Hanoi: What to Eat

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

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.

Vietnamese Coffee

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.

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

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.

Banh Goi

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).

Sticky Rice

Xôi Yến
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.

So much Sticky Rice

I’d avoid…

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.

Morning Alms Ceremony and the Royal Palace

Our last day in Luang Prabang was a short one since we were supposed to fly out for Cambodia in the afternoon (more on that later).  So we got ourselves up early in order to catch the morning tak bat alms ceremony in the center of town.  This ceremony is performed every morning at sunrise by the monks at the center of town.  I don’t know the actual count, but I’d say around 100 monks, dressed in their bright orange robes, ages ranging from young boys to grandpas, walk in a single file line down the street accepting sticky rice from worshipers.  This rice is not eaten by the monks, but offered to the Buddha when they return to the wat.  It’s a unique experience to see and one worth waking up before sunrise for.  If you do go to observe, don’t be a douche; respect the locals worshiping.  It’s poor taste to get in the way of the procession to take flash photos, and in my opinion if you’re not going to actually participate you should keep back a bit.

After the tak bat alms ceremony, we walked over to the Royal Palace Museum which is located where the Night Market is held.  The Royal Palace cost 30K kip to enter and houses an impressive display of royal thrones, garments, Buddhas, and swords.   Outside the palace, you can see the 83 cm-tall gold-alloy Buddha statue, which supposedly is what the city is named after.  Sadly, no photos are allowed once you get into the palace, so I’ll just need to describe to you some of the highlights.

The interior architecture is made up of a lavish Japanese glass mosaic that is truly impressive.  The bedrooms, throne halls, and reception rooms are all view-able throughout the palace.   Be sure to look at the paintings of the story of Prince Wetsantara as you walk down the hallways; its actually a very interesting fable and the story is broken up into a dozen paintings or so.  Also, one thing to check out is the reception room with all the gifts from other countries to the king.  Most countries gave a precious artifact or something that represented their country (for instance jade bowls, swords, jewelry, things of that nature).  Then you get to the US display.  What did they give Laos?  A shitty model of the lunar module that looked like a 12-year-old put together.  Now, that’s what we thought when we first saw it – my buddy and I were laughing in the museum about it.  It wasn’t until we looked it up after that we found out that the model itself wasn’t the gift.  Unlabeled was an actual piece of moon rock that was offered as a gift.  Well done US.

Heading off to Cambodia

After that, we made our way back to Le Bel Air to check out and headed to the airport.  On a trip as ambitious as ours, we would have been really lucky if we didn’t hit any travel snags, and in general we didn’t.  But inevitably, if you do do a trip like ours, something will come up and in our case it was a 6-hour delay at the Luang Prabang airport.   Annoyingly, our Vietnam Airlines flight was delayed due to mechanical issues coming out of Hanoi so we were stuck in the airport for half the day.  If we had known it was as delayed as it was, we would have just stayed in Luang Prabang for the afternoon.  But instead we were bored out of our minds in the tiny Luang Prabang airport and missed some valuable sightseeing time in Cambodia.  Vietnam Airlines did try to accommodate the passengers by providing food, but the “hamburger” they gave us was…well…pretty gross.  We did eventually make it to Siem Riep, Cambodia, although late at night, for the final leg of our journey.

River cruise to Pak Ou/Whiskey Village and Tamarind – the best meal in Laos

After our long day riding elephants and swimming in waterfalls, the last thing I wanted to deal with was the sound of banging drums at 4:30 am.  I failed to mention this earlier about Le Bel Air, but its proximity is close enough to a wat that you’ll be able to hear the beating of drums early in the morning.  It’s not obnoxiously loud, but if you’re a light sleeper bring your earplugs.

Our plan for the day was to take a relaxing river cruise down the Mehkong River to the Pak Ou caves and Whiskey Village.  We booked the cruise through the hotel, and for $35 (US) the cruise takes you to those two locations and includes lunch.  Our boat was the Nava Mekong.  It’s a little higher end than the cheaper cruises in that the boat was bigger and had table settings for meals.  The cheaper cruises were more like the traditional Lao long boats, but covered.

For obvious reasons, only do a river cruise if the weather is nice out.  I say this because the cruise itself was probably the best part of the tour since the two destinations weren’t exactly that amazing.  The Whiskey Village, which we had high hopes for, turned out to be nothing more than a few shacks with women selling bottles of whiskey.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing the jars of whiskey with giant scorpions and snakes was awesome, but we were hoping that there was a factory or something.  Instead, all the Whiskey Village was was a very poor moonshine outpost.  That being said, since we were there we did try some whiskey.  It tasted like very strong Saki, not bad but nothing to write home about.  We did purchase a few bottles however because they do make great display souvenirs.

From there the cruise headed to the Pak Ou caves, which was the cooler of the two stops.  The caves are split into an upper and lower cave and house several hundred mini Buddha statues.  The upper cave is a bit of a stair climb to get to and don’t forget to bring a flashlight (our iPhone flashlights worked perfectly well) because the upper cave is pitch black inside.  It definitely made the spectacle of seeing all the Buddhas a bit more exciting and mysterious.

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On the cruise back, the Nava Mekong offers a pretty delightful lunch made up of samples of Laotian cuisine and then you’re back in Luang Prabang by around 2.  We headed for a quick spa session at Hibiscus Spa, which provided a really good massage, but I wouldn’t recommend going there if you’re looking for friendly employees.  These people were polite and all, but definitely seemed exhausted and looked like they didn’t want to be there.  After that, we went to our favorite dinner experience of the whole trip.

Tamarind is one of the top restaurants to try in Luang Prabang.  They offer a cooking class that is recommended in several guidebooks and in hindsight we probably should have taken the class instead of going on the river cruise.  Regardless, we went there for dinner and it could arguably be the best meal we had the entire trip.  The employees and Tamarind obviously have a genuine interest in showing their patrons what real Laotian food is like.   The menu is very in depth; it’s part history lesson on Laos food, part FAQ on best practices for cooking and eating Laos food, and part course offerings.  What impressed us was the fact that although we took a good 20 minutes reading the history/FAQ in the menu, the wait staff didn’t disturb us the whole time. It was only when we clearly had finished reading that our waitress politely came by and asked us if we had any questions.

The food at Tamarind is authentic and excellent.  The tasters appetizer is like a Laos charcuterie with an assortment of sausages, veggies, sauces, spices, and other meats and is a must try.  The Buffalo Laap was also a highlight and that is a ground buffalo meat dish with Laos spices and tripe (apparently Laos style includes tripe).  The coolest part of the meal is how you eat all the dishes using the sticky rice.  Essentially what you do it take the sticky rice, roll it into a small patty with your hands, and use its stickiness to scoop up all the food.  It’s kind of like how you eat Ethiopian food with you hands, but instead of injera the Laotians use the sticky rice.  For desert, the Watermelon Chili sorbet is awesome; it’s cool and refreshing with a tiny bit of kick at the end as you swallow.  And the whole experience was cheap; it only cost $40 for two people.  A definite must-try meal in Luang Prabang, and I plan on returning sometime in the future for the cooking class they offer.