Wanderlust Wednesday: 5 Must-Try Dishes Hanoi, Vietnam
Welcome back to Wanderlust Wednesday: today we’re heading East to Hanoi, Vietnam, where Mattie and I spent a week last Fall celebrating our anniversary (we stopped here before heading to Chiang Mai).
It’s difficult to describe Hanoi–it’s a city unlike any place I’ve ever been. Chaos is the first word that comes to mind. But beautiful chaos. Charming chaos. And, most importantly, delicious chaos.
The city is crowded, motorbikes and cars and people swarming the busy streets at all hours of the day. Truly, crossing the street has never been so exciting.
And there is more food here than I’ve ever seen. Seemingly, every single business, including non-food-related, sells food in Hanoi–laundromats, gas stations, shops and, of course, street vendors–almost all of it out on display on the sidewalks and open-air markets.
Food is everywhere–there are even women butchering animals as they sit cross-legged on the ground—and no matter what time it is, people are lining the streets, often seated in mini plastic chairs more suited for a toddler or oversized baby doll, eating something. Hanoi has a decidedly grazing culture, and people eat nonstop.
You can smell the freshness–a necessitous city, there’s no refrigeration or air conditioning in most of Hanoi, so everything is INCREDIBLY fresh. The meat sold at the market comes from animals that were walking around that day. The produce is super seasonal, uber ripe and brought in daily. The aromas are pungent and intoxicating.
Heads up: you will see dog meat at the markets here, not to mention women squishing brains out of frogs, eels and snakes, insects and even silkworms (we’re told it’s the protein of the future…fingers crossed that’s a myth). Hanoi brings new meaning to the trendy “no waste cooking philosophy” American chefs espouse when they use the beet greens to make pesto…here every single part of the animal is eaten, so a trip to Hanoi is not for the squeamish or unadventurous.
To be honest, between the sheer amount of food and butchering happening everywhere you look in Hanoi, it’s a bit overwhelming and certainly intimidating, particularly when you don’t speak the language (not many people speak English here). As a visitor, how do we decide where to eat with limitless options? Was every place as good as the next, as clean and safe, as authentic?
Thank God for the Hanoi Cooking Centre. We signed up for a food tour with their Australian guide, Tracy, and she showed us the best eats in Hanoi. I highly recommend starting your trip with a food tour and then taking what you’ve learned about Vietnamese food and Hanoi’s dining scene and exploring on your own afterward.
To help, I’ve rounded up the five must-try dishes in Hanoi:
It wouldn’t be a trip to Vietnam without slurping some Phở, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup that’s been popularized in America in recent years. But most of the Phở you’ll find in the U.S. is in Southern Vietnamese style. In Hanoi’s Northern version, the noodles are wider, the broth less sweet and chicken (Phở Gà) is just as popular as beef (Phở Bò).
Garnished with lots of green onions, vinegar, fish sauce and chiles, Phở is served by street vendors, most often eaten at breakfast (though it’s pretty much devoured 24/7). You can find amazing Phở just about anywhere in Hanoi (exhibit A: the below photo is from a rest stop in the countryside, the Vietnamese equivalent of Cracker Barrel), but one of the best spots we tried was just across the street from the Hanoi Cooking Centre (pictured above).
Easily one of the best meals we had our entire trip happened in a narrow alley near Dong Xuan Market–a spot we never would’ve found without our amazing tour guide. Here we discovered two iconic Hanoi dishes–the first being Bún chả, charcoal-grilled fatty pork served over rice noodles with fresh herbs and intensely-flavored dipping sauce. This dish is the perfect example of Vietnamese simplicity at its best. The second dish we unearthed here wound up being my favorite plate of all:
Essentially a Vietnamese crunchwrap supreme, Bánh xèo is made with a turmeric crispy rice pancake brimming with bean sprouts, shell-on prawns (the crunch from the shell is ADDICTING!), tender pork, mounds of fresh herbs, and, the pièce de résistance: fresh rice paper rolls. In the States, we really only see the dehydrated rice paper wrappers, but the fresh version in Hanoi, so perfectly soft and chewy, was such a revelation.
Bánh xèo hits all the right notes for me: it’s a dish full of contrast, in textures, flavors and temperatures, so incredibly unique and special. We ordered it throughout the trip every single time we saw it on a menu. One of our favorite spots was Quan An Ngon, a brilliant restaurant that combines Hanoi’s best street food vendors all under one roof, so you can try a little bit of everything in one sitting (pictured above).
Cha Ca La Vong
My friend Chris Shepherd (he’s the mastermind chef behind Houston’s Underbelly) told me about this incredible fish restaurant in Hanoi before our trip, and it was so good I even wound up writing about this iconic spot for Travel + Leisure (check it out in the January issue). Here’s the skinny:
There’s only one dish served here: Cha Ca. It’s $7. It’ll blow your mind. Grilled fish marinated in turmeric and dill is brought to your table in a rickety burner where you finish frying it yourself before dumping a huge plate of green onions, mint and dill on top, resulting in a flavor bomb that you add to a little bowl of noodles with some peanuts, fish sauce and more herbs.
There’s no conversation about it, no fuss. They just do one thing and they do it really, really well. That doesn’t exist here in the States, but that’s Vietnam. It’s all unassuming, hole-in-the-wall spots that have mastered one dish, and that dish will change. your. life.
When it was time for second breakfast (yes, this is a real thing in Hanoi!), our tour guide brought us to this incredible spot where we mingled with the early morning workers over plates of Bánh cuốn. Made from a thin, wide sheet of steamed fermented rice batter, this is essentially a savory crepe stuffed with ground pork and mushrooms, piled high with crispy shallots, dried shrimp and fresh herbs, best dunked in briny fish sauce. Perfection!
BONUS: Vietnamese Iced Coffee
At least five times a day, we had to stop and refuel with decadent Vietnamese iced coffee. You can find this rich treat (the uber potent coarsely ground dark roast coffee is bathed in sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice) EVERYWHERE, but the best version we tried was at an intimate spot called Cafe Duy Tri–go for the yogurt coffee, a tangy rendition of one of my favorite desserts, affagato.
As we wandered along the streets, eating sweet water chestnuts, young green sticky rice and candied plums, we kept an eye out for coffee stops with a view. Our go-to, Cafe Pho Co, where egg coffee (whipped egg whites are stirred into your coffee like a sweet meringue) is best sipped on the rooftop alongside tangy jerky.
Have you been to Hanoi? Share your story and favorite dishes in the comments!
Photo credit: Matt Kordsmeier
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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