The Hanoi Street Food by Night tour, offered by Urban Adventures, is perhaps better described as a walking tour of Old Quarter with some food stops thrown in -- not necessarily a bad thing.
Urban Adventures, part of global tour operator Intrepid and WHL Group, was established in 2009 with the aim of providing day tour options for people who wanted to get off the beaten path and explore the more hidden side of their destination. It offers five tours in Hanoi, including the Hanoi Street Food by Night Tour.
I met the guide, Son, outside Dong Xuan market at 17:00. Five of us were ready and waiting but we had to hang around for a while to see if the other two registered guests were going to turn up. While we waited, Son told us a bit about the tour and took pains to assure us that everywhere we were going to eat was safe and had been vetted. I felt a bit disappointed: it didn’t sound very adventurous.
The other two guests didn’t show, so a slow start, but then we were off… three metres to the curbside to try banh my Hai Phong: mini-breadsticks filled with pate, cucumber and a spicy sauce, which originates from Hai Phong district. It was no more than a light snack to tempt the palate but very tasty: the bread was crispy on the outside and the level of spice just right.
Starter consumed, we walked around the outskirts of the market. The food section of Dong Xuan is primarily dried goods for wholesale and therefore a bit… dry, but outside the market is much more lively, especially early evening, when vendors line the streets, selling their wares from baskets and the pavement. Room to manoeuvre is limited, especially when you factor in the trucks and motorbikes, but the atmosphere is intoxicating. Son bought some vu sua fruit (literally translated as breast-milk due to its shape, softness and milky content) for us to try — tasty but messy — and we turned onto an alleyway, which was just as full of activity. When we reached Quan Chuong Gate, we stopped for an introduction and story about the one remaining old city gate.
We continued through some key streets of Old Quarter — Hang Chieu, Hang Ma, Truoc Bac and Lo Ren — with Son explaining points of interest along the way. Eventually we reached our second food stop, for banh cuon, steamed rice pancake filled with mushrooms and minced pork. As well as being delicious it’s also interesting to watch it being made, as one person makes the pancakes and another fills, rolls and cuts them. We also tried a kind of cured pork meat on the side.
We set off again, avoiding the guys at the bia hoi places on Bat Dan — despite being desperate for a beer — and walking up onto the train tracks. Son explained that Hanoi doesn’t really have a slum, but that this area is quite close: the houses that line the tracks are often set up as cheap bedsits and the tiny eight square metre outhouses are sometimes rented out as homes. Feeling a bit like a peeping tom we wandered along the tracks observing early evening life.
Out next food stop was a barbecue place on Hang Bong. It’s a well known spot, open in the evenings, but unfortunately a low point on the tour. I can’t blame Urban Adventures, or our guide, but the service was terrible: we waited over half an hour for any food to arrive, while tables around were being served. As it was getting late, we were hungry and not in the mood for waiting. The food itself was tasty enough, but we hardly ate anything and it all felt a bit mainstream and touristy.
Fortunately it was not too far to walk to the next stop, for hoa qua dem — fresh fruit served with condensed milk and crushed ice. It was delicious and started to make up for our disappointing barbecue experience. Our next and final stop was a good way to end the tour: we walked up to Cafe Pho Co, which has a great view over Hoan Kiem Lake, and were treated to cafe trung, hot and strong Vietnamese coffee served with whisked egg yolk. It’s unbelievably delicious — although Son warned us that this was the best place to have it and that it wasn’t always as good.
At US$26, the Urban Adventures street food tour is one of the cheapest options around. It’s supposed to last 2.5 hours but went on for nearly an hour longer, partly due to waiting for the missing guests and also because of the long wait for the barbecue, but I think it would likely have overrun a bit anyway as we walked very, very, very (sometimes frustratingly) slowly. Five people joined the tour I was on, but they take up to eight.
Rather than being purely a food tour, it’s perhaps better described as a walking tour of Old Quarter with some food stops thrown in, in terms of the balance of walking to eating, the stops (which were quite sanitised), and the commentary from our guide. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — if you are interested in a guided tour of Old Quarter in the early evening, which is certainly enjoyable, particularly the walk outside Dong Xuan and on the train tracks — but you will be disappointed if you expect to get a really good street food experience or finish the night stuffed.
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 25th February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.