What (and Where) to Eat: Hanoi & Hue, Vietnam
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
If you're reading this, I presume you are already quite aware of the just how good the food is in Hanoi, Vietnam. I am no scholar on Vietnamese cuisine -- these dishes go back decades, centuries even, and one could spend a lifetime studying just one region of Vietnamese gastronomy, only to scratch the surface of these deep waters in the end. What I am, however, is a guy who loves to eat and loves to travel, with a particular passion for exploring the ties between food, culture, and history. My goal is simply to provide you, fellow enthusiast, with information about where you can find some awesome food, far away from the tourists, served by local, friendly people. A means of experiencing a more-real Vietnamese culture, if you will. So let's get into it.
Eating anywhere throughout Vietnam is spectacular. Hell, let's just expand that to all of southeast Asia. But Hanoi, for some reason or another, seems different. Street food is ubiquitous here, with very simple, centuries-old recipes prepared by honest cooks, and their food is outstanding. The experience of sitting on a low plastic stool eating a steaming bowl of noodles in broth with motorbikes racing past you in (literally) every direction, the endless honking of horns and careen of people... it transports you.
Eating to me is so much more than just the food; of course, I love a good meal. But the experience adds to the meal, almost as much, if not more, than the food itself. I could stand in my kitchen and make bun cha for hours, nay days, perfecting every nuanced detail, getting those crispy pork patties just right. But sitting at my kitchen table slurping those room-temperature noodles and munching down some crispy pork patties... it will be lacking, entirely, to the experience of sitting beneath a street awning during a downpour in Hanoi, listening to the rain and smelling the motorbike exhaust. Eating is visceral, it's special. And nowhere else on earth is that more evident than in Hanoi.
1. Bún Chả
If there is one iconic dish that screams Hanoi, it's bún chả (which, as it stands, is now my favorite food). Bún chả is a noodle dish (bún = rice vermicelli), but unlike many other noodle-soups or dishes you'll have throughout Vietnam, the bún of bún chả is served room temperature. Indeed, the dish itself is not hot, aside from the grilled pork patties. It goes like this: you'll be given multiple things, and it is your job, nascent tourist, to put them all together in a tiny little bowl and eat it. You will have a large plate of room-temperature bún, and you hack off a big chunk of that and place into your bowl containing nước chấm, which is essentially a combination of fish sauce, chilis, vinegar, pickled vegetables, and sugar. Add to that pork patties and pork belly grilled over charcoal, a healthy serving of chilis and chili paste, and fresh herbs that are found on basically any table in any restaurant in Vietnam. Add an ice cold Bia Hanoi or Bia Saigon and it's basically food heaven. One last thing: DO NOT order this without a side dish of nem, a crispy, fried Vietnamese spring roll consisting of pork, prawns, and spices. They are cheap, they are awesome, and they are found everywhere that serves bún chả.
My favorite bún chả in Hanoi: 34 Hàng Than, Ba Đình, Hanoi
You are sure to find this place packed with locals at lunchtime. Get there early if you want a seat outside. Remember -- nem.
2. Phở Bo
Ahhh yes, the Vietnamese classic beloved by tourists and locals alike. That delicious, steaming bowl of rice noodles (pho), hearty broth, meat, chilis, fish sauce, and vegetables. You know it well, or perhaps you thought you did. I sure did.. until I ate it in Vietnam. You may be inclined to skip over this section, lamenting "yea, yea but I've had pho." I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and I spent the better part of the last decade living in Philly proper. There is a huge Vietnamese population in south Philly, and consequently, there is never a shortage over insanely delicious pho restaurants (side note: If you're ever in Philadelphia and looking for awesome pho, take your pick at like 10 different restaurants at the intersection of Washington Ave and south 11th st.)
As you've probably guessed by now, I'm going to tell you that the pho is Vietnam is different; it's better, it's more authentic. All of that is true. It is better, and I cannot tell you why. What I can tell you are some amazing places in Hanoi to find it. Phở bo is pho with beef, pho gà is pho with chicken. You will see much more varieties of pho in Vietnam, but these are easily the two most popular, and point blank, pho bo may sound kinda boring, but if you go to the right spot, it is mindblowingly good. I honestly cannot think of a better breakfast than sitting on the street in Vietnam gulping down some hot pho.
The bomb phở bo in Hanoi: 10 Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
3. Bún ốc
This was a personal favorite of mine during my time in Hanoi. Another noodle soup (are you seeing a pattern?) consisting of bún in a broth with snails, tomatoes, chili oil, and herbs. This dish may not be for everyone -- the snails, although delicious, have a texture similar to that of clams, although perhaps a bit more rubbery. Much like bún cha, however, it is a Hanoi staple, and you really should give it a go if you're traveling through the city.
Address: 36 Lương Ngọc Quyến, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
4. Bún Riêu Cua
Bún riêu cua is essentially rice vermicelli with clams. It's a fantastic dish consisting of bún in a tomato/clam broth with tomatoes, tofu, minced clams, and scallions. Traditionally it's served as a breakfast dish, easily found throughout Hanoi in the early morning. (Side note: Hanoi is a very early rising city, and usually by 0630, the city is in full swing. All of these places I'm recommending will be busiest between 0600 - 0800, and that is definitely the best time to go).
Address: 11 Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
5. Bún Cá
Bún Cá is simply rice vermicelli with fish (Cá = Fish). It's served in a broth (you knew that by now) with tomatoes, herbs, and chilis. Now, what type of fish and how that fish is prepared (grilled vs fried vs baked) is going to vary tremendously depending on where you eat. And unless you have at least a working knowledge of Vietnamese, you will probably never know, exactly, what type of fish it is. But, is there really anything more exciting than eating a phenomenal dish in a foreign country and never being quite sure of what it is? I think not.
6. Cà Phê Sữa Nóng
Coffee. Ok, not food per se, but Vietnamese coffee is so astoundingly delicious that it requires mention here. Vietnamese coffee is traditionally served very strong -- brewed primarily with robusta beans -- and although there are several ways in which it can be served, I would highly recommend trying the traditional version where it is brewed and dripped over a hefty serving of sweetened condensed milk. Mixing the coffee in, it literally takes on the flavor of a dark chocolate, and it is soooo amazing. Once you've tried Vietnamese coffee, all coffee you have from thence forward will seem, kinda... boring. Locals often pull up on their motorbike outside coffee shops/stands, a quick exchange between cash and bag-o-coffee ensues, and they're on their way. You can have it hot or iced, and both styles are traditionally drunk throughout Vietnam. There is another variety, however, that you'll find throughout the country -- cà phê trứng. It is basically traditional Vietnamese coffee with the addition of a whipped egg yolk mixed in to create a frothy, beige drink that you will instantly fall in love with, frequently asking yourself "Where has this been all my life?!"
You will find sooo many coffee shops around Hanoi -- Vietnam is a coffee-obsessed culture. However, if you want a no-frills, straight-up awesome cup of coffee at a packed local joint, try the coffee stand at the address listed below. You will not be disappointed, fellow coffee enthusiast.
Address: 24D Tạ Hiện, Hàng Bạc, Hanoi
7. Bún bò Huế
This is a dish you are probably unlikely to find in Hanoi, but it is ubiquitous in Hue, as the name suggests. Hue is a large city on the central coast of Vietnam, a place that served as the capital until 1945 and seat of the Nguyen Dyanasty back in the day. For the American history enthusiasts out there, it was home to some of the most violent, destructive, and painful fighting during the Vietnam War. Bún bò Huế holds status in Hue similar to that of bún cha in Hanoi. It is an extraordinary dish consisting of bún, beef and pork, congealed pork blood, chili paste, and herbs served in a rich lemongrass broth.
There are many places throughout Hue that you will Bún bò Huế, but I highly encourage to find this woman located in Dong Ba Market. Dong Ba Market is a sprawling, absolutely massive labyrinth of food stalls and other goods located just over the Perfume River to the north of Hue's city center; read my blog post here to learn more about Dong Ba Market. I'm not going to pretend I found this incredible meal on my own (that credit goes to the late and great Anthony Bourdain), however, it did take some serious persistence to hunt her down in the maze that is Dong Ba market. Do yourself a favor and find her inside this market, eat her food... you will not be disappointed.
8. Cơm Hến
Cơm hến is another Hue specialty, a dish you are unlikely to find elsewhere in Vietnam. There are many, many reasons to visit Hue on your trip to Vietnam, including the history, lovely people, and Citadel, which was the former imperial walled city when Hue was still the capital of Vietnam. However, this dish alone is sufficient reason enough for visiting Hue. Traditionally served with white rice, the dish consists of local clams, fried pork cracklings, roasted peanuts, chilis, and herbs; you can also have it served over bún. You finish the dish with some fish sauce, hot clam broth, and chili flakes.
Address: Corner of Ba Trieu and Duong Van An, Hue