This is Part 2 of a 5-part series on eating our way through Vietnam. We spent three weeks in Vietnam, starting with Hanoi in the north, making our way down over 1,000 miles to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Click here for Part 1.
Arriving in Hanoi (Hà Nội) to a chilly 7C (45F) from a very warm southern Thailand full of cheery faces, it felt like the people here were reflecting their environment: cold (unusually cold – a two-decade low, as it turned out – thanks to a cold front from China). While simplistic, I suspect its history has a part to play. As if collectively manifesting a bipolar city character, we also met plenty of very friendly, curious and helpful locals, thus re-affirming the various shades in which history can shape each of us.
Despite the cold and our unpreparedness, we found warmth in the alleyways that exuded all kinds of wonderful aromas. We stayed warm by huddling near our apartment’s space heater, eating steaming bowls of phở on the streets, drinking bia hơi on stools on street corners and occasionally splurging on sitting indoors in one of the many cafés.
Bánh gio mật mía
Bánh gio (or bánh tro) roughly translates to “ash cake”. It’s an arduous process that involves soaking glutinous rice in water mixed with lye obtained from ashes of burned rice straws, dried grapefruit peel and other leaves, depending on the region. It culminates in being wrapped and steamed (or boiled) in banana leaves for several hours. It’s served with a thinned syrup of mật mía (molasses). I say sweet with some reservation because it’s only ever so slightly sweet, just enough to tip the scale towards not savory. Amber-hued, the cake has a smooth texture; very fragrant, it has a mild flavor.
Typically served for special occasions, like Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, you can probably find it throughout the year in some parts of the country.
We ate this on our first morning here, on our way to find phở, to stave off hunger, at a time when we had no conception of most of the foods in Vietnam.
For many, like us, phở contributed to most of our familiarity with Vietnamese cuisine. While we learned so much more of the food here, we were happy to see the ubiquity of phở for breakfast. We started pretty much every morning ordering from some vendor in some alley: hai phở bò, cảm ơn – “two bowls of phở bò, thank you”. Starting our day without a bowl of the bone broth and rice noodles felt incomplete.
We didn’t veer from ordering phở bò, which is topped with thinly sliced raw meat that cooks in the hot broth, but phở gà (with chicken) is just as common to see. Phở, like most Vietnamese dishes, is served with plenty of herbs, sprouts, pickled garlic slices, red chili slices and lime wedges. In Hanoi (and typical of other northern cities), the herbs are not always served on the side. Phở Hà Nội is distinct from what you get in the south: the broth tends to be clearer, beefy and redolent of spices like star anise and cinnamon. The broth is the star.
Vendors here are notorious for finishing bowls of noodles with heaping tablespoonfuls of monosodium glutamate. Whether MSG is bad for you is highly debatable, but if you have a strong aversion, by way of belief, science or pseudoscience, say no mì chính. (Mì chính translates to “seasoning” and not MSG. Appropriate.)
Good phở is very easy to find here, but we kept going back to our favorite phở aunty at Cơm, Phở Số 7 (literally, “rice noodles, no. 7”), for reasons of allegiance (she was the first phở place we ate at) and deliciousness.
Bánh xèo are Vietnamese pancakes made with a batter of rice flour and turmeric (lending it its yellow color), typically stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Here in the north, you typically wrap them with fresh herbs and lettuce in rice paper (bánh tráng), and dip them in nước chấm before taking a bite.
It wasn’t very easy finding bánh xèo in Hanoi, but we did find a place in the Old Quarter that was very good. The hours here seemed odd, because it wasn’t quite open for prime lunch hours and re-opened only at 2pm (listed time: 1:30pm, of course). Bánh xèo aunty sat near the entrance, on a low plastic stool, surrounded on two sides by several cast iron skillets. She presided over them confidently, meticulously cleaning empty skillets, pouring oil on skillets that needed it, pouring in rice batter when an order came in that would then instantly sizzle, methodically alternating her gaze for doneness levels on the different skillets. In typical Hanoi fashion, a high-speed fan above, held together precariously, served as a vent.
The Hanoi lunchtime air wafts of swine hitting the char: bún chả prep is in full-swing, as if by mandate of a city-wide ordinance. I wish I could bottle up all these porcine-affected sensations we experienced so I could summon up memories of this city at will.
There are a few things going on in bún chả. Each diner gets a bowl of a mix of char-grilled pork patties and grilled thinly sliced pork belly (like bacon), dunked in a lukewarm variation of nước chấm that typically includes some pickled root vegetables like carrots and daikon. This is served along with a communal plate of bún (rice noodles) and a heaping plateful of mixed fresh herbs and sprouts. The MO now is to take a mix of herbs, sprouts and bún to your liking, dunking them in your bowl and then eating along with some of the meat.
Most bún chả places also serve nem cua bể – fried crab rolls – which made for a good additional variation to dip into the sauce, helping ward off porcine monotony (although I doubt anyone would mind).
Bún Chả Tuyết (or Bún Chả 34, or Bún Chả Tuyết 34) was a serious street-food operation, their seating spanning several storefronts’ worth of sidewalk. When we had walked past the “kitchen” area (basically, one part of the sidewalk) earlier in the morning, they had already started prep for the afternoon, and now we saw why.
You find yourself a spot wherever you see empty plastic stools, place your order with the (rather impatient) older lady who races up and down the sidewalk taking orders and dishing out lunch, and several moments later a platter full of magical food appears on your table.
The pork patties here were wrapped in lá lốt leaves, something we hadn’t seen in other places. That gave it an extra herbaceous note and textural dimension, for the better.
Chả cá, a Hanoi classic, is white fish marinated in ginger and turmeric (giving it its characteristic yellow color) that’s pan-fried with dill and scallions. You eat this by serving it on top of bún (rice noodles) and garnish it with crushed peanuts, fresh Thai bird’s eye chilis, an assortment of fresh herbs and, of course, nước chấm.
The dish is also alternately called Chả Cá Lã Vọng (from the name of the restaurant where the dish originally originated, which is on Chả Cá Street), but we ate it at Chả Cá Thăng Long (also yet another alternate name for the dish). No matter which chả cá restaurant you choose, that will be the only item on the menu. The fish, as in the one we ate here, is usually freshwater snakehead, called cá lóc in Vietnamese. Pan-frying, done table-side, rendered it crispy on the outside, while the flesh inside was buttery.
Bánh cuốn are rolled thin steamed sheets of lightly fermented rice batter, filled with a mixture of ground pork, wood ear mushrooms and shallots and is eaten for breakfast. The dish is served with chả lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage) and garnished with fried shallots. Accompaniments include fresh herbs, chilis and nước chấm as a dipping sauce.
We had very good bánh cuốn near our phở lady. Look for a stand set up with two pots of boiling water covered with cloth – basically the contraption used to steam the rice batter.
Bánh chưng rán
Bánh chưng is a traditional rice cake made using glutinous rice, mung beans and pork. Bánh chưng is intricately tied to Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. In this song that we heard blasting all over Vietnam during Tết, which I became pretty obsessed with, I’m pretty sure they’re all singing the virtues of “bánh chưng, bánh chưng”. They’re visibly at least demonstrating their obsession with it.
Bánh chưng rán (or bánh chưng chiên) is basically a pan-fried bánh chưng. While bánh chưng tends to be mild in flavor and fragrant from being wrapped in banana leaves, bánh chưng rán transforms it into a bolder flavored textural wonderland. In this form, it is served doused in soy sauce, accompanied by pickled cucumbers and some hot sauce.
To spot bánh chưng rán keep an eye out for ladies in mobile stands, with bánh chưng and sausages resembling hot dogs sizzling away in a large pan. This made for a very tasty snack, but one that seemed rather elusive. We couldn’t find it outside Hanoi.
Bún bò nam bộ
Nam bộ means “southern”, and the name of this dish is what people in the north call it, roughly translating to: southern (style) beef over noodle. Beef is stir-fried with minced garlic and sprouts, then topped over bún (rice noodles), garnished with crushed peanuts and fried shallots and served with, you guessed it, nước chấm.
Bún riêu cua bò
The broth base for bún riêu is tomatoes and fermented shrimp or crab. The dish we ate seemed more of the cua – (freshwater) crab – variety. Some places will have mắm tôm – fermented shrimp paste – as one of the condiments on the table, so you can adjust for your desired pungency and funkiness.
When we couldn’t find phở bò, bún riêu became my preferred noodle soup of choice.
Bia hơi – “fresh beer”, perhaps because it is unpasteurised – is a very light lager-style beer (3% ABV) brewed locally, available in almost every street corner. I know it feels like cheating to talk about something that’s not food here, but bia hơi is such an integral part of the fabric of everyday Hanoi, it seems unfair to not talk about it. Many people generalize bia hơi to be a Vietnamese thing; while you’ll find these in other parts of Vietnam, it’s not as prevalent in other parts of the country. We saw several bia hơi spots in Saigon call themselves Bia Hơi Hà Nội, dutifully paying homage to the city that gave these their unique character.
In the manner of many of the food vendors in this city, bia hơi places are often referred to by their street number – Bia Hơi 17, for example. These beers aren’t about to make any best-of lists, but they provide a communal space to hang out in and a way to interject your food- and café-fueled day with a very very mild libation. Many of these places also serve food, that can vary widely depending on where you go.
We often took shelter in these to take a break, keep warm and watch life go by on the streets.
Other notes on Hanoi
You’ll find street food pretty much anywhere in Hanoi, but the Old Quarter has a high density of walkable streets and alleys chock-full of them. We’d stay away from the backpacker’s district. The alleys are a great place to poke into to look for food. To know if you’re in the Old Quarter, see if the street name begins with a Hàng.
See all of these locations, and more, on our Hanoi Google Map