Hanoi is the only city where a 15m footpath offers so much culinary choice.
The food, oh my gosh, the food!” Before my five-day visit to Vietnam, everyone I spoke to had talked up the Vietnamese capital as a foodie’s paradise. The plane ride was spent savouring my foodie’s guide to Hanoi, dog-earing pages until the whole book was one big gastronomic wish list. When I arrived, however, I quickly discovered that deciding where to eat in Hanoi is a daily dilemma.
Surely Hanoi’s food landscape is as fascinating as its famously frenetic traffic. For many Hanoians, food is a way of life: occupation, source of income, pastime, social institution. And life here unfolds on the streets.
It is the only city in the world where a 15m stretch of sidewalk offers the choice between 30¢ beers, five-star French cuisine, deep-fried offal and what must be the best coffee east of Europe, Frail-looking women crouch over blackened woks, pushing noodles and greens around with bamboo chopsticks. Fruit vendors stroll the streets balancing yokes piled high with fruit over one shoulder. Carts loaded with unidentifiable meats are pedalled through the maze of alleyways, and the sidewalks are crowded with men perched on ankle-high plastic stools, nursing bowls of steaming broth.
My guidebook itinerary was forgotten as I made my way through the jumble of streets that is the Old Quarter, the most fascinating of Hanoi’s five districts. Here, fine diners jostled for business alongside crowded, run-down cafes and sizzling street stalls and the humid air was thick with the mouth-watering scents of delicacies frying in woks.
And of course, eating out in Hanoi is cheap. I was surprised to pay less for dinner and a drink than I have for a takeaway coffee in Perth. And not just for street eats. Even dishes at proper eateries will generally only be a few dollars. Whether you are a foodie or not, here are 10 culinary experiences that should not be missed when in Hanoi. Go on, indulge — you’re on holiday after all.
1. ALL AT SEA
It simply does not get much better than this — feasting on six courses of freshly caught seafood aboard a private junk on Halong Bay. Prawns, pippies, crab, squid, steamed whole fish — I thought I was going to sink to the bottom of the bay. A dip in the 27C emerald waters is just the thing to work up an appetite for dessert, which you can buy from floating vendors who row out to sell bags of fresh fruit to the tourists (although the crew on our junk warned us not to buy from them, so as not to encourage the practice).
2. STREET TALK
Street food is where Hanoi’s cuisine was born and I quickly discovered that I could happily feast on the food of my dreams without ever entering a building. From the famous bun cha (rice vermicelli noodles with barbecued pork and vegetables) to deep-fried sweet potato fritters, do not leave Hanoi without experiencing pavement dining.
Slurping your way through a bowl of broth while sitting on a child- sized plastic stool, strangely insulated from the Old Quarter’s chaotic hive of traffic, is like a ticket into the locals’ world and offers a unique perspective to take in the manic crush of activity that is life in Hanoi. Don’t be put off by some of the more carnal offerings (pigs’ ribs or goat blood broth, anyone?) or hygiene practices, which my guide told me are being improved among Hanoi’s street food operators.
3. IN SEASON
There was rarely a moment in Hanoi when I wasn’t munching on a handful of fresh fruit. For around $US1 for a big bag-full, you can feast on tart mini plums, juicy pineapple, custard apples, mangosteen, plump red grapes, a still-unidentified peach-y type of fruit, and just about anything else you can think of.
3. FRENCH CONNECTION
When you’re ready to get reacquainted with silverware, napery and wine lists, there are plenty of fine-dining venues to choose from around town. The French influence is evident not only in the stunning architecture, with countless eateries specialising in the world’s most celebrated cuisine. In the picturesque French Quarter, many of the colonial-era villas house chic French eateries while in the Old Quarter we stumbled upon a charming 1920s town house straight out of old Paris called the Green Tangerine, which, sadly for us, was booked out — a sign that it is worth a look. It’s top of my list next time I visit Hanoi.
4. COFFEE TO GO
For all its frenetic pace, Hanoi is also a remarkably tranquil place and one of the best ways to take it in is with a takeaway cup of coffee and a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the city, which seems to have been designed as a magnet for a leisurely stroll. Grab a latte from Hapro on the edge of the lake and allow yourself a good 40 minutes to walk around the lake.
5. CHA CHA CHA
High above the streets of the Old Quarter, Hanoi’s famous tube houses (impossibly narrow three and four-storey town houses that hark back to a time when some odd property tax meant charges were calculated based on the width of a building’s facade) hide endless culinary wonders. One is Cha Ca La Vong, a rickety two-storey affair that’s one of many single-menu, set-price diners named after its specialty dish. Cha ca is basically fried fish, cooked in a pan over hot coals in the middle of your table with dill, turmeric, leeks, chillies, peanuts and skinny noodles. This was the first meal I ate in Hanoi and it was a delicious, fresh, bowl-licking good introduction to Vietnamese cuisine.
6. SCHOOL’S IN
Cooking is a big part of Vietnamese culture so if you have more than a few days in Hanoi, try a cooking class or walking food tour, where you’ll visit local street markets to source produce then find out how to turn it into an authentic Vietnamese feast. Several restaurants offer in- house classes or try the Hanoi Cooking Centre in the Ba Dinh district.
7. BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
It’s easy to see why some locals and expats eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pronounced “fur” (and not to be confused with “foe”, which apparently means brothel), Vietnam’s most famous dish is a flavour-packed broth, usually made with beef and vegetables (pho bo) and served with fresh sliced chilli and lime. You can find it at countless street stalls but it is also done surprisingly well at chains such as Pho 24, opposite Hoan Kiem lake.
8. SWEET TOOTH
If you can block out the sounds of the manic traffic, walking down the street in Hanoi can start to feel like you’ve wandered into Paris, such is the proliferation of Euro-style bistros, cafes and patisseries dotted around the neighbourhoods. Croissants, petit fours, crepes, hot chocolate, ice-cream — depending on your weakness you are sure to find yourself spoilt for choice when it comes to finding your next sugar hit. My favourite was Fanny, a quaint French-style ice-creamery opposite Hoan Kiem lake where we spent a full 20 minutes deciding on a flavour from the cabinet full of creamy confections (the winner: cinnamon — it’s like eating Christmas).
9. LOVE THE NIGHTLIFE
Hanoi after midnight is eerily quiet, not totally deserted but worlds away from the fast-paced sideshow we had seen just hours earlier. Thus, most of the bars we visited after a late supper were virtually empty, which was not a bad thing because it gave us a chance to chat with the friendly staff. The Potato Bar in the Old Quarter was a highlight, all log cabin-style decor and amazing framed photographs on the walls.
Also worth the 20-minute taxi ride was Restaurant Bobby Chinn in the West Lake district, a sexy mishmash of silk-lined Middle Eastern decor and surrealist artworks where you can order your apple mojito with an Egyptian shisha pipe on the side. If you prefer non-alcoholic refreshment, my Vietnamese tour guide swore by cafe den da (strong iced black coffee served in a tall glass with a straw).
10. SPICE IS NICE
My final night in Hanoi was spent at Nisa Restaurant in the Old Quarter, where we feasted on a Malaysian- Indian banquet provided by chef-owner Ben Taat Alias, a Malaysian who married a Vietnamese woman and created a restaurant that swings between both countries’ cuisines. It also specialises in Halal dishes.
Cy Clayton travelled to Hanoi courtesy of AirAsia and Hanoi Tourism.