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Where to eat in Hanoi

Where to eat in Hanoi

In Vietnam’s capital city, the best restaurants are also the cheapest

In Vietnam’s capital city, the best restaurants are also the cheapest

Sara Wheeler | June 8th 2018

Everyone can cook in Hanoi. Once, I hired a bike and returned to the cycle shop just as the staff were about to eat. They invited me to join them for a bowl of phở bo – thickish rice noodles with beef and greens in a broth flavoured with star anis, cinnamon and coriander. It emerged that the cook was off that day, so this delicious food had been prepared at the back of the shop by their bike mechanic.

In Hanoi you can get food anywhere. On Hang Be in the heart of Hoán Kiĕm, the old city, a ten-year-old girl crouched in a doorway from morning till night selling bánh xèo, robust little rice-flour pancakes made with turmeric and coconut milk, wrapped around shrimp, onions and beansprouts. Her mother ferried them from a gas stove at the back of the adjacent alley.

Phở (bo means beef, but you can slurp it with chicken, shrimp, or just veg), originated near Hanoi and spread to become the national dish. It goes back only three generations though, and the name probably comes from the French feu (fire). In earlier times the Viet people didn’t slaughter cows for meat – the animals worked the fields.  

Another ubiquitous meal is bún thang: vermicelli soup with dried shrimp and egg or meat. Xôi Yến, a restaurant on a street called Nguyễn Hữu Huân, sells only xôi, sticky rice with various toppings, including little footballs of dried mung beans. It’s open-fronted, takeaway or eat-in (like most places in Hanoi), and has a red neon sign outside. Some punters don’t even get off their mopeds when they pull up to order.

Almost everything comes with a little dish of nước chấm, citrusy fish dipping sauce. Look out for the queues snaking onto the pavement when picking a café or stall – the best places always have a long one.

To reach the 100-year-old restaurant Cha Ca La Vong in Hoán Kiĕm, you have to climb a flight of creaky wooden stairs. It sells only its eponymous dish – carp or catfish from Hanoi’s Red River, marinated in turmeric and cooked in a wok over a charcoal flame at your table with dill, spring onion, red chili slices and peanuts. Punters can expect brightly lit, shared tables, brisk service – and unbelievable fish.

Naturally there are upscale restaurants too, but you’re better off at the cheaper end. If I had to choose one adjective to sum up the food in Hanoi, it would be fragrant. You can’t walk down a street without encountering pillowy clouds of garlic and coriander.

It’s hard to get away from noodles, though who would want to? I returned three times to Pho Cuon Huong Sơn in Trúc Bách for phở cuốn, rice noodle sheets rolled around ground beef. But if you do want a break from noodles, you can buy, almost anywhere, a filled Vietnamese baguette. Successive waves of  “visitors” have grafted their own cuisine onto the ancient Vietnamese dishes, palimpsest-style, and bánh mì were the gift of French colonials in Indochina. The bread is like Parisian baguettes but made with rice flour as well as wheat flour, and comes stuffed with anything, though it’s often pâté, another French contribution to the national cuisine.

Don’t miss out on bánh cuõn, fermented rice noodles served with separate bowls of pork, mushroom and shallots. Like many Vietnamese dishes, daikon (white radish), Chinese chives and sorrel are often used for flavour.And finally, the food for which this capital city is perhaps best known. At Giảng Café on Nguyễn Hữu Huâ street, I tried the fabled Hanoi cà phê trúng, a foamy blend of coffee, sugar and egg yolks, which were originally a replacement for milk, when supplies were short. Vietnamese-grown coffee beans come second only to rice in value of exported agricultural products.

Bon appetit – or as they say in Hanoi, chúc ngon miệng.