The food in Hanoi is – without question – some of the very best that I’ve had in all of Southeast Asia. Much of the culinary life in Hanoi takes place right on the sidewalk – from cooking soft-shell crabs to shelling sunflower seeds, to slurping noodles while perched on tiny, plastic chairs – the sidewalk is kitchen, dining room and front porch here.
However, if you know your way around Hanoi, there are also plenty of surprises tucked behind discreet doors, down unexpected alleyways, or up hidden staircases.
First-Night Food Tour
That’s why, on my first evening in any new country, I like to go on a food tour. This first-night strategy helps me learn what to eat, how to eat, where to eat – and how to cross the street.
Seriously, that’s a thing. In Hanoi, you make eye contact with the oncoming crush of scooters and you plunge right on in, holding one hand out straight, palm up in the universal “stop” sign while pointing with the other hand toward your destination and the safety of the next sidewalk.
Banh Mi, please!
After teaching us to cross the street, our spunky guide “Moon” from our Airbnb Experience Food on Foot Tour, started us out at the well-known Banh Mi 25 in the Old Quarter, a shop so well known for the famed Vietnamese Banh Mi that it has expanded throughout the block surrounding 25 Hàng Cá Street, selling delightful sandwiches from the original roadside takeaway stand, as well as a small roadside restaurant, and now a large, multi-level (air-conditioned!) space that sprawls above a nondescript door and narrow stairway.
We found ourselves an upstairs table in the air-conditioned space, and our group dove right into a pile of Barbeque Pork and Pâté Banh Mi. The meat is spread onto a soft, toasted baguette with crunchy pickled vegetables and a secret sauce that is perfectly offset by the chili sauce placed on every table.
Alleyway Glass Noodles
We stuck to the crowded sidewalks of the Old Quarter and ducked into a quiet alleyway to try dried glass noodles.
Sitting on the small stools found in any doorway, alleyway or street corner in Hanoi, we shared our birth years – a common conversation in Vietnam where the year of birth is used for fortune-telling, personality assessing and – most importantly – for determining which pronoun to use in conversation, since the pronouns change based on the age of the speaker and the listener.
Our guide, Moon, nearly fell off of her stool when I told her my birth year of 1980. Luckily, she wouldn’t have had very far to fall as the stools really are low to the ground – a fact that made my dad’s knees creak. (He was convinced that the stools got smaller as the night went on, but I think we just got heavier as we ate!)
Speaking of luck, Moon informed my dad and me that it is considered good fortune when a father and daughter are both born in the same animal year. My dad and I were both born in the year of the monkey, which Moon says is not only good luck, but also means that we will be well traveled. That seems about right.
This conversation all took place over glass noodles that are made from dried vegetables and, once cooked, placed on top of soy sauce, creating a salty base for the chicken, sprouts, fried onion and cilantro that are all mixed together and smothered with the juice of a fresh kumquat. Delicious!
All the Cake
Moon told us that we would be having cake next and my dad brightened. “Dessert,” he exclaimed! But that’s not the kind of cake that Moon had in mind as she darted into another unexpected door that unfolded into a surprise restaurant.
Before long we had a mound of fried pillow cakes in front of us. The soft, flaky crust is shaped like a pillow and stuffed with minced pork, chopped vegetables and spices. We also had shrimp cake, spring rolls and leafy vegetables – all of which we dipped into a bowl of fresh papayas soaking in fish oil before stuffing the cakes into our mouths.
The vegetables, Moon explained, are to provide something cool alongside the warmth of the cakes. This goes back to the basic principle of Yin and Yang or balance that the Vietnamese seek in their diets and in their lives.
We stretched our legs after that with a quick photo-op in the French Quarter before heading toward Hoan Kiem Lake for a famous Vietnam drink that is more dessert than it is beverage.
No food tour in Hanoi would be complete without Egg Coffee. This is the famous coffee created in North Vietnam in the 40s when there was a shortage of fresh milk. The egg yolk is then mixed with condensed milk, coffee powder, butter, cheese and – when you want to go really crazy – a touch of chocolate, and, voila! You have the creamy, rich, caffeinated masterpiece that is egg coffee!
To find our egg coffee, we walked through a dark doorway beneath a travel agency, up a somewhat wet cement stairwell, past a napping kitten and, just when I was getting worried, into a hip, independent coffee shop playing the best playlist I’ve heard in Asia.
Café Dinh is owned by the daughter of the original creator of egg coffee and serves up the family recipe that is also served at the nearby (and very well-known) Café Giang.
With all of these combinations of unique yet balanced flavors available to the Vietnamese, it is no wonder that a common greeting here is: “Ăn chưa,” or “Have you eaten yet?”
A Student’s Treat
We had one more surprise street to navigate on our food tour.
This tiny alleyway connects two major streets and is home to about 10 families who share kitchens, bathrooms and other living spaces.
On the other side of the secret alley, we sat down to enjoy the dish that Moon often eats before she goes to class: rice paper rolls. This tasty combination of beef, mango and fried onion, all wrapped in rice paper and topped with chili sauce and mayonnaise, really is reminiscent of late-night college snacks!
And, with that, we felt perfectly prepared to eat our way through Vietnam!
Eating our Way through Hanoi
We certainly did pretty well eating our way through Hanoi after that. We returned to Banh Mi 25 and we found our place on small stools at many road-side eateries for noodles and egg coffee across the Old Quarter and the French Quarter.
Bun Cha in the Shadow of Greatness
Then when my old friend Curtis from my Washington, DC days, who just happened to be in Hanoi at the same time, asked if we would be interested in eating at Bún Chả Hương Liên, the same place where President Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain ate, we said: “Ummm yes, please!”
Finally, on our very last night in Hanoi, my dad and I ducked into a beer garden to wait out a passing rainstorm. This was definitely a local hangout. There was no English menu to speak of and our Google Translate was laughably useless.
Luckily, a very nice man sat down next to us, shared his pitcher of beer and, though he had only two words of English (“thank you,”), he taught us the proper way to eat peanuts. Here’s the drill: Take the slightly moistened, unsalted peanuts out of their shell and dunk the nuts in a mixture of salt, red jalapeño, and garlic – all doused in fresh lime juice. It’s delicious!
This was a perfect capstone to our Hanoi foodie experience!