Family meals are sacred in Vietnam. However when work practices changed, making it harder for people to dine with their families, it gave rise to new kinds of eateries, the small food stalls set up on the roadside. Vietnam street food has now overridden its initial intention to serve the humble masses to become a lifestyle that is led by almost everyone in this country. If wearing the traditional clothing and speaking the language doesn’t make you Vietnamese enough, dining side by side with the locals definitely will.
Sitting on the crook of the Red River and benefitting from one of the richest farmlands in Vietnam, Hanoi has everything it needs at its disposal to become the gastronomical city of the country. If you are into unique Vietnamese culture, nowhere is more suitable than its capital city to host your Vietnamese street food tour. Navigating through a wide range of staples and an even larger collection of snacks in Hanoi can be a daunting task for first-time travelers to the country. To help reduce the hassle and maximize the memories, helloVietnam tour operator has gathered some insider information and experience to guide you.
What to cover on your Hanoi street food tour
Selecting a limited number of dishes for this section is a challenging task because it’s hard to tell if one dish may be more suitable than another. However, there are a few classics that stand out.
This dish used to be carried across the streets of Hanoi on the shoulders of young women living on the outskirts of the city. If pho is the king of Vietnam culinary, bun cha is its rightful queen, slightly less well-known but no less captivating. Here are some local addresses to have the best and the most authentic bun cha:
Bun cha que tre: A tiny eatery on Phat Loc alley that still preserves the traditional way of char-grilling bun cha’s meat. Slices of pork belly and meat patties are gripped between two bamboo sticks and put atop a red-hot coal burner. The meat is grilled until crispy-edged and served hot in the dipping sauce. Make your way to the crossroad between Phat Loc alley and Luong Ngoc Quyen Street and stop at the stall with a large crowd around it.
Bun cha que tre
Bun cha xuong song: A family business that has survived for decades. The biggest selling point of this eatery is the meat patties parceled in chapa leaves. This stall is nestled in a small market, which provides a wonderful opportunity to watch the locals work. You can find it at number 22/31, Yen Bai 2 alley.
Bun cha xuong song
One of the legacies that the French left in Vietnam is the baguette. As with most foreign food, the Vietnamese have put their own spin on the recipe to suit the local taste. Rice flour is added to the dough to create an airy interior and crispy crust.
Banh mi pho Hue: One of the oldest banh mi stalls in Hanoi that has completely ignored the availability of foreign ingredients to maintain its original menu with only three types of fillings. Simple as it may seem, banh mi pho Hue takes pride in the recognition of some household names such as David Farley and Geoffrey Deetz. Banh mi here is, as David Farley puts it, ‘a pretty magical sandwich’.
Banh mi pho Hue: 118A Pho Hue, Hanoi.
Banh mi pho Hue
Banh mi Nhu Lan: A stall that locals frequent and is under the tourist’s radar. Nestled in a small market, this stall is a convenient spot to watch the locals go about their day. Unlike other vendors whose fillings are purchased to cut costs and save time, banh mi Nhu Lan’s owner makes everything (except for the baguette) herself, from pâté, salted pork, and pork floss to mayonnaise.
Banh mi Nhu Lan: Nam Dong market.
Banh mi Nhu Lan sign
Vietnam’s national obsession, the heart of Vietnamese culinary culture and the ultimate breakfast fare in Hanoi, pho is arguably the best soup in the world. Where it came from is shrouded in mystery. Some say that pho has its roots in Nam Dinh, where rumor has it that people there used to make the broth by brewing beef instead of bones, which created an as-clear-as-water base. Others believe that pho is the invention of Hanoians when the country was under the control of the French. No matter the origin, Hanoi is the only place you can find the most authentic Pho.
Pho Bat Dan: A not-so-strange name for fans of Hanoi pho. This stall is famous for its pho bo (beef noodle soup). The savory and depth of flavor are extracted from the bones so there is no need to add star anise, onion, or cinnamon to boost the taste. A significant downer is that you will have to queue for your turn. Insider tip: drop by in the evening for a much shorter line or even no line at all.
Pho Bat Dan
Pho Hang Dong: Pho sot vang (beef chasseur noodle soup) is what makes Hanoi street food connoisseurs go out of their way to have a serving. This dish has broken a dozen of pho’s principals and will definitely drive pho purists furious. This is a prime example of how conservative Hanoians can be in keeping traditional values, yet how fierce they can get in terms of elevating and experimenting with foods.
Beef chasseur noodle soup
When to do your Hanoi food tour
The motorbike-clogged streets of Hanoi are the reason why a Hanoi food walking tour is the best choice to avoid the worst of the chaotic traffic. And walking can hardly be joyful under the suffocating summer of Hanoi unless you would like to test your endurance in the heat that can cook an egg on the street. So, in order to not dampen your eating spirit, undertake the tour in winter or fall to have more temperate weather.
Good food in Hanoi is available all year round. However, some dishes seem to be more flavorful in cooler seasons:
Cha ca: A dish that gives its name to a street in the Old Quarter. This dish is Red River fish fillets immersed in dill, peanut, and turmeric marinade. It sounds simple enough in comparison with the extensive range of ingredients and cooking skills that go into the making of pho, but as with others food in Vietnam, the secret recipe for the sauce is withheld in the family that owns the restaurant, a form of “copyright protection”. In the freezing cold of Hanoi winter, it is a real pleasure to warm your hands over the red-hot coals of the clay brazier while indulging in the iconic dish.
Ngo nuong (grilled corn on the cob): Ngo nuong is a favorite warming dish of students after school or couples on a date.
There is nothing special or new about ears of corn on a brazier, yet these humble stalls still earn themselves a constant stream of diners because they are everything a person may need in the cold climate: food and a place to get warm. Dropping by a stall of ngo nuong is a must in any Hanoi night food tour.
Grilled corn on the cob
Who to come with
A grill stall in Hanoi
No professional tour guide or book can beat a local foodie in terms of the in-depth knowledge about good places to eat. He or she will prevent you from taking yourself right into tourist traps where you will probably be surcharged and served food that is far from your expectations.
Having a local by your side can also enhance your food experience here in Hanoi. Half of the fun of squeezing like sardines on the streets is that you can enjoy the company of other diners or a quick banter with the proprietor who is making your serving. However, having that much of intimacy for a traveler might be challenging if you do not speak or understand the language. In that case, a local foodie who has already opened up to you will be there to bridge the gap. He or she will help to connect you with other Vietnamese diners. Once you have broken the ice, they will be more than eager to fill you in with Vietnamese culture, insider tips, and jokes. These locals might be the best part of your food tour in Hanoi.
How to plan your Hanoi food tours
Choose a neighborhood: Hanoi is not a big city but with its labyrinth of streets and alleys, the ambition to cover the whole city is unrealistic, unless you have all the time in the world to spend. So, pick one neighborhood at a time and make sure that you can cover the area on foot. Since nothing can be more effective in making you lose your appetite than getting stuck in the traffic, walking from one food stall to the other seems to be the most viable solution. The Old Quarter is the classic foodie hub and is also packed with landmarks, which makes it the best place to host your food tour and enables you to add some other activities to your tour if you wish.
Hanoi Old Quarter
Prioritize snacks: No matter how good Vietnamese foods is, a schedule with more than three full sit down meals is the shortest way to indigestion. Fill your plan with snacks and light meals to maintain your spirit during the tour.
No more than 7 tastings a day: 5 to 7 spots to cover in a day will maintain a good balance with the time you spend walking while making sure that you don’t get sick or bored.