Food on Foot, operated by Vietnam Awesome Travel, offers great tours with plenty of stops.
Usually pick-up is at your hotel, but given I haven’t lived in a hotel since first arriving in Hanoi three years ago, I travelled to their office, on Hang Be Street in Old Quarter. Entrance is down an alleyway and it’s not the most salubrious of surroundings, but the welcome was warm. I joined an English couple, Wendy and David, who decided they wanted some company (before they met me perhaps?) with our guide, Yen, a 21 year-old bundle of energy.
Yen was wonderfully bubbly yet also very well informed about the area, the history of Vietnam and the food. It turns out she is about to sit her final exams for her tourism degree and has always wanted to be a tour guide — I’d say she’s set for a very strong career.
Our first stop was Xoi Yen, one of Hanoi’s best known sticky rice outlets. Fortunately it wasn’t as busy as it sometimes gets, so we were easily able to find a seat inside. Yen suggested we share a couple of portions — wise advice given this was only our first stop and sticky rice is not a light dish — and ordered up xoi thap cam. Xoi thap cam is sticky rice with seven toppings, including pate, sausage, egg, pork meat, chicken, mung bean and … I forget the seventh. More on that in a later post …
Next we went for lemon iced tea (cha chanh). Yen explained that after xoi it was a good idea to have a drink to balance the heaviness of the rice. So we sipped our drinks and nibbled on sunflower seeds — “just like the teenagers do” said Yen. It was then time for a walk to the other side of Old Quarter. Along the way Yen explained points of interest — for example, why the flags at the temples display four coloured squares — and took us down an alleyway, the likes of which most tourists would never venture for fear of not knowing what awaited them at the other end. For us, fortunately it was just Ngo Gach Street, and onward we travelled to try banh cuon.
I now found myself at the same banh cuon place that I’d been to on two previous tours. Its popularity for non-locals was proven by the presence of some other Westerners, but fortunately they left quickly enough for us to take their table, as the place was busy. For those of you who haven’t read the posts on the Hanoi Cooking Centre and Urban Adventures tours, banh cuon is a rice pancake filled with pork and mushrooms and dipped in a sauce. We also tried some pork cured in cinnamon.
Time for another drink, and this time it was sugar cane juice to take away. David, who doesn’t have a sweet tooth, took one sip and decided it wasn’t for him, but Wendy and I ploughed on through, eventually admitting defeat. It’s delicious but very, very sweet.
As we walked to the next spot, Yen stopped a lady selling sweet stuff from baskets carried over her shoulder and ordered some banh do. Similar in sound and texture to the banh gio I had tried on the tour with Mark Lowerson, this didn’t have the pork filling but instead was topped with honey, leading to a sweet/savoury mix with a very strange texture. We all agreed that was one we’d not try again.
By now we were on Hang Dieu, and stopped at Dong Thinh Nha Hang Mien Luon for eel soup. Reminiscent of the chicken and sweetcorn soup I used to eat at Chinese restaurants in the UK, it was pleasant enough. En route to dessert of hoa qua (mixed tropical fruit topped with coconut milk and condensed milk) we stopped to try some sapadillo (hong xiem), a fruit similar in taste and texture to a soft pear. The hoa qua was delicious, but then we found out we’d next be eating fish… the other way round would have been nice, but the tours can’t dictate where the stalls are located I guess.
For cha ca we went into a restaurant (not Cha Ca La Vong) where we wrapped fish, cooked at our table, with herbs and rice noodles in rice paper and dipped them into a tasty sauce. The tour ended with caphe trung (egg coffee) — something else I’d discovered a few times on the other street food tours.
The tour lasted over the stated three hours, but Yen was very keen and explained that she didn’t worry too much about time, she just wanted to make sure everyone had a good time. Exact stops are dependent upon the start point and the tour guide; we know for example the other Food on Foot tour group running at the same time had tried crickets, duck and beef noodles. Price for a group tour is US$25/525,000VND but private tours can be organised for a higher per person rate and offer the opportunity for tailoring, for example, a seafood focused tour. It took me a few attempts to book onto a group tour as they only run as demand dictates, so you’ll need to be flexible if you don’t want to go it alone. Tours run at lunch and in the evening.
Overall this tour had a good balance of food and foot and although the stops were quite mainstream, in terms of being covered in the guidebooks (and Travelfish), I particularly appreciated the ad hoc stops that Yen initiated to buy banh do, sapadillo and water chestnuts. She was also a very lively and informative guide.