As you attempt the navigate the sidewalks of Hanoi, you are constantly bypassing or walking through one of the thousands of street food stalls, with patrons spilling out onto the narrow sidewalks. Street food is a slight misnomer, as most of the food is actually served by tiny restaurants with a storefront but the eating does in fact happen on the street, usually on tiny plastic stools at low tables shared with strangers. Like many cities with a serious street food scene, most restaurants serve only one dish and the stalls serving the best version of Pho Bo or Bun Cha become enshrined in generations of food lore. When you sit down at one of these places, there is a rarely a menu – two or three minutes after you are seated, a heaping plate or steaming bowl of something delicious that usually involves rice noodles, fresh herbs, and meat will appear in front of you. And with the first bite, it becomes unimportant that the floor may be strewn with dirty napkins and that the aromas wafting your way are a bit mysterious, because the fresh, clean flavors of the food shine through and you know that trying to replicate these dishes in a more formal restaurant kitchen would result in a shadow of the real thing.
My husband and I ate like champions in Hanoi – below is a brief (and probably incomplete) breakdown of the many dishes we tried and the places where we ate them. In each case, two servings and a beer typically cost us between five and seven USD. Many of the suggestions came from a guidebook photocopy another traveler gave us – I'm not sure which guidebook to give credit to for the suggestions but I'm guessing it was Lonely Planet because my Rough Guide definitely did not do the street food scene justice.
Banh Ghoi: This modest little fried crescent-shaped pastry of goodness is filled with spiced pork, mushrooms, and glass rice noodles and was one of the most flavorful things I ate in Vietnam. Most of the meat I ate elsewhere was simply boiled or grilled – this was one of the few instances of spiced stir fried meat and the flavors came sprinting out with the very first bite. As a bonus, you can watch the two old ladies who run the stall deep frying all sorts of other pastries as well and you can take your pick trying them all.
52 P Ly Quoc Su, 10am – 7pm
Bun Bo Nam Bo: This dish consists of a steaming bowl of rice noodles and beef, served with peanuts, fried shallots, garlic, lemongrass, sprouts, green mango, lettuce, cilantro, and a light sauce at the bottom of the bowl. I have never wolfed down dinner so fast in my life – in addition to the fact that it was piping hot and delicious, we had just returned to Hanoi after three very cold days in Halong Bay and were absolutely starving and freezing from the journey. This was the perfect remedy.
67 P Hang Dieu, 11am-10pm
Banh Cuon: These are steamed rice crepes rolled up like spring rolls and stuffed with minced pork, mushroom, and ground shrimp. Very mild in flavor, they are spiced up with cilantro and sweet fish dipping sauce and served alongside a piece of pork sausage.
Banh Cuon Gia Truyen, 14 P Hang Ga, 8am-4pm
Bun Cha and Nem Cua Be: This is one of the most famous dishes in Hanoi and consists of a bowl of grilled pork patties and strips of grilled beef in a sweet broth, accompanied by a giant plate of herbs and an order of fried spring rolls filled with crab meat and glass rice noodles. It was a little meat heavy for my taste but definitely worth a try.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh, 11am-3pm
Pho Bo: Pho seems to be the main Vietnamese dish to have made it to West Hollywood. We have “Unphogettable,” “9021Pho,” and “Absolutely Phobulous,” all within a five minute drive of our apartment. While it is sometimes a late night snack, it quickly became clear to us that we had not truly experienced pho until we ate it as a traditional breakfast in Hanoi. On the surface, it looks the same as the West Hollywood version – white rice noodles, perfumed broth, slices of beef (“bo” means beef – there are other varieties as well), and leaves of cilantro, but the effect is altogether different.
Pho Gia Truyen, 49 P Bat Dan, 7-10am
Che: As you may have noticed, I love glutinous, sticky, oddly flavored Asian desserts. If it is made from red bean, black sesame, sticky rice, coconut milk – chances are that I will like it. Given this, I was very excited to try Che, a brightly colored Vietnamese dessert consisting of different shapes, sizes, and colors of jello, mixed with creamed corn, mung beans, and sticky sweetened coconut milk. The overall effect of Che is like confetti in your cup, or a kindergartner's neon painting gone wild. My husband was understandably wary but I dove in with gusto, insisting that it was delicious. I was exaggerating. It was ok but the sweetness soon became cloying and after a third of the cup, I started to wonder what was creating the bright colors floating around in my glass. Glad I tried it but I think I may stick with some of my other newly acquired dessert favorites.
We also went to Quan An Ngon for dinner on our last night. Quan An Ngon is a great concept restaurant that brings together stalls of all the famous street foods in the country into one courtyard, where patrons can sit in full size chairs under lanterns in a 'typical' restaurant environment and walk around to see what the stalls are cooking. Popular with wealthier Vietnamese and tourists, it is a great stop to get acquainted with street food in a clean and comfortable environment. We used it as a chance to try many of the dishes remaining on our hit list, and while the environment was lovely and the food very good, it lacked the spark of flavor that defines the best street food stalls.
It's been fascinating to compare the street food culture and foods across many of the countries I've visited. The ubiquitous nature of street eating in Hanoi most reminded me of Penang, particularly the emphasis on single dish stalls run by older men and women who have been quietly cooking up gourmet food in humble environments for most of their lives. It is definitely worth taking the plunge – just pick a spot that seems crowded with locals and you're unlikely to go wrong.Additional information:
Quan An Ngon
18 Phan Bai Chau