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An Outsider’s Guide to Hanoi’s Food Scene

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International Correspondent Lori Zaino ate her way through Northern Vietnam during her recent five week trip to Asia. We asked her to share some of her favorite spots in Hanoi with TPG Readers. Bon appetit!

Lucky for me, I can’t get enough spice in my life and I love sampling new things, making Hanoi, Vietnam a paradise for my palate. The wonderful thing about eating your way through Hanoi is that you can do so at any budget. I mainly opted for street food, as well as some nicer sit down restaurants. However, I didn’t go the high end route. My restaurant list was compiled by a combination of my own personal research, roaming the winding streets and a little help from the Hanoi Kids.

The Hanoi Kids is a youth group in Hanoi whose members offer free tours of the city, in hopes of expanding their cultural knowledge, as well as improving their English. We heard about this through friends and were thrilled to try it out–and anyone planning a visit to Hanoi should do the same.

Our two university student guides, Viet and Tung, gave us a truly insider tour of Hanoi, which included not only many major attractions, but also told us about their families, their lives and gave us profound cultural insight on all aspects of Vietnam living. They also recommended the best street food spot for sticky rice–and it may just have been the most amazing thing I’ve ever eaten (see Xoi Yen below).

Hanoi is a wonderful place to be if you love food. Shutterstock.
Hanoi is a wonderful place to be if you love food. Image courtesty of Shutterstock.

Note: Since my trip, Hanoi Kids has actually started giving street food evening tours in addition to their daytime sightseeing tours, something I wish would have been available during my trip.

Xôi Yến, 35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân Street Food – Sticky Rice Heaven

Sticky rice
Sticky rice at Xoi Yen

A filling, enjoyable meal for just a couple US dollars–you can’t beat it! Xoi Yen is a street food vendor that always seems to be busy–their handful of tables are filled with hungry Vietnamese locals and the occasional well-informed tourist. Order sticky rice (often called sweet rice or glutinous rice, this type of rice is used in both sweet and savory Asian dishes, and is named for it’s sticky texture due to the total or near absence of the starch amylose), then choose your topping, like boiled chicken, pork, maize, fried shallots or seafood. Sit on the small plastic chairs and watch the motos and the world go by as you happily consume what may be one of Vietnam’s most delicious bites. Beware, not much English is spoken here, although their is an English menu. Note: If you have food allergies or you’re picky, this may not be your spot.

Ming Thuy’s – Affordable, Home Cooked Meals

Vegetable and meat crepes at Minh Thuy's
Vegetable and meat crepes at Minh Thuy’s

Ming Thuy’s is a step up from street food, but still won’t break your bank. When I walked past, it was full of happy, chattering people, and I somehow knew it would be a good spot. I later realized that one of the MasterChef Vietnam Season One top contestant’s, Nguyen Minh Thuy started the restaurant with her family. The cuisine is interesting and creative, mixing German dishes with Vietnamese flavors. Try the fish cakes or peanut chicken and order a beer for about 50 cents. The delicious and fresh cuisine makes up for anything lacking in the decor or ambiance department.

Highway Four – A Modern Eating “Experience”

Sit on cool wooden benches at Highway Four
Sit on cool wooden benches at Highway Four
IMG_8167
Try the free range chicken with cashews at Highway Four

This modern eatery is popular with Hanoi’s locals and has several locations within the city. The name comes from the network of strategically important routes that wind along much of the length of the Sino-Vietnamese border. Try the Bo Boc Ba (beef), the Dau phu Chien Trung Moui (tofu) or the Luon Ga Chan Tha Xao Hat Dieu (Free Range Chicken and Cashews). Highway Four’s emphasis on environmental awareness combined with their cool, half-floor, half-chair bench seating (you must take off your shoes and place them in the drawers within the benches) makes for a fresh and trendy atmosphere. Cooking classes are also available here.

La – Intimate, Romantic & Quaint

They made sure to give me extra spicy sauce at La
They made sure to give me extra spicy sauce at La

I discovered La while strolling through the Old Quarter. This is a charming eatery for a romantic dinner or an intimate gathering of friends or family. Its cozy atmosphere immediately drew me in. The Thit Nuong Dim Tieu, which is braised pork cooked in a clay pot, melts in your mouth, and the salted caramel potau creme dessert is mind-blowing–the perfect  mix of sweet and salty. They even accommodated me when I requested extra hot peppers. Warning: This spot is not for delicate taste buds. I say, bring on the spice!

Little Black Duck – Duck Lovers Unite!

The duck pancake was delicious
The duck pancake was delicious
Our own private rooftop table at Little Black Duck
Our own private rooftop table at Little Black Duck

I was hoping to eat some duck during my trip, and Little Black Duck seemed to be the winning spot. Any of their duck options are phenomenal and I especially enjoyed the Banh Xeo pancake. It’s often difficult to get a quality duck dish, as many times I find the meat tough or chewy. This was not the case here, as my stir friend duck melted in my mouth. Savory and cooked just right, my duck craving was finally satisfied.

We also received excellent service here. I read online that they had a rooftop terrace, but it wasn’t mentioned when we got there and they didn’t seem to be seating anyone up top. We asked our waiter if we could have dessert and an after dinner cocktail on the  mysterious roof. They said it was closed, but in the end, they set up a table for us. It was a beautiful spot to see the rooftops of Hanoi and just enjoy a hot summer evening.

Quan An Ngon – An Authentic Experience

Quan An Ngon is a slightly pricier, high-end  option, though still extremely reasonable for lunch or dinner by American standards. Here, we sampled the incredible Bun Cha (one of Hanoi’s most popular pork dishes), Nem cua be (spring rolls) and the Banh Xeo Nhan Bo (beef pancake). The Bun Cha was amazingly fresh, and the waitress actually takes the steaming pork off the skewers right in front of you at the table as you salivate, anxiously waiting to dive in. The deserts, different types of Asian fruits and jellies with rice, were very authentic and fun to sample.

Marilyn’s Coffee – Get Your Cafe Da Fix

Try some traditional Vietnamese iced coffee at Marilyn's
Try some traditional Vietnamese iced coffee at Marilyn’s

Vietnamese iced coffee, Cafe da, is famous around the world for its intense flavor.  The special drink is made from ground Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee, individually brewed with small, metal French drip filters. After it’s poured into a cup, condensed milk is added, making it extra sweet. Although it’s not for everyone, you should definitely at least try it during a trip to Hanoi, and my favorite spot to do this was at Marilyn’s Coffee. Head upstairs and sit on the terrace, enjoying the views of cathedrals, the noise and bustle of the city streets and lots of wires. Hanoi’s famous for its hanging wires all over the city–above almost every street has a tangled mess of power cables & electric wiring harrowingly balanced high above. If Marilyn’s is full, La Place next door also brews up some strong cafe da.

Electric wires draped above the streets (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)
Electric wires draped above the streets. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Tips

  • Remember, when traveling abroad, make sure you have a credit card  that offers double points on dining and no foreign transaction fees like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
  • Also keep in mind that street food vendors and small restaurants (some of the ones mentioned above) won’t even take a credit card, so be prepared with local currency just in case.
  • When eating adventurously, use your best judgement. Street food is generally safe, but if something looks as if it’s been sitting out in the sun all day, go with your gut. Be smart and enjoy! (However, bringing Tums is never a bad idea).

*Note: I did not include Pho on this list, because according to most locals in Hanoi, this isn’t actually the best nor the most popular thing to eat there. I was told to “eat pho in New York City” and sample other dishes in Vietnam. However, if you fancy some Pho, some of the above restaurants I listed do offer it.

Do you have any favorite foods or spots to eat at in Hanoi? Please share in the comments section below. 

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