Booking a 3-day 'tag-along' street food tour of Hanoi may be the second greatest travel decision, just after 'rent a car in Cyprus and drive to the North and eat lunch sitting on Roman ruins overlooking the sea'. Spirit House (a restaurant in Qld which I believe is quite incredible) sends their chefs to SE-Asia to learn more about the food, and they let you come with them. Just a short time with our Hanoi food tour guide, Sarah, gave us insight into the food and culture, access to some of the best food around the city, and the confidence to eat anything, anywhere. It was the perfect introduction to Vietnam. (Unfortunately my actual introduction was lunch and dinner at two places 'recommended' by the hotel, which were terrible and quite expensive. Pro-tip: Don't eat anywhere that's on the mass-produced hotel map 'recommended' list. Avoid, with prejudice.)
Alright then. How do I do it? How do I distill 13 days, 1500 photos, 57 dishes, 2 cooking classes in 2 cities... into a postcard? One image, 13 lines. Guess I gotta start by trying.
Hanoi, VietnamFood Tour Day 1
bun rieu cua is way off the scale. Sure it's noodle soup, but so different to pho. Rich, salty broth with pounded crab meat and noodles. Throw in some greens, chili, squeeze of cumquat juice, and you have yourself a delicious start to the day. Followed it up with a banh ran ngot (sweet, fried bread thing) on a street corner for breakfast dessert. Then ducked into the markets to see some fresh produce and eat some goi du du (papaya salad) and banh mot loc (little prawn parcels). Topped it all off with a sabayon coffee (sweet and eggy) at a secret rooftop cafe, and plans to meet for dinner.
Pro-tip: Even the locals are paranoid about the water, so everyone uses bottled water for broths, drinks etc. Bottled water = happy stomach.
Food Tour Day 2
Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) for breakfast -- that's one I recognise from Sydney. Not as richly flavoured as yesterday's brekky, but a good clean tasty broth with plenty of chili and herbs and soft little dough sticks for dipping. A stroll through narrow alleyways to Kim Lien village market for fresh-off-the-steamer banh cuon -- a steamed rice flour and alabaster crepe filled with pork and mushroom with fresh herbs and dipping sauce. So rich and smooth. And then to bun cha, where you get a bowl of dipping sauce (tip: it's not soup, don't drink it) and throw in noodles, herbs, nem cua (pork and crab fried spring rolls) and charred pork meatballs. Sweet, smoky, and so satisfying. Then. Oh my, Molly, then it's che (jelly and beans in coconut milk) and kem xoi (ice cream and sticky rice) for lunch-dessert.
Pro-tip: Locals like their meat gristly. Each piece should have skin, flesh and fat. Chicken breast is the tourist cut -- otherwise this 'leftover' is ground up and used for dumplings.
Food Tour Day 3
Yesterday bun cha, today bun ca (not related). Brekky today is crispy-fried fish noodle soup. A delicate yet complex broth flavoured with tomato and dill, and slightly soured with cumquat. Not what I expected to have in Vietnam. Oh, and the usual plate full of fresh greens to make us feel at home. Then a quick spin around a commercial market, which lacks the laid-back charm of the others, and on to a Vietnamese cooking class. And the explanation for the constant eating on this food tour becomes clear: the locals eat up to six times a day. Pip, I think they know about second breakfast! We also learn about balancing yin and yang, and that meat dishes are intentionally too salty so you can't eat too much of it. Instead you fill yourself with rice, veges and broth. (And consequently get hungry again a few hours later and reward yourself with more food.)
Pro-tip: Anything green counts as a vegetable. This includes unripe fruit such as green mango.
I don't know it yet, Molly, but just after I send this I will embark on a supposed-to-be-4-but-actually-6-hour bus-bus-boat-bus journey which will seriously test my cool.
Up next: Cat Ba Island
Places to eat: Hanoi
Note: Most of these places were part of the street food tour or recommendations from Sarah.
View Hanoi Food Tour 2012 in a larger map
Breakfast or lunch (most places open around 5am, close around 4pm)
- Bun Rieu Thanh Hong, 42 Hoa Ma: Bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup). Pronounced "Bwn ziew cwa". 60k dong ($3) per bowl.
- Pho Ga Mai Anh, 32 Le Van Huu: Pho Ga (chichen noodle soup)
- Huong Lien Bun Cha, 36 Le Van Huu: Bun Cha (noodles, pork and herbs served with a bowl of dipping sauce. Put the stuff bit by bit into the bowl of dipping sauce and eat from the bowl. Don't drink the sauce, it is't soup.)
- ?? Bun Cha, ??. Same as above, and just as good.
- Banh Mot Loc (prawn rolls) and Nom Du Du (papaya salad) in Duc Vien Market (Ngo Thi Nham)
- Mien Luon Bun Ca, 24 Nam Ngu: Bun Ca (crispy fried fish noodle soup)
- Highway 4 restaurant, 5 Hang Tre. Good, reliable restaurant. Food was good, interesting rice wines to be tried, and ended up being quite cheap. Caters to locals and tourists.
- Pots and Pans, 57 Bùi Thị Xuân. A fine dining restaurant which sources its staff from a cooking school aimed at training less-fortunate people, a la Jamie Oliver's Fifteen. A little pricey but nice to have Asian-influenced Western dishes, and the food was good.
- Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau. Cool restaurant where the food is cooked at different stations all around the restuarant. Can be a bit daunting, but good to see what things look like and watch things being cooked. Caters to locals and tourists.
- Banh ran ngot (fried donut ball. Banh = bread, Ran = fried, Ngot = sweet) -- street corner near Cho Hom-Duc Vien market (Ngo Thi Nham). Look for fresh ones being deep fried.
- Secret Cafe, (entry via Monet Gallery, 11 Hàng Gai): Sabayon Cafe (egg coffee) and rooftop views of Hanoi, and much-appreciated peace and quiet. Order on the ground floor and traipse your way up the stairs to the level you're comfortable with.
- Kim Lien Village Market: Banh Cuon (pork and mushroom rice-flour rolls)
- Cua Hang Thu Nga, 8 Hai Ba Trung (corner Phan Chu Trinh): Kem Xoi (coconut icecream and sticky rice. Pronounced "kem soy".) and Che (jelly and/or fruit in yoghurt or coconut milk -- think 'bubble tea'. Pronounced "chair". Mix it up well before you eat it.)
- On the street: Com (young green rice which has been pounded flat. Great to snack on. Look for the lotus leaves tied with a rice stalk.)
- Bia Hoi (beer hall). These are on many of the streets in Hanoi, and you'll find them full of local men on their way home from work. They brew their own beer (usually about 6-8k dong per glass = <$1), and usually serve a bit of snack food. Sit on a low plastic stool and watch the world race past.