Look beyond the overloaded bikes zipping down the streets, and past the cluttered sidewalks. Step past the women selling fruit, and gaze into the maze of alleys. Here is where you will find the heart of Hanoi: The street food joints.
They say life is lived on the streets of Hanoi. There is no better place to experience this than on a small plastic stool at a makeshift restaurant. Language, socioeconomic status, occupation…none of it has any place at a street food joint. Businessmen rub elbows with elderly fruit vendors, and families chat it up with foreigners. There is no limit on who you interact with at a street food joint.
The street food paradise of Hanoi can send your senses on a pleasant tailspin. And though I would have been content rotating between bahn mi sandwiches and bowls of pho, I knew it would be best to turn to the experts. And so, to help us branch out, we opted to start our exploration of the Hanoi food scene with a guided tour.
Our hotel concierge suggested the Food on Foot Tour. A nighttime street food experience operated by Vietnam Awesome Travel.
At 6:30 on the dot, our energetic tour guide, Chong, picked us up from the hotel. She swiftly guided us through the streets of the tourist heavy Old Quarter. We weaved around makeshift restaurants, across the sea of motorbikes (just step into the street and go!) and to the first stop of the night.
Stop #1: Sizzling Catfish BBQ
The first stop of the night was Orchid. A medium sized restaurant serving a Hanoi specialty – Cha Ca (fish bbq). Placed around a spread of cold noodles, crushed peanuts, vegetables, and dill was the sizzling catfish BBQ. This was a DIY meal – grab a sheet of rice paper, fill it with all the goodies in front of you, wrap it up, dip it, and eat!
Chong taught us how to properly make the rolls. While we stuffed and rolled, she taught us about the history of street food in Vietnam.
Stop #2: Perfectly Seasoned Phở Bò
Next up was (according to Chong) the best phở bò in Hanoi. We got seats at the open air restaurant on Hang Ba street, and bowls of Pho arrived in front of us almost immediately. We learned that the restaurants in Hanoi master one or two dishes; no pondering over menus or trying to figure out what to eat in Hanoi. At a pho restaurant you are getting one thing…pho!
Pho is probably what you think of most when you think Vietnamese food. It is a comforting dish of rice noodles, beef broth, shaved beef, and cilantro. Making it is no easy feat, it’s a 10 hour process! A beef bone cooks for 7 hours in water making the flavorful broth. Then anise and other spices join the broth and it simmers for another three hours. The broth is then ladled over the noodles, topped with cilantro and bean sprouts, and is ready to eat…almost! We learned there is a proper way to eat pho: a scoop of chili sauce, a scoop of vinegar, and the juice of a small lime.
One slurp of pho has tons of flavor: spicy, sweet and tangy all in one bite. I inhaled that bowl of soup, and was ready for more!
Stop #3: Sweet and Refreshing Sugarcane Juice
Hanoi is hot and humid. Even at night, I couldn’t stop the sweat from pouring. So stopping for sugarcane juice was exactly the refreshing drink I needed. I had seen the long wooden-like sticks at shops around town, but was unsure what they were, until now!
The stalks get pushed through a squashing machine (I’m sure thats the proper terminology) to squeeze the juice out. A squeeze of kumquats gets added to the juice for an extra zesty boost. The juice was sweet with a hint of tang from the citrus. The hot weather plus the cold drink was so, so refreshing.
Stop #4: Pork & Shrimp Pancake at Countryside Cafe
Another DIY meal was had at the Countryside Cafe. We ate a pork and shrimp pancake wrapped in rice paper, like a spring roll.
In total openness, the food at this restaurant was my least favorite of all the stops. Perhaps it was because it was a proper restaurant filled with tourists. Maybe it was the fact that the food was not typical street food. I don’t know! I just wasn’t feeling it here.
Stop #5: Stuffed Rice Crepes
Next up: Bánh cuốn – a rice pancake filled with mushrooms and pork. The rice pancake (more like a crepe) is a delicate creation made by spreading rice flour batter across a large silver pan and steaming it. It is then stuffed with mushrooms and pork and served with a sweet dipping sauce.
At this point in the night we were comfortably stuffed, and ready to have one last treat to end it all.
Stop #6: Weasel Poop Coffee
After asking Chong about the coffee culture in Hanoi, she decided to make our last stop a coffee shop for some famous weasel poop coffee. The Vietnamese weasel is actually not a weasel at all, but an Asian civet. These animals eat coffee beans, and through digestion the flavor of the beans changes. The coffee is rare and expensive, and many fakes are all over the city. Chong assured us that this was the real deal, but you never know for sure.
So What did I Think About the Food on Foot Street Food Tour?
Hanoi is a tough city to lead a group of people around, but Chong did a good job keeping us together and spurting out bits of information. The majority of what we learned happened over the food we ate, making the mini meals pleasant.
It seemed like the stops were pretty mainstream, though most things in the Old Quarter are quite touristy. The lively guide, plus low price made this a great way to start an exploration of Hanoi.
Armed with new knowledge and food vocabulary, we were ready to set off on our own through the crowded and fascinating streets of Hanoi.
[divider]Have You Experienced the Street Food of Hanoi? What did you think?[/divider]