The Hidden Joys of Hanoi

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.

How to Travel Deeper

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.

Sidewalk Life in Hanoi
A typical sidewalk scene in Hanoi.

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!

Food tour Hanoi
Our tour guide Moon gets ready to tell us about all of the food in Hanoi.

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.

Banh Mi 25

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.

Banh Mi

Alleyway Glass Noodles

We stuck to the crowded sidewalks of the Old Quarter and ducked into a quiet alleyway to try dried glass noodles.

The most unexpected alleys will have the best food in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

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!)

They found the same alleyway noodles, but opted to eat on scooters instead of small stools!

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.

Glass Noodles
A delicious bowl of glass noodles

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.

There is a restaurant back there!

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.

Pillow cakes

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.

Dad and me at the French Quarter in Hanoi.

Egg Coffee

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
Café Dinh

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.

Egg Coffee
Egg Coffee

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!

Rice Paper Rolls
Rice Paper Rolls

And, with that, we felt perfectly prepared to eat our way through Vietnam!

Our tour group feeling very full at the end of our tour!

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!”

Bun Cha Huong Lien
Curtis explains Bun Cha to us near the table where Obama and Bourdain ate (look close: it’s encased in glass.)
Add your own noodles and spice to a bowl of grilled pork for the perfect Bun Cha

Getting Bold

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!

Making friends over beer and peanuts.

This was a perfect capstone to our Hanoi foodie experience!

Food in Hanoi, Vietnam

2 Comments on “The Hidden Joys of Hanoi”

  1. You have the unique knack of describing experiences, tastes and smells with exquisite detail…enough to immerse us but not overdo it! Loved this account of Hanoi. I especially like thinking of the most recent adventures from your dad’s perspective. He is REALLY staying open to everything and anything. Thinking his new nickname should be Phil the Phenom… 🙂

    • Thank you so much for being such a loyal reader. My dad is, indeed, rolling with everything that SE Asia has to offer. The good, the bad, the scorpions on sticks. It’s a great joy to travel with him.

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