Like I said in my previous post, Singapore gets all the good press for excellent food in Southeast Asia. But in my humble opinion Vietnam takes top billing. Honestly, you can go to any street or alley and find something that delicious and cheap. Generally, throughout the trip, we found that actual restaurant food was never really as good as the random street food we’d find.
I’m so glad that this is a written blog and not a video blog otherwise I would have inevitably butchered the names of all the random food places we dined in. With that, here are a few eating spots I can point to that are worth trying out if you’re in that area (again, regardless of where you go to eat, it’ll probably be good).
Phở is the quintessential Vietnamese dish. You can get it everywhere in the country and regardless of one’s social status, you’ll see all types of people sitting on the little plastic stools enjoying a bowl. It’s made up of some type of meat (usually chicken or pork), herbs, noodles, with sides of vegetables, peppers, and garlic that you can add in. I generally eat phở in the U.S. for dinner, but I was surprised to learn that in Vietnam it’s actually a popular breakfast dish (the phở joint across from where I live isn’t even open for breakfast). So when in Vietnam, eat phở in the morning–which is what we did. It’ll only cost you around $1-$2 for a bowl. As we ate, it was relatively amusing to see the faces of the locals watching me take pictures of the food and venue. I’m sure it’s what I would look like if I saw a tourist taking a picture of a doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Here are two of the phở places we had breakfast that stood out.
Quán phở Sướng
24B Ngõ Trung Yên, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
This place was recommended by the hotel and it hit the spot. The phở was fresh tasting, hot, cheap, and delicious.
Bun Rieu Cua
40 Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
This is a popular local spot to try bun rieu cua, which is a phở cooked in a with spicy crab broth. Lonely Planet said they only serve it for a few hours in the morning. And we could tell because there were several locals ready to sit when the place opened. It wasn’t quite as good as Quán phở Sướng because I found the crab broth to be a bit too seafoody, but it’s still very good.
Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện
Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
The Vietnamese love their coffee, and we, like the locals, drank this stuff pretty much every day (usually Iced to combat the heat). What sets Vietnamese coffee apart is the sweetened condensed milk they add in, giving it a uniquely sweet dairy flavor. I wouldn’t recommend ordering Vietnamese coffee without the milk because it is incredibly bitter on its own. While there are coffee chains all over, such as Highlands Coffee, those locations tend to overdo the sweetened condensed milk, so it becomes more like a frappuccino (though we did figure out that you can ask for half the amount of milk to make it less sweet). The best places to get coffee are just the random local cafes where you sit on the sidewalk, like Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện.
This no nonsense, no frills cafe always seemed to have people on little plastics stools spilling out of it into the street. As far as we could tell they only really sold coffee, which is fine because it’s not the most comfortable place to lounge around for a long period of time. But their coffee was the best we had in Hanoi.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
67 Đường Thành, SHàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Yes, the name of the place is a mouthful. But on the flip side, because the name is so long it’s very easy to spot the sign on the crazy street it’s on. Very similar to phở, but much heartier and less brothy, bun cha is another noodle bowl that’s main ingredient is barbecue roast pork with thinner vermicelli noodles. Served separated, you mix together the chunks of pork, noodles, and vegetables together as you’d like it. Obviously order the bun cha, but I’d also recommend getting a side order of nem cua be (spring rolls) to share. Not everyone needs to get the spring rolls; one side order is enough for two people. The price is around $4 for bun cha and spring rolls.
Quán gốc Đa
52 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Banh Goi are essentially Vietnamese empanadas and they make the perfect to-go food if you’re walking around Hanoi. There are different types, which I’m sure have specific names, but I ended up just pointing at different shaped ones and rolling with it. Most should have some sort of pork in them. You’ll see these everywhere, but Lonely Planet suggested this one stall near St. Joseph’s Cathedral that had some of the most dynamite finger food ever (you can get 3 for like $1).
35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Rice is unsurprisingly a staple Asian food, but I always thought sticky rice was more of a Laos, Chinese, Sushi type food and never really thought of it when thinking of Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the guidebooks say, like phở, sticky rice is generally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. The Chinese in me wasn’t feeling that. I’m sure the locals do it, but where I come from, sticky rice is served with dinner and, unlike the phở, we weren’t really budging from that stance. Sticky rice is just too damn heavy for breakfast.
Xôi Yến is open all day and night, so people do eat it around the clock, and when we showed up at dinner time it was busy as ever. The sticky rice comes with your choice of two toppings. The choices vary from every type of meat to vegetarian options like dried mung beans. Again, it’s a cheap, quick option if you’re tired of noodle bowls and what something a little heavier.
Lonely Planet in general is a good guidebook, but there are some misses. Two in particular. The first one is Minh Thuy’s. It wasn’t even there. They said it’s a must-try and it doesn’t even exist anymore (I emailed Lonely Planet to tell them to update their guidebook for the next edition). The second place is Koto Restaurant near the Temple of Literature. This place wasn’t bad; generally it’s always nice to be able to get off the streets and sit down in a nice, air conditioned restaurant with tablecloths every once in a while. But the food was as “meh” as I can describe, and pricier than what you’d find on the street. The only reason I’d say it’s okay to go is because Koto operates as a hospitality training school for some of Vietnam’s most disadvantaged young people. So while their food might be pedestrian, and cost a little high, at least it’s going to a good cause.