For the street-food lover, Hanoi is paradise. The city turned 1,000 years old in 2012 so it’s had an awfully long time to perfect a huge repertoire of curbside eats. Literally, street food is everywhere. Makeshift stalls, permanent storefronts and even roaming vendors who cook over portable charcoal braziers, offer all kinds of incredibly cheap, delicious edibles, from early in the morning, until late at night. Eating amidst the unending clamor of the city, typically hunched over low tables and seated on toy-sized plastic stools a whisker away from zooming scooters (which can, admittedly, be a challenge for the lanky), provides some of Hanoi's most memorable moments. You'd be nuts not to dive into the snackilious Hanoi fray.
Gossamer-thin rice flour pancakes, steamed to order, are filled with minced pork and chopped mushrooms and served with nuoc cham, the ubiquitous fish-sauce-based dip. These end up being the favourite street food of many a visitor. Find them all over the Old Quarter, particularly for breakfast. Banh Cuon Gia Truyen (14 Pho Hang Ga, Old Quarter) is famous and has an English menu.
Pork mince patties and pork belly are grilled over coals then served in a thin sauce-soup containing fish sauce, sugar and rice vinegar. Thin fresh rice noodles, fried spring rolls, chili, garlic and tons of fresh herbs are added to taste; bun cha is sensational. It isn’t hard to find (just look for billows of BBQ smoke) but the place at 43 Cau Go Street in the Old Quarter is dependable. As is long-term favourite Bun Cha Dac Kim (1 Hang Manh, Old Quarter).
Banh My Hanoi
Banh my, sold on every second street corner, are a baguette-based sandwich. Fillings vary but pate, sliced pork, pickled vegetables, chicken, fried eggs, or a combination of these, are typical. “Banh my pate” is the meat version and “banh my trung” is the egg one. Banh My 25 (25 Hang Ca, Old Quarter) with its English-speaking owner, makes one a few notches above the usual.
Xoi is a rib-sticker, coming into it’s own during cooler months although the locals love it year round. A hefty plateful of steamed sticky rice, yellow mung bean paste, deep fried shallots and slices of meat (such as Vietnamese sausage, or pate), it can be found all over the Old Quarter from itinerant vendors. But the sit-down experience, and topping choices, at Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Nuu Huan Street, Old Quarter), make this humming place a reliable option.
Nem Cua Be
Nem cua be is a large, squat, square-shaped spring roll, stuffed with fresh crab, pork mince and mushrooms and deep-fried until golden. It’s a speciality of the nearby coastal city of Hai Phong and, like many other dishes, is eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with plenty of fresh herbs and nuoc cham, to cut the richness. Try them at multi-storied, hole-in-the-wall Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim (57 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem), in business since 1966. And yep, they do a mean bun cha too, as the name suggests.
An offshoot of pho, bun rieu is popular for breakfast. The broth is tomato-based and contains crab; the dish comes in a number of guises. Bun rieu cua be, for instance, features large chunks of crab meat and is the most pricy version. Bun rieu ca has pieces of fried fish and bun rieu oc involves sea snails. Bun rieu nam bo has everything heaved in - slices of rare beef, chunks of fried tofu, bits of cured sausage and pork knuckle and maybe squares of blood jelly. Get bun rieu at 46 Ngo Cau Go in the Old Quarter.
With hundreds of dedicated stalls and shops around the city, it’s not hard to find beef pho. Just follow the whiff of cassia and star anise rising from huge pots of simmering stock and watch for ladies hacking up bits of beef on makeshift tables, street-side. Both cooked and raw beef are used; the raw meat cooks gently in the heat of the slightly cloudy, ever-so-fragrant stock. You mix in sprouts, fresh herbs, lime juice and chilli to taste. Pho ga (chicken pho) is a lighter alternative. Try Pho Bo Gia Truyen, 49 Bat Dan Street in the Old Quarter for a text-book perfect bowlful of beef pho. Pho Cuong (23 Hang Muoi, Old Quarter) is also famous.
Bun Dau Phu
Nothing could be simpler. Or healthier. Deep-fried tofu is cut into small squares then served on a large plastic tray with cubes of fresh, sticky rice noodles, oodles of herbs, and either nuoc cham or pungent mam tom, made from fermented shrimp paste. Eaten for breakfast, or as a snack throughout the day, you’ll easily spot it in make-shift street corner kitchens or carried by conical hatted women, off the end of wooden poles. Try the corner of Ngo Gach and Hang Giay in the Old Quarter for bun dau phu.
The full name of this local snack is bahn tom tay ho, after tay ho or West Lake. Freshwater prawns from the lake are traditionally used in these fritters, a fried mix of prawns and sweet potato batons held together in a thick tapioca-flour batter that's tinted with turmeric. The prawns are small and aren't shelled so be prepared for crustaceous crunch. Bahn Ton Ho Tay (Duong Thanh Nien, Ba Dinh) is considered the ultimate place to tuck into these beauties.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Bun bo nam bo is a stunning southern noodle dish that’s simple and elegant, with sweet-salty flavours and plenty of satisfying crunch. The lovely guy at Ngoc Linh (7 Ha Tien, Old Quarter) marinates strips of beef in sugar, fish sauce and pepper then stir fries a handful to order with sprouts, fresh rice vermicelli, crushed peanuts, pineapple slices and fried shallots. Alternatively, join the midday fray at 67 Hang Dieu in the Old Quarter, for a bun bo nam bo fix.
As evening falls, the chicken grillers start up. Charming Ngo Gach street is home to Ga Nuong (21 Ngo Gach), a low-key place the locals love. The plate of sliced raw jicama with chilli salt that’s served alongside, is almost as lip-smacking as the chicken wings. Ly Van Phuc is known as “chicken street” and it’s packed with places barbecuing honey-brushed chicken wings and feet. Served with grilled sweet potato, baguette, chili sauce and sweet pickled cucumber, anywhere along here will be great.
To make che (pronounced “chair”), a tall glass is filled with ice. An assortment of other bits go on top- mung bean puree, red beans, grass jelly, for example - and coconut milk is poured over. You eat/drink the whole thing with a long spoon; it’s cooling and delicious. There’s no shortage of che stalls around the Old Quarter but for it, and other traditional sweets, try legendary Thu Nga (23 Nguyen Phong Sac Dich Vong Hau, Cau Giay).
RadioSmartMouth travelled with the kind assistance of Air New Zealand.