Hanoi: Vietnamese Food Series

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I asked our guide where I could find Bánh cuốn (a dish that a friend said the best meal he had in Vietnam), our guide replied, “Not in Saigon…wait ‘til Hanoi”. Based on his answer, I made a presumption that to have an authentic foodie experience in Vietnam, one had to travel throughout Vietnam to try the local specialty or regional food. That’s why I predicated my previous posts about Vietnamese food with “where I had been and where I was going”. After a short flight from Hue, I finally reached Hanoi and I could not be more excited.

We arrived in Hanoi late in the afternoon, so the first order of business was to find a place for dinner. Our guide mentioned a list of recommended restaurants that offered only one item on the menu, including Cha Ca Anh Vue (a seafood restaurant where they cook the fish in front of you) and Bun Cha. I opted for Bun Cha, an unassuming restaurant popular with tourists because it was visited by Anthony Bourdin and Pres Obama. After Obama’s visit, the restaurant started to offer the Obama Combo that includes bun cha and crab spring rolls. I had what Obama had, at least from the picture in the restaurant: bun cha (a rice noodle soup, topped with grilled fatty pork and fresh herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce) and fried seafood spring rolls. The servers were efficient. Our orders arrived immediately, in separate dishes: a bowl of broth with grilled ground meat and slices of grilled pork, a generous serving of rice noodle, very fresh greens (iceberg lettuce, cilantro, basil and other herbs), slices of red chili peppers and a side dish of sauces (A side note: my companion did not touch the dipping sauce that was full of garlic because it had a purplish color). The bun cha was very flavorful, except that the broth was lukewarm when it arrived. So, when I added the rice noodle, I ended up with a cold soup. The fried seafood spring rolls, wrapped in very thin rice paper, were delicious. I could taste the freshness of the crab and shrimp. The Bun Cha Restaurant was in a great location in the Old Quarter, about $3.00 cab ride from our hotel.

The Old Quarter

Our hotel was in the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the oldest part of the city and once an important trading center. Although our hotel was advertised as ‘a four-star hotel in the center of the Hanoi Old Quarter close to Hang Than Street, Van Xuan Park, overlooking down to West Lake, the Old Long Bien bridge and Red River’, I did not see the ‘overlooking’ part because my room had no windows. However, I heard the honking and noise from the streets. The Old Quarter was a maze of streets dating back to the 13th century. The following morning, I strolled through the narrow and busy streets near the hotel to find the no-name restaurant that our guide mentioned as ‘the restaurant that doesn’t look like a restaurant, but offers very good pho’.

The highlight of our first day was a visit to ‘Dong Xuan’, the city’s largest market. Our guide warned us not to hang around like tourists and disrupt the vendor’s day to day business. People still conduct business the old fashion way. Most notable was the food market with simple stalls, and food being prepared on sidewalks. I found everything under the sun from fresh fruits and vegetable, cooked foods, sweets, non-refrigerated meats, fish, live poultry, live fish being sold there. After jostled by passing motorbikes and vendors with shoulder-pole pendulum baskets of fresh produce, we continued to walk through meandering and narrow streets, made even narrower by parked motorbikes. Every street in the Old Quarter is said to be named after the craft or products sold by the storekeeper, so there’s a silver street (Hang Bac), bamboo street (Hang Bo), etc.

Getting through the maze and chaotic streets of the Old Quarter was exhausting to say the least. So the park surrounding the Hoan Kiem Lake was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the old town and a place to observe some of the historical gems like the old building architecture (very narrow buildings) that’s unique to Hanoi and of course, some remnants of French architecture. Getting lost in the Old Quarter and finding great eating places was definitely one of the most fascinating travel experiences I have had.

Hanoi is quite small. I saw most of the tourist sites in one day. We visited the Hỏa Lò Prison (labeled as Hanoi Hilton, used by North Vietnamese for American prisoners during the Vietnam War),and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. After the visit to the museum, we attended a performance of the water puppet (an ancient art form unique to Vietnam, done traditionally with floating puppets on rice paddies, depicting scenes from rural life and old fables) at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater near the Hoan Kiem Lake. Outside the Old Quarter was typical Vietnam, full of mass motorbikes and cycle traffic, newly developed high-rise and commercial buildings.

We ventured out of the city to see some century old temples and a century old water puppet theater, stopping along the way to take pictures of the rice field juxtaposed to a cemetery or a cemetery in the middle of the rice paddies. We visited a small village where families opened up there homes to show us how they go about their local lives, such as raising pigs and making their own rice cakes.  One of the most fascinating scenes I saw on the way back to Hanoi was the dog meat market. It was a short strip of road with fresh dog meats hanging on the sidewalks. I’m glad to report that our bus did not stop for us to try some dog meat.

Back in Hanoi

I opted not to visit the mausoleum to see the embalmed body of the communist leader, but I saw the sort of communist neo-classical building that housed it from the outside. Instead, I spent my time getting a foot massage and getting lost in the Old Quarter and finding great eating placest. I’m not a food critic, so I’m not going to attempt to describe in flowery words what I ate in Hanoi. So let me just sum up what I ate in Hanoi. I did not get to experience eating dog meat. I ate lots of pho (pho with grilled pork, beef pho, duck pho, chicken pho, seafood pho), and all kinds of noodle soups (vermicelli, egg and rice noodles that came with very fresh herbs), roasted chicken, grilled meats, spring rolls, salad with mango or green papaya, banh cuon, fruits and ice cream, and wonderful desserts like jellied young coconut inside a coconut shell. I found the best Vietnamese coffee at Al Fresco, a western/European restaurant near the St. Joseph Cathedral.

On our last day in Hanoi, I hooked up with H & A, the couple I met in Saigon to do our own Vietnamese food tour.  The highlight of our food tour was eating street foods for breakfast. First, we looked for Bánh cuốn, a dish made with ground meat, mushrooms, shallot and other fillings loosely wrapped in steamed rice crepe.  We saw a woman making Bánh cuốn just outside the street café. The woman was busy pouring a scoop of rice flour mix into a steamer to make crepe while assembling the filling for the rice crepe, and wrapping loosely the filling with the steaming rice crepe. We sat on the small plastic chairs and ate the banh cuon just as fast as she made them. (I captured some of it on video – click on the thumbnail above). We then moved on to a secret alley near the hotel to try the duck pho, and finally went back to the restaurant with no name, where I had the pho dinner before, for a beef pho. We hit three eating places and ate all those meals within 45 minutes. The best tasting food in Hanoi could be found in simple stalls with tiny plastic chairs and no name restaurants. That said, I cannot recommend a specific restaurant to eat in Hanoi. However, getting lost in the maze of narrow streets and finding a great place to eat is the joy of Hanoi. 


1) Images from the Dong Xuan Market
Fresh local produce sold at Dong Xuan
Pre-prepared foods sold at Dong Xuan Market
Duck Egg Embryo
No Frills Grilling Machine
Grilled Ground Pork
Shoulder pole pendulum baskets of local produce

 2) Hanoi Traffic 

3) Hanoi Suburb
Banana heart
A cemetery in the middle of rice paddies
Century Old Water Puppet Theater in the outskirts of Hanoi
5) Images from the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Long House


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