I was speaking to a local Hanoian girl about the street food in Vietnam, and she was really surprised that we were infatuated with the scene, and that our quest to find the top 10 street food eateries in Hanoi was one of the main pleasures of being in Hanoi. I asked why she was surprised, and she exclaimed that she thought that foreigners had a perception that street food stalls were dirty and therefore not safe to eat in. To a point I could understand her view, and indeed we have come across some tourists that have complained about ‘this and that’ regarding street food, but in reality there are plenty of tourists that are more than game to try what this great city has to offer. I have to admit that the first immediate thought was of slight trepidation at eating street food, and I have experience of India where indeed it is a little like Russian roulette. However, over the last few weeks we have eaten at many street food stalls and have been utterly and completely bowled over at the most brilliant, brilliant food here.
In my previous post about the 10 must eat street food experiences I wrote about the first two on the list, according to Lonely Planet (and I do believe that Lonely Planet would have attained this list from other sources), which were great. I am glad to say, however, that I have amended the list slightly, purely as a result of local knowledge based outside of the Old Quarters, and I am now ready to nearly complete the list.
So to carry on from the last post we have number three, which is one of our discoveries, and one that has become a ‘local’ now; located in the Old Quarters. This was our first experience of eating at a place that we had stumbled upon, and not read about or been had been recommended to us. They offer a few dishes, but the one I am going to list here is bun thang.
Bun is the name for thin rice noodles which are thinner than pho. This dish is a chicken broth with chicken, bun, thinly sliced egg, and thinly sliced pork (cha lua) and garnished with hot chilli, herbs, bean shoots and lime. It was recommended by the stall owner, a young fellow who stands at the front of the shop commanding his troops like the captain of a steady ship. I concurred with his recommendation. All four of us have eaten at this place a few times, and once when I turned up with just the kids, he jokingly refused to let us in as he cried “madame, where is madame?” – that’s my wife just in case you were wondering.
Number four goes to a place called Bun Bo Nam Bo, their speciality being Bun Bo – a dish comprised of dry noodles and beef mixed in with bean shoots, mint, lettuce, perilla leaves, lemongrass, peanuts, fried shallots and green mango. This dish apparently derives from southern Vietnam, but I can tell you that it surely has travelled well.
We had just come from a long walk on a wet day to see the mausoleum containing Ho Chi Minh – we arrived too late as it was shut – and we were hungry. The simplicity that greeted us, therefore, was great. We walked in, the waitress counted four of us and held up four fingers, I nodded, we sat down, and within a minute were tucking into bowls of Nam Bo – the more we eat in Hanoi, the more we love it.
The fifth place in the must eat guide goes to a breakfast place that was recommended by our Vietnamese hosts, and was spitting distance from our apartment. Breakfast is very much a major a part of a Hanoian’s day, and with food as delectable as this it is no wonder why.
Banh cuon is a pancake that is made over steam from rice powder and water. It is then filled with a pork and wood ear mushroom mixture, cut into bite-sized pieces and then garnished with fried shallots, pork floss and coriander. The crucial finishing touch is the dipping broth that accompanies banh cuon; it’s a broth with fish sauce and sugar and contains pickled vegetables. This is a true locals place, and the feel of satisfaction having mimed my way through ordering and paying always adds a gloss to the great food. And of course there are smiles abound when my daughter says cam on, tam biet.
Eel three ways is the sixth must eat street food experience. I had spent a day on my own exploring some of Hanoi’s sights including the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university, built in 1070, when the grumbles and pangs indicated a spot of tiffin was due. Mien luon is a classic in Hanoi – it’s another broth based dish with vermicelli noodles and fried eel.
I also had sup luon, a gloopy but equally delicious eel soup, and cha luon which was another variation on the fried eel, this time served dry with herbs and lettuce. Most food here fills you, and you are left with a healthy and fresh feeling afterwards – it’s quite invigorating.
Number seven is the one that didn’t resonate with any of us. This was not to say that the food was poor, in fact on the contrary. It’s just that on a personal level, and I know this of my other half and kids, I am just not accustomed to Vietnamese desserts. But to say this it was first necessary to try them. The place we tried is known as ‘Che’ which is a general Vietnamese term for a dessert soup, sweet drink or a pudding.
We tried che dau xanh, a green bean (mung bean) compote; che com, a green sticky rice compote; and kem caramen, a caramel custard with a dark bitter-sweet caramel syrup. In terms of innovation and taste they were good. I think it was mainly the texture of the desserts that we couldn’t accustom ourselves to. Look, if you have taste for Vietnamese desserts then this was definitely the place for you.
Again, an unassuming street food stall greeted us from the façade, but once we walked in it was a three storey haven of activity. This next experience and number 8 in the list must go down as one of our absolute favourites; a classic Hanoian dish, bun cha. We have walked many, many kilometres/ miles around Hanoi and in every corner, every alleyway, every street, in fact just about everywhere, there is the smoky, chargrilled aroma of minced pork patties being cooked, and in the cool winter of Hanoi it has to be the most welcoming and comforting smell. We had just visited the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh for a second time; this time is was open. As a side note, we saw the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, the much revered and loved leader of Vietnam who helped free Vietnam from French colonialism and introduced communism to the country. His body is now about 44 years old and is preserved for all to see.
The viewing of the body is a military style operation, with guards posted every 5 metres in their snowy white uniforms, as visitors walk around the glass casing that houses Uncle Ho (as he is locally known). I have never seen anything like this before, and I found it hard to put in to words what it felt like; I can best describe it as eerie yet peaceful, and disturbing yet moving.
Anyway, back on to the bun cha; the dish consisted of grilled pork patties in a sweet and salty broth containing pickled vegetables, a plate of fresh thin rice noodles and a plate of Vietnamese herbs and greens.
The noodles, herbs and greens are then bit by bit dropped into the broth, which is then finished with a little chilli and a squeeze of lime. For me it was the most thrilling taste sensation of all the street food I had eaten.
Finally, for this post, is street food experience number 9; bun rieu cua. This is a tomato based broth with tiny rice paddy crabs (cua) and noodles (noodles) topped with a shrimp paste, chilli, fried shallots and crushed garlic, and is only found in Hanoi. It is also only served at breakfast time which occurs between 7-9am, so it was an early start for the family to ensure we managed to immerse ourselves in what can only be described as another wonderful dish.
Again and again, we turn up at a place and look at it thinking ‘should we’ and are then completely amazed at how great it is. For me this one was the biggest surprise.
What finally awaits, and will complete the list of 10 best street food experiences in Hanoi, is what is locally known as the best Pho in Hanoi. We are saving this to last, and as I said in the prelude to our Vietnam trip, one of the aims was to find and eat the best Pho in Hanoi. We have eaten much Pho over the last few weeks, and I think categorically I will be able to say whether the ‘best’ Pho in Hanoi actually exists, or whether most Pho in Hanoi is the ‘best’ Pho. I will keep you posted, as it were.