Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. A place I could see myself settle for a period of time. Not forever I’m sure, but until whatever is in my blood decides to tell me to move on. I have now been here twice, spending just under a month in total. This time only discovering the city some more for what it is for me. There was so much I missed my first time, as first times are never perfect. There are multiple reasons as to my love of Hanoi. It can be fast paced, but there is always a place to sneak away and escape the hustle and bustle. The people have always been accommodating. I feel comfortable here for some reason or another, but the tip of the iceberg is the FOOD.
Throughout the Old Quarter alone there is always a new restaurant down an alley, tucked away. Or a café you haven’t yet relaxed in and enjoyed a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee. A random street stall that popped up and you missed every other night somehow. Vietnam in general is the one place I’ve spent an extended period of time in and never once had a craving for something else. I’m not sure if it’s the freshness and quality of ingredients, the variety of simple yet complex flavours that are hard to perfect, years of dedication to their craft. The fact that every place is slightly different, because this is true of all Asia, or at least where I have travelled. It must just be a genuine love of Vietnamese food.
Pho Bo/Ga – The soup known worldwide, one of the most popular street foods in the country, Pho. When this is placed in front of me, it’s like seeing the white light at the end of the tunnel. As I walk towards it, seasoning up the broth to my liking and take a sip. I’m there, heaven does exist. Or at least my version of it where there is waterfalls of this. Rafts of noodles, the fish strips of beef. The grass smelling of herbs and bean sprouts for trees. Enough of the analogy, but a bowl of this is like a perfectly sounding orchestra in your mouth.
A strong clear broth flavoured with onion, lemongrass, daikon, roasted ginger, star anise and cinnamon is the base. Warmed rice noodles of about fettucine width are placed in the bowl, with the different accompaniments. This can vary from the north to the south and serve them separate on a plate to add your desired amount. Beansprouts, green onions, thinly sliced white onion, Thai basil, sliced fresh chilies, lime wedges are quite common ones. Thinly shaved raw or cooked beef is placed on the noodles and hot broth poured over top. The aroma start filling your nostrils. This being Pho Bo, there are variations using tendon, tripe and meatballs. Then of course there is Pho Ga which is made with chicken opposed to beef.
Bun Cha – 1 Hang Manh, Hanoi – I discovered this my first day back for lunch. I don’t know how I missed this the first time, but I was kicking myself for it now. At least I found it early this time. Believed to have originated in Hanoi, it is less common throughout the rest of the country. A look at the dish and it doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to it. Simple flavours but the balance of those is not easy. A plate of cold ‘bun’ rice noodles different from Pho, these more like the shape of spaghetti and linguine along with a heap of Vietnamese herbs and greens (served with just about everything). Then comes the bowl of room temperature broth, sweet and sour based on vinegar, sugar and fish sauce. Floating in it are char grilled slices of pork belly, mini minced pork paddies and thinly sliced green papaya. A plate of sliced chilies, garlic and lime is never too far away to add at will. Some people would get another bowl and mix everything together bit by bit, while others would just dip the noodles and herbs in with the pork. Whatever works, just be sure to give it a try.
Note: The address above also serves crispy and succulent Nem Cua Be (crabmeat spring rolls).
Bun Thang – This soup is similar to Pho Ga, same same, but different. It uses the rice noodle (bun) same as used in Bun Cha. Placed separately on the top an array of shredded chicken, pork roll, herbs/green onions, sliced omelette, mushrooms and a small dollop of shrimp paste. This gives the broth its unique flavour as it is mixed in. Not overpowering, but a touch of depth.
Bun Rieu – 11 Hang Bac, Hanoi – A nice change in the soup department instead of Pho all the time (not that it’s a bad thing). Using the ‘bun’ rice noodles this soup is with a crab and tomato broth with a touch of sourness, generally using tamarind or lime. The paddy crabs are used to make both the broth and the crab like cakes floating in the red orange liquid. Fried tofu and green onions thrown on top to add to its glory. Sure enough, before I could take a bite, the chili paste and fresh herbs that are always there were pushed my way. There is a couple variations of this dish. ‘Bun Oc’ is one of them to look out for done with snails opposed to crab.
Bun Bo Nam Bo – 67 Hang Dieu, Hanoi – A beef noodle dish that happens to be one of my favorites. Translating to ‘beef noodles in the south,’ it may not have originated in the north, but is still abundant everywhere. Using the ‘bun’ rice noodles again, they were placed room temperature on top of the typical greens and herbs. Carrot, papaya, beansprouts, fried shallots and garlic set over the noodles, followed by cooked tender strips of beef. A warm beef jus vinaigrette is drizzled over top to pool slightly in the bottom and then let’s not forget the roasted peanuts. This dish would often be my appetizer before going to walk the streets for more, but the first time I had it, it turned into 2 bowls and my dinner.
Banh Mi – Now in my own opinion this is the best sandwich in the world. I have other favorites, but this one trumps them all. A quality bread is essential in a sandwich. The baguette being introduced in the colonial period and tweaked a bit as most cultures do. Light and airy with a thinner but crispy crust. The fillings from there vary from shop to shop. Multiple parts of the glorious pig generally end up on it. Pork belly, grilled pork, Vietnamese sausage, pork liver pate and pork floss naming some. Variants to this could have chicken, egg and tofu. Then there is the fresh vegetables and sauces that bring it to life. Thinly sliced cucumber, greens/herbs, shredded pickled carrot and daikon, chili sauce, mayonnaise. Not one stand being the same, always on the go and rarely more than a dollar. Although my most favoured Banh Mi is not in Hanoi, but in Hoi An they can be found country wide.
Xoi Xeo – Restaurant called Xoi Yen, 35b Nguyen Huu Huan, Hanoi – Another of the dishes I missed my first time around and was blown away when I found it. It was a 3 or 4 storey restaurant on the corner. Outside on the main floor, production is happening like a fine tuned assembly line, loaded bowls flying out. The place is packed, mainly locals. Organized chaos as people are trying to run down with orders and up with food. Not knowing what to expect, I thought I’d start basic and build from there. I ordered the regular Xoi Xeo with chicken. I didn’t wait long and there it was. Sticky rice with turmeric to give it a pale yellow colour on the bottom. Next was a pastel yellow mung bean paste that had been pressed and shaved thinly over the rice. Sliced chicken and a spoonful of fried shallots to finish up one of the most seemingly simple dishes yet so intricate in flavour and textures. A whole assortment of accompaniments can be chosen from. My second bowl had crispy pork belly and Chinese sausage.
Banh Goi – a.k.a Pillow Cakes – A Vietnamese empanada, these are great for a mid-afternoon savory snack. A light tender dough filled with seasoned minced pork mixed with glass noodles and mushrooms. A light sweet and sour dipping sauce with green papaya, garlic and chilies.
Nom Bo Kho – 23 Ho Hoan Kiem, Hanoi – A dried beef salad, this is a popular snack. A salad of crisp julienned green papaya, carrot and coarsely torn greens/herbs mixed with a dressing primarily of vinegar, sugar, chili, fish and soy sauce. The dried beef is cut into chucks on top with a spoonful of roasted peanuts. The textures in this salad play off each other. The crunch of peanuts, crispness of papaya, chewiness of the dried beef and the fresh delicate herbs. This salad gives the Thai and Laotian som tam (papaya salad) a good run for its money.
Fruit vendors – As anywhere in any part of Asia I have traveled the fruit is abundant, fresh, diverse, local and seasonal. This is true of Hanoi as well. Markets and portable street vendors are set up all over the city. Some set up on street corners, some carrying it over their shoulder with bamboo and some with baskets on the back of their bikes. No matter where you are, you are never too far away from one of these vendors and their array of fruits, so stop one and try out what’s seasonal.
Vietnamese Egg Coffee – In many of the cafés throughout Hanoi where it first originated, this unique coffee can be found. It is made by tempering the egg yolks with sugar and coffee. The coffee poured out is almost more of an egg foam. When I had my first one, it was so thick I ate it with a spoon. Liquid tiramisu. Condensed milk and apparently cheese can also be added to this concoction. It’s a must try, but personally prefer my regular Vietnamese coffee.
Balut – For those of you who don’t know, Balut is the fertilized developing duck embryo. Sounds appetizing, I know. It’s commonly sold as street food in the Philippines and south-east Asia. If munching down on some duck fetus isn’t your thing just think of it as a hard-boiled egg. The age at which it is boiled is a matter of local preference. How old do you like your fetus? I’ve read in the Philippines it’s around 15-17 days, and Vietnam 19-21, where the bones have started to develop but are still tender. Looks kind of like an alien egg or maybe a cancerous testicle, I can see why foreigners steer clear of it, but like they say about people the beauties on the inside. Depending on the country there is different condiments. With mine there was salt, ginger and Vietnamese mint. I’m unsure of the age of the one I ate, but no bones were present. It has a similar flavour to any other egg, but it’s much richer. The yolk is quite creamy. Just avoid looking at it in all its veiny delight and when you’re all done slurp back the juice that comes with it.
Snake and Dog – Another couple for the not faint of heart. As much as people may not want to believe dog is eaten in parts of the world, it is. I know many would and will stay clear of this and unfortunately I have not had the luck of trying this yet. I just suggest for the adventurous eater to search this out. I will be when I return again.
The snake meal is an experience and one of the most unique meals I’ve had. I have done this a total of three times and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity each time. It starts with the eating of the beating heart followed by shots of blood and bile mixed with rice whiskey. Shortly after a spread of 6 to 12 dishes are brought out for everyone to share. I have previously written a post about my experience the second time I went to the snake village in Hanoi. Link at the bottom.
Worst meal – Now when I say worst meal, I don’t mean as I had more than one. This was truly the only dish I tried that I didn’t enjoy which caught me by surprise. A little street joint, typical signs of a good meal to come. Small stools, shorter than needed tables, too many people crammed in too small of place and full of locals. Weaselling our way to a seat I ordered fried noodles with greens and pigeon hearts and gizzards. I was excited having chicken offal before but never pigeon in particular. When the plate arrived it looked like a blob of below average instant noodles with greens and pigeon bits throughout. It tasted as such to and I ended up just picking out the pigeon and greens.
Vietnam is a foodie’s paradise from north to south and should be on anyone’s list if you travel for food. All the food nowadays can be found more or less everywhere throughout the country varying from place to place. All the food originated somewhere and going there is always best. Just throw out your inhibitions of the foreign and exotic and start eating out the world.
Snakes On A Plate – Link to my previous post about the snake village