Photo: Flag shop on the streets of Hanoi.

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Street food

If you're a first-time visitor and you're intimidated by hitting the streets, we strongly advise doing a food tour—we recommend our friends, Mark and Tu—and then launching out on your own. It's hard to have a truly bad street-food meal in Hanoi, so don't feel like you always have to stick with recommended places. Just follow your nose, and give it a go!

Buckle up for the ride.

Buckle up for the ride. Photo: Samantha Brown

Let’s start with noodles and work from there. You could eat noodle dishes in Hanoi for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week and still not have the same meal twice. The most well-known of course is pho, the flat rice noodle cut into strips about three millimetres wide found in the famous soup-based dish but also various other dishes. In case you're new to Vietnamese cuisine, pho the soup is a deliciously fragrant broth poured over pho rice noodles and slices of tender beef or chicken. If a shop sign says just pho ga or pho bo then there’s probably just that meat on the menu—chicken (ga) or beef (bo). Pho may these days also be eaten with quay: deep-fried donut-like sticks. Most people eat pho using a spoon and chopsticks, with many using the chopsticks to pile the noodles and meat onto the spoon to eat. Or eat straight from the chopsticks and just use the spoon to scoop up the broth as you go. As for extras, see what’s put out on the table, and go for it. Traditionally vinegar with garlic is added, but lime juice may also be provided. Chillies or chilli sauce are also usually ready for the taking. Expect to pay around 40,000 to 70,000 dong a bowl.

Pho (soup) stalls are a dime a dozen across Hanoi, but in the Old Quarter perhaps start with a steaming bowl at Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su, where there's an English-language menu of different types of pho bo (beef pho), starting at 60,000 dong. For other pho-based disehs, the Truc Bach area in particular has a good selection.

Pho. Exhibit A.

Pho. Exhibit A. Photo: Samantha Brown

The pho noodle is used in other forms too. For delicious pho cuon, for instance, it’s cut into rectangles and wrapped around fried beef and fresh greens. We liked the ones we tried at Vinh Phong in the Truc Bach area—they do a wide range of pho noodle dishes here, such as pho chien phong (deep fried pho) . Pho xao thit bo features the pho noodle, wok-fried along with beef and veggies. We had an excellent version at popular 45 Bat Dan, where it's the specialty. As with many hole-in-the-wall spots, you'll likely share a table with a stranger during peak times.

Bun is another widely devoured rice noodle, but it’s more like thin spaghetti. You'll find it either served on the side with a dipping sauce, as in bun cha, in a soup like bun ca, or somewhere in between, such as in bun bo nam bo, which combines noodles with beef, herbs, peanuts and a smidgen of light broth.

A mountain of pho cuon with traitorious beer.

A mountain of pho cuon with traitorious beer. Photo: Samantha Brown

Bun cha, arguably, is Hanoi's signature dish. At lunchtime you'll find just about all of Hanoi sitting on kid-sized stools and slurping down this combination of mini pork burgers and slices, barbecued over coals and served with a salty-sweet broth, with bun and greens on the side. To eat, drop some noodles into the sauce, add some chilli and garlic, and gobble it down with chopsticks, adding some of the greens here and there. It’s often only available in the mornings through to just after lunch, though some places stay open until early evening. Most bun cha places also serve nem—fried spring rolls—so order a few of those too. Look out for nem cua be—crab spring rolls.

For bun cha, 1 Hang Manh is the golden tourist standard. Street food aficionados will howl at the price—90,000 dong for a set is pricey for street food—but the servings are generously sized and tasty, plus it's newbie-friendly. Or try Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim at 67 Duong Thanh St. There are also quite a few stalls along Cau Go, just north of the lake, and on the alley that runs between Dinh Liet and Hang Be. Outside of Old Quarter there are some along Mai Hac De to the south of Hoan Kiem near Vincom Towers. Expect to pay around 40,000 dong for the bun cha plus 3,000 or so for each nem. You can't walk far without stumbling on bun cha anywhere in Hanoi—just follow your nose to the smoky streetside grill.

Bun cha ready to be gobbled down.

Bun cha ready to be gobbled down. Photo: Samantha Brown

Bun ca is a one-bowl-soup comprising a light and fragrant hot broth, green veggies and bite-sized chunks of white fish (ca), dipped in batter and deep fried, served with a big bowl of greens on the side. Squeeze over some lime juice or splash over some vinegar with garlic and add plus some fresh chillies or pure mashed chilli. Bun oc is similar, but served with shelled snails. Bun ca and bun oc are available in various locations around town. Try Hoe Nhai to the north of Old Quarter, or Mac Hai Dai near Vincom Towers.

For bun bo nam bo, beef is marinated in fish sauce, sugar and various condiments, then wok-fried before being served over lettuce and noodles, topped with beansprouts, onions or maybe some pickles, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and dressed in dipping-style sauce. It's a little bit like a salad. Give it a good stir, add some fresh chillies or chilli sauce, and a squirt of lime juice. Lap it up with chopsticks and keep a spoon on hand to scoop up the broth. 67 Hang Dieu is a good place to try it—this is a typical Hanoian lunch-time venue: loud, crowded, rubbish all over the floor, small seats. Expect to pay 40,000 to 50,000 dong a bowl. For a tourist friendly spot try Noodle and Roll.

Simple, steaming bun rieu.

Simple, steaming bun rieu. Photo: Samantha Brown

Bun rieu—the r is pronounced ‘z’—is a crab- and tomato-based noodle soup featuring bun. It's served with the usual basket of mixed leafy green herbs and lettuce, plus wedges of lime and chillies. Varieties include bun rieu cua be, bun rieu ca, bun rieu oc, and bun rieu nam bo. The base broth, made with a paste of small brown paddy crabs, is always the same, but the added ingredients differ. Bun rieu cua be is served with pieces of large crab, and is the most expensive. Bun rieu ca comes with chunks of fried fish while bun rieu oc has the addition of snails. For bun rieu nam bo , let them chuck everything in for you, or you can get choosy and point at what you want. Ingredients usually include pillows of crispy fried tofu, slivers of rare beef, soft pork meatballs, pork knuckle, nem (cured sausage) and jelly-like blood. The result: a bowl of delicious soup bursting with colour, balanced flavours and interesting textures. Bun rieu is served at any time of day, though is particularly popular in the morning. Expect to pay 30,000 to 50,000 dong per bowl, the lower amount if it’s just tofu, with the price increasing if you get meat

For standard bun rieu, check out 11 Hang Bac, reputed to be among the best in the city. Pull up a stool at the bench, and your steaming bowl will arrive promptly, served from the simmering pot at the front. Pop in your fresh herbs, lettuce, chilli paste and lime, then slurp away elbow to elbow with workers on their way to the office. Another Old Quarter joint is on Hang Bong, on the corner of Phu Dong. The bun rieu nam bo here is the best we’ve tried. Other recommended places are outside Old Quarter: 195 Xa Dan and 1B3 Tran Huy Lieu (off Kim Ma).

Bun dau comprises a plate of cold bun noodles, a plate of deep-fried tofu, a basket of herbs and, typically, mam tom (fermented shrimp sauce). The flavour isn’t to everyone’s taste—you can smell it from down the street—but if you don’t like it, most places will offer another dipping sauce, such as the one usually served with pho cuon or other spring rolls. Eat by picking up chunks of tofu or bun and dipping them in the sauce. Intersperse with a mouthful of herbs and perhaps wash down with cha da. Stalls selling bun dau usually also sell nem) and cha com, sticky rice mixed with pureed meat squashed into a patty shapes and deep fried. It tastes better than it sounds.

Bun dau is widely available at both static and roving street stalls, and even when there’s no sign is easily identifiable by the chunks of tofu and the smell of mam tom. Ngo Gach in Old Quarter has quite a few places near the junction of Hang Giay. Expect to pay around 20,000 to 25,000 dong a portion.

Mien noodles are commonly made from mung bean starch, although they can also come in a number of other starchy varieties, such as arrowroot, canna root or potato. They can be referred to in English variously as glass noodles, cellophane noodles or vermicelli. Mien are less commonly seen around the touristy areas of town but you'll find them if you're looking. Two dishes worth trying are mien ngan, with poultry, and mien luon, with eel. A good place for the latter is Dong Thinh Nha Hang Mien Luon. The eel in mien luon is cut into thin strips and deep fried in a light batter—it could really be almost anything. Mien is also used in salads, spring rolls and soup. Try for instance the vermicelli salad at Com Pho Co. You can see mien being made if you head out to Cu Da (Vermicelli) village on the outskirts of Hanoi.

My (pronounced mi) is egg noodle. Commonly found in small dried blocks, packaged with a small sachet of dried vegetables and flavouring, and sold for a few thousand dong from grocery stores, my is the ubiquitous instant noodle. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast in Vietnamese homes and while not particularly nutritious or delicious, it's a super-cheap belly filler. It’s sold as my xao at streetside restaurants, hydrated and fried up with beef, greens, flavouring and whatever other veg the restaurant decides to throw in. It’s also available fresh, but the dried version is more common.

Lau—pronounced something like ‘low’—or hotpot is one of the most popular dishes in Hanoi, particularly during the cooler months. A pan of simmering stock is put on a gas stove on the table and diners cook their own beef, chicken, fish, noodles, veggies and so on. Menu choice depends on the place but usually you’ll have a choice of one type of meat/fish, or mixed, or whatever the specialty of the area is, such as frog or fertilised eggs (these were cracked into the stock and poached when we tried them). You’ll be served a platter of thinly sliced meat, along with vegetables and a block of egg noodles. Usually diners eat the goodies then finish off with a bit of stock drunk out of the bowl, not with a spoon.

Lau is a social meal and widely available around town, including at bia hoi joints, but there are a couple of streets where it dominates. Phung Hung, on the western edge of Old Quarter, has at least half a dozen places vying for attention. Over along the northeastern edge of Truc Bach lake, Truc Bach Street is also lined with lau restaurants, all with tables and mats set out along the lakeside. Plenty of places, many with higher seating, are located along the parallel street, Pho Duc Chinh. As for price, sometimes you can order a certain sized portion and share it between however many people you are, other times they will bring enough for everyone and price it accordingly. Price overall will depend on location, ingredients, how hungry you are, and so on, but budget for around maybe 150,000 dong per person. Do check the price first, particularly in the touristy parts of town.

Banh cuon, served here at Impressive Hotel as the local brekky option.

Banh cuon, served here at Impressive Hotel as the local brekky option. Photo: Samantha Brown

It's soooooort of a noodle: Banh cuon are slightly gloopy steamed rice flour pancakes usually stuffed with minced port and mushrooms, topped with fried shallots and fresh herbs, and served with nuoc cham dipping sauce on the side. Expect to pay 15,000 to 20,000 dong for a plate on the street.

Banh Cuon Gia Truyen is a popular spot to try them. The interior is basic but clean and more comfortable than street stalls. Aside from the usual pork filling here you also have the slightly more expensive options of a chicken or prawn filling. Add cha qua, cha com or gio lua (types of cured pork) or, if you’re feeling adventurous, add a drop of essence of cricket to your sauce. You can even go the whole way and order a whole cricket (ca cuong) on the side. As with most banh cuon places, you can watch the rice pancakes being cooked and filled at the front of the shop and then enjoy the results inside.

A typical com binh dan joint on Dinh Liet Street.

A typical com binh dan joint on Dinh Liet Street. Photo: Samantha Brown

Finally, on the noodle front, banh da also deserves a mention. A dark, wheaty, flat noodle, banh da is often found as an alternative at places serving bun cha, such as 15 Ngo Tran Tien.

If a meal doesn't feature noodles, chances are rice (or a baguette: see below) will be the staple instead. Com binh dan , which roughly translates as commoner’s rice, is a popular cheap belly-filler in Vietnam and streetside joints are plentiful, usually identified by a glass case showcasing the day’s selection, as well as the large signs. They are buffet-like affairs, with the food selection varying from place to place, day to day and hour to hour. Common dishes include tofu in tomato sauce, pork belly or some other form of pork dish, fried fish, chicken of some description, green vegetables and either fried eggs or eggs boiled then deep fried. To order, walk up to the counter and indicate how many portions you want, and the server will dish up the appropriate number of plates of rice. You then point at what you want and they pile it on the plate—they tend to give you small amounts of each but you can ask for more of a particular dish if you like. You will be charged according to how many dishes you pick, and you pay when you leave. The plate may come with a side bowl of watery soup.

A com binh dan meal in progress.

A com binh dan meal in progress. Photo: Samantha Brown

A few com binh dan places are scattered around in Old Quarter—try Dinh Liet Street—but really, wherever you are you’re unlikely to be too far from one. You should be able to get a good fill for 45,000-50,000 dong and up. Com binh dan is most popular at lunchtime, but some places are open later.

Xoi is sticky rice, though the main type of xoi you will come across in Hanoi is less sticky and lighter than the version you will find in Laos or Thailand. Commonly eaten for breakfast, it can most cheaply be bought from a street vendor. Look out for large banana-leaf-lined rattan baskets on the ground or next to the vendor’s bicycle. Practiced hands will pile a handful of rice and toppings onto a banana leaf or a square of plastic and either wrap it up in newspaper for take-away or hand it to you open to eat on the spot. It is acceptable to eat with your hands, but a plastic spoon will be provided. Xoi xeo comprises rice topped with crushed yellow beans, crispy fried onion and pork floss plus a squirt of oil. Other options include xoi lac (with peanuts) and xoi do den (with black beans). If a squirt of oil isn’t enough, look out for xoi ran, chunks of deep-fried sticky rice. Sweet versions of xoi include kem xoi, served with ice cream, and xoi dua, with coconut.

Stodgy, scrumptious xoi.

Stodgy, scrumptious xoi. Photo: Samantha Brown

Restaurants such as famous Xoi Yen are open around the clock, and suit those who don’t like rice for breakfast or who want a higher stool or a bigger plateful. Xoi Yen is a good place to start if you haven’t had xoi before and your Vietnamese isn’t too hot, as they have a menu in English from which you can select your toppings. The xoi is served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. Expect to pay 40,000 to 50,000 dong for a decent helping.

Banh my (banh mi in Saigon)—baguettes—are a staple breakfast and lunch dish in Hanoi. An original fusion dish-before-fusion-was-hip, they are crunchy French-style baguettes served with a filling of pate, egg (trung), cured pork (cha), pickled or fresh veggies such as carrots and cucumber, and herbs like coriander.

A typical Old Quarter banh my stall.

A typical Old Quarter banh my stall. Photo: Samantha Brown

You'll find banh my stalls all over the city. They are not always the most photogenic dish, and may look underwhelming if whacked on a plate, but they are uniformly delish. Some stalls will toast or heat the sandwich before serving, others won’t. It’s rare to find a banh my stall with seating, but some have a stool or two nearby. Expect to pay 15,000 to 20,000 dong per baguette.

A fresh fusion twist is the newer banh my kebab, a blend with the Turkish kebab. Stalls are more high-tech and stand-out than the usual street food stalls in Hanoi, boasting a rotisserie and painted yellow and/or red. Slices of pork meat are crammed onto a skewer and rotated slowly round in front of a heated element. Thin slices are carved off to order and stuffed into a Vietnamese bread roll or flat bread with vegetables and sauce. Veggie choices vary but usually include slices of cucumber and tomato, red onion, red cabbage, and sometimes coleslaw, with a sauce of chilli or mayo, or both. Expect to pay 20,000 to 25,000 dong per portion. The one most conveniently located for Old Quarter is on Luong Ngo Quyen, next to bia hoi corner, and another is at the junction of Phung Hung and Tran Phu, and near Food Street.

Bread is the staple (or maybe fries) but beef is the focus in a meal of bo nuong, or grilled beef. At bo nuong joints, you pull up a tiny stool at a just-as-tiny table with a grill pan in the middle, and cook your own meat. Aside from beef, typical spots offer other meats like pork or goat udders.

Xuan Xuan is a popular spot and offers a better quality beef we've found than at other joints. It’s packed every evening, with both locals and travellers, which guarantees a good turnover of food and a lively atmosphere. Aim for a table outside on the footpath or just inside the main entrance so you can watch the goings-on on busy Ma May. Expect to pay around 180,000 dong per head before beer. It’s not cheap, but it’s a good feed.

Banh my as well as fries are usually the sides to bo bittet, Hanoi-style beef-steak. You can find this in more upscale restaurants but it's a hole-in-the-wall offering as well. The essential components are: a thin beef steak, chunky chips, eggs, pate and banh my, plus sometimes gravy. The steak is sizzled in a heavy cast-iron dish—usually cow shaped—and topped with the pate, chips and greens, and then an egg is cracked into the dish to cook away at your table. Some places will serve it up with a lid on top, which helps avoid hot fat spraying over your clean shirt, while others will leave it to fate. Once the egg is cooked to your satisfaction, tear up the bread and dip in or make up an egg/chip/pate and steak sandwich. The choice is yours. Good accompaniments are fresh chillies and soy sauce, which goes particularly well with the eggs.Now don’t get led astray by the versions available at many of the more generalist Vietnamese restaurants around town, particularly along Food Street: If the restaurant isn’t announcing “bo bittet” as a specialist dish then it’s unlikely to be a good one. A couple of places worth trying in Old Quarter are Bittet Ong Loi at 51 Hang Buom, and the place at the bottom of Dinh Liet (on the right as you’re facing in the direction of the lake). If you’re out in Ba Dinh, then Ngoc Hieu, on the corner of Doi Can and Van Cao streets, is a great spot though a bit pricier than the other options.

Street food in Vietnam is not just about breakfast, lunch and dinner; it’s also very much about snacking. Here are a few dishes you'll find around the traps.

Finger lickin' good chook wings make for great streetside snacking.

Finger lickin' good chook wings make for great streetside snacking. Photo: Samantha Brown

Call it a snack, or call it dinner: Barbecued chicken is an easy-to-find streetside delicacy in Hanoi. ‘Barbecue Chicken Street’, on Ly Van Phuc just off Nguyen Thai Hoc, is hard to miss of the evening, when the plumes of smoke drift into the night sky and the aroma wafts along the street. Freshly barbecued chicken is served to crouched on plastic stools. The system works something like this: Find a table, sit down, make your presence known, mime 'thigh (tap your leg), 'wings' (a flapping motion will do) or feet (obvious) and indicate how many you want. Then there are the sides: The bread is awesome. It’s a standard banh my flattened, coated in honey and toasted. Wow. The honey roasted sweet potatoes are also worth a go. Try it all with chilli sauce and you’ll also get a plate of lightly pickled cucumber as a side.

Banh tom are large prawns (tom) cooked on a thick batter base. Before serving they’re re-fried and cut in half: pick them up with chopsticks, dip in the dipping sauce and enjoy. Banh tom stalls are found lining the street near Tay Ho temple.

Banh tom, piled high for the taking.

Banh tom, piled high for the taking. Photo: Samantha Brown

Pho mai que (cheese sticks) hit the streets of Hanoi a few years back and is a cheap snack option. Pho mai que is a stick of cheese coated in breadcrumbs, deep-fried and served with chilli and tomato dips. The cheese is processed so it doesn’t really taste of anything — a nice camembert would make all the difference — but once dipped in the sauce it’s edible. Variants include pho mai com—wrapped in green sticky rice—and pho mai hun khoi, a smoked version. Ta Hien is the place to be in Old Quarter for pho mai que. During the day (it’s an afternoon thing) many of the shops at the Luong Ngoc Quyen end turn into pho mai que joints and fill up with young Vietnamese catching up over an afternoon snack. As you tend to share off one plate, it’s also very communal. Order by the piece, which costs 6,000 dong for one. Wash it down with a drink like tra chanh.
Che ready for slurping.

Che ready for slurping. Photo: Samantha Brown

Che (pronounced chair) is a popular dessert or snack found at street stalls all around Hanoi. Stalls are usually characterised by a glass cabinet housing bowls of colourful delicacies. Try Hom market, 76 Hang Dieu and Dinh Liet. Decide whether you’re going to eat-in or takeaway and indicate which you are going to do before choosing your ingredients—in some places the eat-in and takeaway versions will be sold in different containers. Select as many or as few ingredients as you like by pointing, or just point at someone else’s. There’s usually some sweetcorn, beans, jelly, mini-dumplings and various other concoctions, topped with palm sugar syrup, coconut milk and ice. Give it all a good stir and tuck in. A reasonable price to pay is 15,000 to 20,000 VND per cup but if you’re worried, ask the price first. The price is the same no matter how many different ingredients you select.
Bo bia, for a sugar high on the run.

Bo bia, for a sugar high on the run. Photo: Samantha Brown

Bo bia ngothas nothing to do with beer: It’s a sweet snack made to order, streetside. Two thin small pancakes are laid flat, then a sheet of honeycomb is placed on top and sprinkled with desiccated coconut and sesame seeds. It’s then rolled up and handed over—it’s that simple. The combination of soft, slightly moist pancake with crunchy honeycomb and chewy coconut deliver an enticing textural bite and the flavours work perfectly together.

How to find bo bia ngot? Though you might come across a roving vendor anywhere, they can usually be found along Thanh Nien Street, which runs between Truc Bach and West Lakes and is home to both Tran Quoc and Quan Thanh temples. Look out for the bicycles parked at the side of the road with white boxes on the back marked “bo bia” in red. Some of the bikes also advertise keo keo, another sweet treat of pulled sugar formed into a crispy stick. Traditionally the dish was just sugar, but nowadays it’s often filled with peanuts. Another option, keo nha, is like a hard caramel with peanuts and sesame seeds. One portion of bo bia ngot, keo keo or keo nha costs 5,000 dong. Another sweet snack to look out for is banh ran, deep-fried balls of green bean and sticky rice coated in sugar, honey or sesame seeds.


Vietnamese

For Vietnamese meals in fancier surrounds, Hanoi also delivers the goods, with a range of restaurants to suit varied moods and occasions.

Set in a gorgeous renovated villa designed by Francois Charles Lagisquet, who was also one of the architects behind the Hanoi Opera House, Madame Hien has a solid reputation for serving up traditional Vietnamese cuisine. French chef Didier Corlu opened Madame Hien in 2010 as a tribute to his Vietnamese grandmother, so we trust it’s the real deal. We tried to pop in here for a late lunch during opening hours, but were told the kitchen was “broken”. Something no doubt got lost in translation, but the setting looked lovely, as did the menu—as is usual in such restaurants in Hanoi, the lunch deals are excellent value. Corlu’s other restaurants are French-focused La Verticale and Bar-rique Brasserie, plus Vietnamese Porte d’Annam.

The lovely setting of Madam Hien's.

The lovely setting of Madam Hien's. Photo: Samantha Brown

1946 also serves up traditional and hearty Vietnamese fare, at reasonable prices considering its cosy surrounds. The menu includes some interesting regional dishes you won’t find on the average bia hoi menu, such as Muong pork, field crab and Malabar nightshade broth and fried anabas (a freshwater fish native to the region). Food is well cooked and well presented, and while limited English is spoken, service is smart and professional. The small ground floor dining area has standard tables and chairs, or head upstairs for on-floor seating. The original branch in Truc Bach gets busy at times so book in advance if you can. We ate more recently at the branch on Nghi Tam Street, which is shinier and bit more brash, and while it lacks the same charm as the original, the food remains excellent. A third branch is in Dong Da district.

State-Run Food Shop No. 37 dedicates itself to recreating the state-run canteens of post-war Vietnam, when the government controlled the economy and private enterprise was non-existent: hence the bureaucratic name. The decor plays along, with old farming and dining equipment adorning whitewashed brick walls—and roof, so look up! Dishes hark back to the era but are sneakily scrumptious: Our favourite menu item was the bottom-of-the-pot rice, crisped to crunchy perfection to use as a vehicle for dipping sauces.

Bottom of the rice pot rice: Divine.

Bottom of the rice pot rice: Divine. Photo: Samantha Brown

A wide range of tempting dishes from Hue are available at the Net Hue local chain of affordable restaurants, but we like the one on the edge of food street. The bun bo Hue is delicious, and a meal in itself, but you'll struggle not to order up a selection of the other delights, which include banh nam and bun thit nuong. And don't forget to order up a tasty bowl of che for dessert. Seating on the second level is on the floor, so head to the third floor if you prefer a bench.

Quan Kien (Ant Restaurant) is worth hunting out if you’re in the mood for ants – and who isn’t on occasion? The restaurant is located along Nghi Tam Street with most seating upstairs being cushions-on-the-floor overlooking the main road in a sparsely decorated space hung with lanterns. But it’s not the venue you come for: it’s the menu. The “insect menu” primarily comprises ant-based dishes, such as ant egg with sticky rice and ant egg salad, although the snack menu also includes locusts and silkworm larvae if you fancy a change. For those not up for the insects, a second menu has a good selection of meat, fish and vegetable dishes, including Thai ethnic minority dishes and that good old cold weather favourite: hot pot. Go with a group and order a range of dishes to share: portions are generous and it’s all good. Meat dishes are in the 100–150,000 VND range, with veggies around 50–80,000 VND.

Ants and more on the menu at Quan Kien.

Ants and more on the menu at Quan Kien. Photo: Samantha Brown

Okay, we admit it. We were trying to find the original cha ca restaurant Cha Ca La Vong on our first night back in Hanoi but we accidentally went to a copy. No better welcome to Vietnam than going to a counterfeit restaurant, right? Cha ca is basically white fish served sizzling with a dill turmeric sauce, fresh herbs, rice noodles and crushed peanuts. We did, at least, think that the copy, where staff stand outside almost dragging customers inside, was mediocre. Friends told us of our mistake, but they also warned us that the original was mediocre these days, anyway. Go to Cha Ca Thong Long instead! they urged. So we did, and it was excellent.

The double-shophouse restaurant is glassed in and air-conditioned, with no-fuss decor and full-size wooden tables and chairs, making this comfortable for everyone. Service is friendly and snappy, and the cha ca itself, cooked efficiently at our table, was spot on too. At 120,000 dong per serving it's a step up from most street food, but absolutely worth it.

 Not the original. Not the copy of the original. But Cha Ca Thang Long is the best spot for cha ca.

Not the original. Not the copy of the original. But Cha Ca Thang Long is the best spot for cha ca. Photo: Samantha Brown

Air-con Com Pho Co is worth seeking out for its great range of standard Vietnamese dishes, such as light and crispy nem Hue, crunchy papaya salad and aubergine and pork claypot. Although located on non-touristy Nguyen Sieu, Com Pho Co is still central for Old Quarter. Inside is split into three sections: an inside area at the front, a courtyard and a rear area by the kitchens. The main benefit of the front area is that it’s cool: air-con and fans work hard to keep the temperature down. The courtyard’s a prettier and more interesting place to sit and is also fan-cooled—you’ll be tempted to extend your visit with coffee and a caramel dessert. (Don’t venture into the rear area unless you need to visit the rest rooms, as it’s soulless.) The restaurant describes itself as “Old Quarter Vietnamese cuisine“, and that’s what you’ll get. The menu includes fresh and fried spring rolls, salads, rice, noodles, tofu, fish and seafood, meat and vegetables. Everything we’ve tried has been well-cooked, tasty and a good portion size. Staff are friendly and efficient. Prices are very reasonable.

Highway 4 operates out of five locations in Hanoi, with our fave on Hang Tre being next to the original restaurant, which was knocked down in 2010. The menu is the same at each and you'll find a wide range of dishes to suit all tastes, with the catfish spring rolls being a well-deserved signature dish. This is a good place to go to safely try a few Vietnamese dishes and works well for big groups, especially if you're looking to please your Vietnamese and Western friends in equal measure. People usually order several dishes and share, and even with a glass of their very own son tinh traditional Vietnamese liquors, you can get away with paying less than 250,000 dong per head.

Cha Ca Thang Long: 19-21-31 Duong Thang, Hoan Kiem; T: (04) 824 5115, (04) 828 6007; chacathanglong.com/; open daily 11:00-21:30.
Com Pho Co: 16 Nguyen Sieu, Hoan Kiem; T: (04) 2216 4028.
Highway 4: 5 Hang Tre; T: (04) 3926 4200; highway4.com.
Madame Hien: 15 Chan Cam, Hanoi; T: (04) 3938 1588; verticale-hanoi.com; open daily 10:30-23:00.
Net Hue: 204b Hang Bong St; T: (04) 3938 1795; nethue.com.vn.
Quan Kien: 143 Nghi Tam St, Yen Phu; T: (097) 839 9983; open daily 09:00–22:30.
State-Run Food Shop No. 37: 37 Nam Trang, Ngu Xa, T: (091) 228 58 59; (04) 3715 4336.


Cafes

You could happily cafe hop in Hanoi for days on end and still keep on unearthing wonderful places to hang out and get caffeinated. The town is thick with atmospheric options, from pull-up-a-plastic-chair joints through to sophisticated glass-fronted beauties. Consistent among all? Amazing coffee. It’s one of the things that makes Hanoi one of the world’s great cities.

Note that aside from classic Vietnamese filter coffee, there are two kinds of coffees you have to try while here. Ca phe trung, or egg coffee, is freshly whipped, thick egg meringue sweetened with condensed milk and dolloped over strong black coffee. Sounds suspect, but boy is it good. It's said to have been invented by Nguyen Van Giang during the 1940s when Vietnam was suffering from a milk shortage. Working at the Sofitel Metropole at the time, he left to start his own cafe, Cafe Giang, still run by his family today (see below).

Egg coffee is a Hanoi must-try.

Egg coffee is a Hanoi must-try. Photo: Samantha Brown

The other must-try is ca phe sua chua, or yoghurt coffee. Frankly, it sounded equally suss to us, but it's just as delicious. We're not sure of the provenance of this one; whatever it is, that someone deserves a big thumbs up for bravely mixing these two ingredients to create something greater than its parts. Trust us: If you like coffee, you're going to be highly caffeinated throughout your stay in Hanoi. We barely slept.

Part of the beauty of Hanoi coffee joints can be the thrill of actually finding them. The Old Quarter offers particular challenges. It’s worth the hunt for Cafe Giang, one of Hanoi's genuinely authentic old cafes. Naturally, egg coffee is the highlight, or try egg chocolate, egg green beans or even egg with beer—you can get back to us on that one. A few little tables and chairs are downstairs next to the kitchen, or head upstairs to a few more interconnected rooms instead. There's not a throw cushion or instagrammable mural in sight.

No design awards here, and thank goodness for that. Giang is all about the coffee.

No design awards here, and thank goodness for that. Giang is all about the coffee. Photo: Samantha Brown

Just down the road is Cafe Nang, which we found when we were searching for Giang. Head down the little alley-like entrance where men sit gossiping over their brews to where the cafe opens out into a fad-eschewing space with the usual little wooden tables and chairs. Service is friendly and prompt, and the egg coffee good here too.

Don't confuse this Cafe Nang with Cafe Nang nearby on Nguyen Huu Huan. This little cafe is hugely popular and a good people-watching spot. We were caffeinated out by the time we were here but teas and yoghurt drinks are also on offer—the yoghurt with jellies was just sweet enough to revive.

When you just can't take another coffee. At Cafe Nang, 92B Nguyen Huu Huan.

When you just can't take another coffee. At Cafe Nang, 92B Nguyen Huu Huan. Photo: Samantha Brown

Cong Caphe is a khaki-walled, hugely popular local cafe chain founded in 2007 that cleverly tapped into the Communist-era aesthetic—and nostalgia. Think melamine mugs, throw cushions in Chinese-floral prints, and Lenin and Mao on the wall. You’ll find the traditional tables and chairs of the Vietnamese coffeehouse: eensy weensy tiny ones. Or streetside ones, or take-off-your-shoes-and-sit-up ones, or now and again a few Westerner-appropriate ones. But most importantly, the coffee is fantastic (30,000 to 40,000 dong).

They’ve got some excellent locations; we liked the lakeside one on the corner of Truc Bach and and Truc Lac, with top views from upstairs. There’s also a little one right by St Joseph’s Cathedral square. Do try at least one!

For a better cathedral view, head to La Place, which overlooks the square. During the day you might just have a coffee (from 39,000 dong) or light lunch, but it feels more like a proper restaurant than cafe come evenings. We tried a Hanoi-style steak and snared one of the eight or so chairs with direct views from the veranda. You’re paying for the view as the food is nothing notable. The menu traverses east and west standards, including sweet mango chicken, cha ca la vong, nasi goreng, spaghetti bolognese and French toast (dishes mostly 75,000 to 100,000 dong, house wine 65,000 per glass).

Vibrantly coloured Cafe Eden is another spot with views of the cathedral from a different angle.

Cafe Nola, found down a little alley/hall dripping with colourful water-bottle lamps. We went day time, when its many nooks and crannies jammed with eclectic furniture, pot plants and fabulous art were quiet and just made for a spot of chilling between pagoda hopping. Coffees (40,000-55,000 dong), cocktails (75,000 dong), breakfasts, Vietnamese and international standard meals and desserts (try the banana bread!) are all on the menu. Take a seat near the windows overlooking the street and the mood is positively Parisian.

It’s all about getting coffee just right at Kafeville, as well as education. Chemex? Check. Siphon? Check. French press, Kalita, Aeropress, V60, Vietnamese filter? Check, check, check, check, check. Beans, naturally, come from around the world. The vibe is relaxed and vaguely Boho-industrial, with tables, chairs and a lounge scattered around a modestly sized room with muralled walls and a giant picture window for streetside observing. We liked the table made of a window shutter, the little explanatory tray of coffee beans and the blackboard explanations about how to tell your doppo from your Americano (mostly 20,000 to 55,000 dong). And of course, our Vietnamese filter with a finger of condensed milk plus cookie on the side was perfecto. There’s tea and juices too, but the jive here is very much java. Recommended! Cafe Moca along from the cathedral looks rather elegant but be warned: indoor smoking is allowed. We’ve not tried the food because the smoke is enough to put us off, we’re afraid. Tiem Banh Nho Noi on Pho Duc Chinh is part of a small local chair, and we like this quirky little triple-story branch, with eclectic rustic decor, and a focus on drinks and desserts. We had the passionfruit yoghurt drink and it was excellent; while we didn’t try the red velvet cake (46,000 dong), my it looked good. There’s a mezzanine area, but keep going upstairs to sit at the French windows overlooking the street. Tiny Tranquil has a friend’s loungeroom vibe, with an acoustic guitar propped in the corner, record player spinning vinyl and real books on the shelves (how depressing is book-wallpaper?). Best of all, your friend is a barista! The house specialty London Fog (Earl Grey tea latte) (38,000 dong) and it was delightful. They have a few pastries if you’re peckish, plus cocktails. Small spot, and popular. Set in a restored lemon-yellow villa with cool black and white tiles underfoot, Tang Tret Cosmo sprawls over two storeys, with a new corner appearing just when you think you’ve found the end; there are several indoor and outdoor seating areas. The vibe is arty—fittingly, this is where Sophie’s Art Tour begins. We loved the little pots of yoghurt with a dollop of jam as their lids. The iced coffee hit the spot, and the individually wrapped desserts looked tempting: tira misu, cheesecake, red velvet cake. Just next door, 2016-opened Jouri is an elegant spot for a break along this street, where a cluster of cafes have sprung up. The decor is chic French rustic, all woods, more ubiquitous whitewashed brick, pretty basketry and dried flowers. The focus is on tea rather than coffee here (though their coffee passed muster), and they are known for their desserts. It’s the fussier sister to Tang Tret’s more arty vibe. Popular Hanoi Social Club is set in a delectable mint and yellow colonial-era villa with cool old tiles underfoot, low-slung lounge chairs and eclectic art on the walls. This chilled spot is a great pick for a relaxed breakfast or lunch, and they have an interesting evening events calendar, too. The menu is focused on healthy vegetarian dishes, but we should have been more adventurous than toast with extra avocado—the avocado was sad and certainly didn’t show the kitchen to its best advantage. Cafe Nola: 89 Ma May; open daily 10:00-23:00. Cong Caphe: At least seven branches. congcaphe.com/ Hanoi Social Club: 6 Hoi Vu St, Hoan Kiem; T: (04) 3938 2117; www.facebook.com/TheHanoiSocialClub; open daily 08:00-23:00. Jouri Dessert and Tea: 10 Khuc Hao, Dien Bien, Ba Dinh; T: (04) 6686 7553; www.facebook.com/pg/JouriDessert/; open daily 08:00-23:00. Kafeville: 22 Nguyen Trung Truc; T: (090) 622 1030; www.facebook.com/pg/Kafeville/open Sun-Thurs 08:00-20:30, Fri-Sat 08:00-22:00. Tang Tret Cosmo: 10 Khuc Hao, Ba Dinh; T: (04) 6686 0517; www.facebook.com/tangtretcosmo; open daily 08:00-22:30. Tiem Banh Nho Noi: 144 Pho Duc Chinh, Quan Ba Dinh; T: (0164) 421 2059; noicake.vn/. Tranquil Books and Coffee: 5 Nguyen Quang Bich, Hoan Kiem; T: (098) 938 4541; cafetranquil.tumblr.com/; open daily 08:00-22:30.

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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Hanoi? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Vietnam.


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