How do you get around to trying a bunch of different dishes in Hanoi when it’s your first time? Hanoi’s Must Eat Food Night Tour, that’s how! When we’re traveling to a new place and we don’t know the language yet want to eat like a local, we will usually look for a food tour run by a local agency. This has always worked out for us since not only do we have someone who can speak the language and order the specialties for us, in areas like Seoul and Hanoi where street food is prevalent and there are tons of hole in wall type restaurants, having that local makes all the difference!
Without them, who knows where we would have ended up eating? Since we were instructed to arrive around 15 minutes prior to the start time, we left our hotel, also located in the Old Quarter at 6 pm in order to make it for the 6:30 pm tour. We had walked around and passed by the corner location twice, but that more due to have gotten there too early and wanting to check out the stalls nearby.
Normally groups for the food tour range from 2-10 people, but we lucked out and had only a total of 3 in our group; 2 of them being the 2 of us! Personally with the congestion of Hanoi and the difficulty in navigating the streets, especially at night, we found that having the smaller group made it that much easier, especially since you’ll be walking to 7 different places over the span of 3 hours. Also, since people in Hanoi tend to eat street food literally by sitting on stools on the side of the street, having the smaller group also meant that we didn’t have to take up as many tables and all can fit around one.
Once we arrived for the check in, we settled our bill, $20 (at the time) per person and walked around before the 6:30 pm. Right at 6:30 pm, we all got together (us and a visitor from South Korea) and met Kiwi, our guide for the evening. Kiwi, a local student was a fantastic tour guide. She spoke excellent English and knew how to get the conversation going. Since she also used to be a tour guide to the city, I enjoyed her knowledge about the history of the city that she shared along with the local legends such as the legend of Hoan Kiem lake.
According to legend of the lake, a long time ago, a Golden turtle surfaced and asked the emperor for his sword that was loaned to him. And to celebrate the momentous occasion the emperor had renamed the lake from Luc Thuy, which simply meant, Green Water to current name of Hoan Kiem, meaning Lake of the Returned Sword. And since then, the area has been inhabited by a number of now endangered large soft shell turtles. After hearing about the romantic story, we headed off into the bustling night in search of what Hanoi had to offer our growling stomachs. During the course of the night we tried all manner of different Northern Vietnamese delicacies ranging from savory soups to sweet dessert.
Bun Cha is the most famous dish of Hanoi. At Thanh Hop they are also well known for their pho ga, and their chicken pho. Bun cha is a pork patty/pork slice dish served in a vinegar based broth accompanied by fresh vegetables and rice vermicelli noodles. To eat, simply take a bit of the vermicelli and dip it into the broth with the pork and eat. You can also eat this with the various greens; lettuce, mint and other herbs. If you so choose, you can also add calamansi or lime, chili peppers and black pepper to your sauce to make it more flavorful. This was my favorite dish out of all seven we tried over the course of the night.
Nom Thit Bo Kho, a green papaya dish served with sliced beef is the specialty at Cafe Quang Minh. Similar to a Thai papaya salad but with peanuts blended into the sauce. Despite not liking the traditional Thai version of this, JM enjoyed this Northern Vietnamese dish thoroughly. Overall, it was refreshing and the meat, which included a red beef jerky, was very satisfying.
Banh Cuon Thit is the specialty at Banh Cuon Nong. This was an interesting stop since it was completely empty when we first arrived, however Kiwi explained that it was because this dish is traditionally eaten for breakfast; hence the lack of a crowd. The dish consisted of mushrooms, minced pork and vermicelli wrapped a rice noodle. This was topped with fried onions and served with a vinegar sauce with chopped chilis and cilantro. This reminded me of a very similar Cantonese dim sum dish called cheong fun.
Lemon Tea at Thu Do was very thirst quenching. While sitting there we found a man selling a dessert version of savory Bo Bia (below) from the back of his bike. This was a very simple stop as it was only for a lemon tea but the stop was cool since it was located in front of the old Hanoi Cathedral. Apparently lemon tea is a drink that is often shared with friends while hanging out. Quan Goc Da us a famous street side shop famously serving locals Banh Ran, a fried rice cake, and Banh Goi, a type of fried empanada (above right and below).
Down the street at Hoa Beo, you could find yourself a freshly blended Avocado shake, Sinh To Bo or a creamy fruit yogurt bowl called Hoa Qua.
Last but not least, Giang Cafe, found at the end of Egg Coffee Lane, was the best of a dying breed of night spots that specialized in the dolling out rich cups of Egg Coffee.
Try everything! And if you haven’t made up your mind, get yourself a 2nd helping.
Do you have a favorite Northern Vietnamese dish that you crave? Tell us more.