An intrepid foodie, REENA KARIM parted the crazy crowds of this charming old city for litres of local beer and the best of street eats.
They say the heart of any country lies in its people and the food. I, of course, care more for the food. So when we embarked on a trip to Hanoi, I was set to tailor my days around the next exciting meal.
My 6am Air Asia flight from Don Muang got me to Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport at 9am. Hungry and tired, our party of four headed to a restaurant in the airport. Not an auspicious beginning, but what were we to do? After we got settled, the thing that caught my attention was not the dated decor of the café—red table covers, plastered wallpapers, dim lighting, and propaganda art—it was that heavy air of communism. You could practically still feel the Iron Curtain. It didn’t help that the officers seated at the next table were smoking indoors and would regularly turn around to give us dubious glances. But I wasn’t taking this as a prelude to my journey. We ordered club sandwiches, and despite being airport food, the sandwich was not half as bad I expected it to be.
By the time we got to Hanoi, the skies had turned dark, and far in the distance, I could see a storm brewing. Our taxi drove us right to the doorstep of our hotel, which was situated in the heart of the Old Quarter. Dropping our luggage, we ran out the door to take in the sights and smells of the city.
Hanoi is one of the world’s greatest street-food destinations, and the Old Quarter with its colonial architecture and stoned streets represents the French soul of the city. This area comprises 36 streets and is a maze of alleys dating back to the 13th century. Crammed with hawkers, vendors, and factory outlet stores, the Old Quarter can be intimidating for many, but there is no better way to discover its secrets than a good old-fashioned walk-about. Like Thais, the Vietnamese nibble on street food all day long. But their meals are not just about grabbing things off carts but also enjoying the atmosphere of street dining.
It is best to arrive early for your walk-about, as the nightlife shuts down a little before midnight. Of course, Bia Hoi should be your poison. The local draft beer is cheap and integral to the city’s drinking culture. The intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen is known for its no-frills vendors. Here, you are wedged into sidewalk seatings and get drafts directly from kegs. Some of the nicer places that I visited were Lé Pub on Hang Be street and Tet Bar on Ta Hien, which played loud rock.
And if a slow-paced, daytime exploration is more your speed, Hanoi has plenty to offer. Our mornings began with traditional drip coffee at the café next to our hotel and then a short walk to Café de Paris, where I would alternate between the English breakfast platter—mashed potatoes, beans, eggs, and toast to an American one—sausages and ham with eggs and toast.
At the heart of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake, and several times a day we ended up here, in any one of the numerous lakeside cafés, often ordering the same round of lemonades and Bia Hoi. The scenic lake was not only our hangout but of locals, too: children on skateboards, joggers, mothers rounded up to chat, lemonade stalls, and people sitting on low stools; it seemed like the whole city had an informal gathering of sorts here, which made it more than a photo-op site for tourists.
The capital has seen considerable growth over the last decade, constantly evolving and trying to move on from its war-torn past to a metropolis with sound infrastructure. But despite aiming for modernity, the city refuses to be bulldozed by commercialisation and still manages to maintain its distinct heritage. Vietnam promotes itself as a developing country that is rich in art and culture. So if you envision going there to “aw” at their sad history and get drunk on cheap beer, you should probably reconsider. Vietnam has a lot more to offer—and delicious food is just the beginning.
Best Hanoi Eats
1. Spring rolls
You can find these all over Hanoi. Unlike the regular spring rolls, nem cua ba are made with fresh crab meat. They are stuffed with herbs, shaped into squares, and then deep fried. Try them with spicy chilli sauce or vinegar dip.
No two places will have the same formula of sweet, citrus, and spice, and that’s part of the pleasure. I have had many different variations of this simple drink. The natural taste of lemon mixed with sugar and, in some places, a few drops of ginger juice, is the answer to a parched throat.
3. Sweet potato fries
I have never found sweet potato appealing, but while I had gone to wash up, my friends ordered a plate of fries. Hungry, I dove right in and, behold, was pleasantly surprised at how delicious they were. The warm crunch and the sweet aftertaste were perfect. The dish is usually served with a spicy chilli sauce, but is also great on its own.
4. Sun-dried meats and jerkys
This is ideal for those who eat beef. Hanoi restaurants serve a variety of sun-dried jerky, so expect everything from beef to ox to chewy squid. The perfect accompaniment to chilled beer.
5. Bun Cha
Possibly the most scrumptious food available, which is why the stalls selling this delicacy are often crammed with people. Bun cha is a popular lunch food—pork patties and slices of pork belly are grilled over charcoal and served with vinegar and fish sauce. It is best eaten with rice vermicelli and fresh herbs.
6. Banh Mi
Banh mi or French baguette sandwiches can be found everywhere—a selection of cold cuts, salad, and pickles generously stuffed into warm bread, smeared with homemade mayonnaise and chilli sauce. The combination of all the ingredients makes a great breakfast that is both delicious and filling. These usually go for VND50,000.
7. Morning glory
Yes, pak boong is hardly a revelation to Thai tourists. But there was something special about the sautéed Chinese water spinach here. Perhaps the combination of butteriness, crispy roasted garlic, and the relative lack of heat made it so good. Found in almost every restaurant, the dish can cost anything from VND90,000–150,000 (B137–230).
Published in Masala magazine, October 2013