for me is the a heaped tea spoon of mam ruoc (shrimp paste), giving the dish a boost in umami goodness.

Unlike pho, a large handful of lettuce, and cilantro is added to boost the texture profile of the dish. My mother always said that eating too much meat is not good for a healthy body so eating tofu, crabs and tomatoes could be considered a healthy alternative am I right?

Bun rieu hanoi

I love chunky bits in my bun rieu

Bun Rieu Cua on 11 Hang Bac Street has been dishing out this colourful dish for over 50 years and has become one of the Old Quarter’s Bun Rieu institutions. Visiting here is literally like stepping into somebody’s lounge room, as though each morning, they shift the furniture to the side, fling open the front doors and setup a couple of large pots of soup stock out the front to bubble away. Space is limited where taller customers may find themselves sitting in a side saddle position to the table and once seated it’s a no nonsense protocol is adhered to: Walk in, sit, order, devour, pay and then leave.

Ban Cuon
I rarely skip meals but there are moments when I’ve eaten too much and require something that will not cause the onset of a food baby. This is why I rely on Banh Cuon, a dish of very few components to get me through. Freshly steamed sheets of fermented rice batter become the vessel in which a trio of minced pork, wood ear mushrooms and shallots are rolled like a rice paper roll and served with a side of nuoc cham and a plate of mint.

It’s an incredibly light and easy dish to eat but if you feel like some extra meat then a side of Cha Lua (sausage) can be included. Costing around 20,000 dong per plate, it’s a perfect in between meals snack during an onset of the munchies or when you’re not in the mood for a full meal.

Banh cuon vendors and their unmissable giant metal steamers can be found on most streets in Hanoi. However with the temperatures now reaching uncomfortable levels in Hanoi, I avoid the food sweats by eating indoors at Thanh Van Banh Cuon on 14B Bao Khan. Another hole in the wall restaurant, no larger than the size of a small bedroom where they seem cram in more people than humanly possible. Every inch of space is used to seat customers and you’ll find utensil holders attached to wall, where polished white tiles line the floor to the ceiling.

banh cuon hanoi food

Banh Cuon – I could eat at least ten of these

cha ca la vong

Dill used used more as a vegetable than a garnish.

Cha Ca La Vong
Not trying Cha Ca La Vong whilst visiting Hanoi is like not eating Pho on a visit. The dish is so famous they even renamed a street after it where a number of restaurants serve the dish. The fish dish that has inspired famous chefs from around the world is fried in a turmeric oil in a heavy skillet and finished off with a liberal dose of dill, an ingredient not seen on many Vietnamese dishes but one that works perfectly as a supporting ingredient and not just as a garnish.

At Cha Ca La Vong on 14 Pho Cha Ca, it’s the only menu item served and like most hidden gems, you can’t judge a book by its cover. The interior looks weathered and in desperate need of a fresh lick of paint and where misaligned pictures are mounted on the walls. However, at the first mouthful of Cha Ca La Vong, all attention is focused back on the dish.

As the dish arrives it is cooked and assembled with robot like precision at the table by the waiter. Once completed, the cuts of fish are served over cold vermicelli noodles and garnished with peanuts, onions, coriander for freshness and texture and finished off with nuoc mam and shrimp paste to round off the flavours. At first glance, the nuoc mam seems deceptively strong to the eye and heavy handed in the application but after it’s served, I find myself adding more, ensuring each ingredient is given a proper dousing.

Chicken Street
KFC may dominate the western world but in Hanoi you can’t beat what is referred to as Chicken Street where in Ly Van Phuc street, every restaurant pays homage to grilled chicken. It’s difficult not to return, time and time again to the visual spectacular of chefs cooking succulent chicken cuts at the street side barbecues. In fact, I returned to this place the same weekend I first came because I kept daydreaming about the finger licking, perfectly grilled chicken thighs and was craving another chicken fix.

There is nothing fancy about this street and the restaurants here. A variety of cuts are available, ranging from the chicken feet, monster wings to succulent thighs that are lightly marinated in a sweet sauce with a hint of background spice on the palette. All of the cuts are skewered with bamboo like giant sized toothpicks and act as the perfect eating utensil, although Inevitably, the skewers ended up discarded as I wrestle each cut of chicken with my bare hands.

chicken street

Finger freakin’ lickin’ good!

Despite each place here specialising in chicken, I never leave without a dose of grilled pork ribs. Head to the end of the street on the right hand side. At the the last restaurant with no name, they grill the ribs to perfection with the right balance between tenderness and resistance on the bone. When the waitress asks if I want a serving of bread, the response is always a firm yes or a nod of the head alone with some eye contact as I’m wrestling with a piece of grilled chicken. The bread, glazed in a sweet syrup and grilled acts as a napkin substitute and used to mop up the meat juices left on the plate. This is proper caveman style of eating.

Beer Street
How could such a street, dedicated to beer exist you ask? I’ve been living a stones throw from Luong Ngoc Quyen street, where citizens of all walks of life congregate here after dark to snack on grilled squid, deep fried nem chua, potato chips and drink Bia Hoi. I usually find myself here a few times a week to escape the confines of the hotel and in when need a dose people watching. More often than not I can sit myself down by myself on a tiny plastic stool on the footpath and within a few minutes strike up a conversation with a few young locals or tourists.

beer street hanoi

A street dedicated to beer and good times

At a bargain of 5,000 dong per glass of beer, it’s light enough where I never find myself staggering back to the hotel, and many occasions I’ve made new friends thy the end to the evening.

Needing a pick me up
Tea and coffee breaks here are as common as siestas in Spain. So when I’m slipping into a food coma then I head out for a twist on our favourite caffeinated drink.

Egg Coffee, can be described as the cross between coffee and eggnog. As the name states, it is made of coffee and an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk. The egg yolk is ferociously whipped to lighten the protein load and served either hot or over ice depending on the weather and mood. For anybody who hasn’t tried it before I would recommend trying it chilled on their first try.

My favourite cafe for egg coffee (Cafe trung) is at Giang Cafe on 39 Nguyen Huu Huan street where they have been perfecting this eggy beverage it since 1946. Inside in this moody and windowless cafe, it feels as though it has been suspended in time, with miniature bamboo stools and tables, an old television at the front of the room, collecting a thick layer of dust and with a limited coffee menu to choose from. Overlooking the room is an old family portrait featuring the original founding grandparents and a young grandson who now oversees the day to day operations.

yoghurt coffee

Layers of textures and temperatures

egg coffee hanoi

Have the egg coffee either hot or cold. I prefer a hot one.

For the more daring caffeine addicts head to a Cong Caphe chain store for a Yoghurt Coffee (Cafe Sua Chua). The crushed ice, coffee and sour yoghurt combination delivers a layering of textures and temperatures that require a few minutes for the brain to process. They say that the eyes never lie and I get a huge kick from first timers as as they eyes, pointed upwards search around for the appropriate descriptors for this beverage. Never has there ever been a beverage as polarising as this as it has never failed to ignite conversations around the coffee table.

This article first appeared in OiVIETNAM

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A 48-hour binge – Eating and drinking in Hanoi — 2 Comments

  1. You know I love me some Vietnamese food, but I have to say that my palate preference tends to be biased towards the south. Tony & I actually spent our time in Hanoi wondering why we preferred the Vietnamese we had tried back home and why we couldn’t find our favorite dishes, only to realize we had always been eating at southern establishments. I do love bun cha and bun rieu cua, but for my money, HCMC pho trumps Hanoi’s pho every time! (I don’t care that it was invented in Hanoi… it just tastes so much better in the south!)

  2. Pingback: The sweet taste of Vietnam | THE HUNGRY REVIEW

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