I didn’t expect to travel at all to Hanoi last year. To tell you the truth, Vietnam was never a country I was compelled to visit anytime soon. But nevertheless, it came as a pleasant surprise. I would say that the build-up leading to this trip was nothing short of ordained. I had a few off-in-lieu days to clear for work before September ended, and my husband, Andre, had a work trip scheduled during that period. “Join me in Hanoi,” he said. “Let’s get you a ticket and explore the city together.”
Having followed Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps around the world for more than a decade now, I know he held a soft spot for Hanoi. He always declared his love for the city, mentioning several times that it is one of his favorite places to visit and of course, to eat.
We booked my ticket, and I stayed up late all night doing research and plotting places on Google Maps to come up with an enjoyable itinerary for us. And by enjoyable, it meant relaxed, locally-focused, and well-fed.
I’ve always believed that eating a country’s street food is one of the best ways to get to know its culture, and Hanoi is the embodiment of that philosophy. Tiny plastic chairs laid out on the street, delicious food everywhere; it is the epitome of street food culture—my senses went crazy.
1. Dry Chicken Pho
My favorite noodle dish in the world is Khao Soi, which is made with egg noodles and a coconut milk broth. Now that I’ve encountered this dry chicken pho, or Pho Ga Kho, I am completely torn. Not a bad problem to have.
I discovered this place after watching one too many Hanoi travel videos on YouTube, specifically The Best Ever Food Review Show. Oh man, this bowl of dry chicken pho is phenomenal!
It is a humble combination of rice noodles, pickled cabbage, shredded chicken, chicken skin, chicken fat, a homemade sauce (soy, sugar, and possibly more chicken fat), fried onion, crushed peanuts, and the usual accompaniments—basil, mint, and a slice of lime.
Looking at the bowl, it feels like a pale and tasteless pile of edible confetti, but upon the first bite, Andre and I looked at each other, eyes wide with joyous panic, and then, we silently ravaged our bowls clean.
I’ve never had anything like it. Layer after layer after layer of umami greeted me upon every slurp and chew. The copious amount of chicken drippings rendered a delicious, fatty flavor that was enunciated by the sweet soy sauce and punchy fried onion. The basil and mint were a great addition and lent a lot of flavor and texture, but wow—what a bowl. The chicken erred on the milder side, brined lightly and did its job of being a helpful catalyst in rounding this dish up. The broth was light yet packed with bold, chicken flavor. But boy oh boy, what a damn fine bowl of noodles that was. We had this as our first meal together in Hanoi, and we loved it so much, we had it again before we left.
This was an amazing find—tucked inside a nondescript building. It may look a bit sketchy at first with its ill-lit surroundings, but once you see a sign, go through the pathway and you’ll find a bright room on your left with piles of chicken and friendly faces that are eager to feed you one of the best bowls of chicken noodles you’ll ever have.
PHO HANH NOM GA
65 Lãn Ông, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
2. Banh Mi
We were told that the best banh mi was in Ho Chi Minh, but of course, banh mi is a must when in Vietnam. We had the best one here at Banh Mi Hoi An—I’m no banh mi expert, but based on what I know of the Vietnamese sandwich, they got all the components right: crusty, buttered baguette, nice balance of ingredients, chunky pâté, crisp veggies, fatty pork.
BAMI BREAD – BANH MY HOI AN
44 Láng Hạ, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam
3. Duck Pho, Chicken Cartilage, and Spring Rolls
If you want a gamier spin on your pho, try one with duck. It was interesting, but the duck meat took the spotlight. It was fall-of-the-bone tender and with a crackling skin to boot despite being placed in broth.
Andre ordered some hearty fried rice with well-seasoned chicken cartilage, and we had the most delicious fried spring rolls.
They were cooked to a crisp with vermicelli noodles inside and a blend of mushrooms and crabmeat. I’ve never had a spring roll like this one.
PHO VIT QUAY
33 Hàng Nón, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
4. Bun Cha
Bun Cha is basically barbecued pork (like a liempo in the Philippines) chopped up and served in a broth, so the soup yields a smoky-sweet taste. They are served with vermicelli noodles that you dip in the soup—kind of like a tsukemen.
Of course, we needed to have ours at the place where Bourdain and Obama dined at. We were told that there are better bun cha places out there, and while I one-hundred-percent believe this, I enjoy the idea of having had what Bourdain and Obama had.
Again, the spring roll was mind-blowingly good, as with most of the food you will find in Hanoi. It tasted similar to the one we had at the duck pho place, but this had a crunchier exterior, and it felt like there was more seafood stuffed into it. So good.
BUN CHA HUONG LIEN
24 Lê Văn Hưu, Phan Chu Trinh, Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Xoi, in essence, is a Vietnamese sticky rice dish with varying ingredients that can range from savory to sweet. The popular place in the Old Quarter to get your fix is at Xoi Yen, which is busy round the clock.
I would call this great hangover food, as it is a glorious carb-on-carb combination of sticky rice and shaved mung bean, so it tastes like you’re eating mashed potato on rice. Then, you choose your meats—they have everything from sausages to pâté, to flaked chicken. And then, the best part: chicken fat and soy sauce. Fried onions to top, and you’re golden.
Noticed that it had similar components as the dry chicken pho—chicken fat + soy + fried onion. It makes a great umami bomb.
35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
6. Lemongrass Pork Barbecue Sticks
At night, the city comes alive with night markets and street food vendors heat up their grills. If see a stall that serves grilled pork, jump at the chance and buy several sticks.
The marinade of the meat tasted like the normal Filipino barbecue (salty and sweet), but what makes this special is the addition of lemongrass, which adds extra character to these charred porcine pieces. I remember we ordered stick each. We ate as we walked away, and then when we were through, we walked back to order some more. The pork was also ridiculously tender and had a nice layer of fat to it, definitely memorable.
There’s no specific address for this one, but I’m positive you can find a reliable stick along any street of Hanoi
7. Rice Rolls with Bug Essence
We also made a visit to a well-known restaurant whose specialty are rice rolls. They reminded me of chee cheong fun, but the kicker was a sauce with bug essence. Yup, that’s right. They break a bug in half and let the liquid drip out and mix with the dipping sauce. The result is a fragrant—almost rose-scented dip, which was quite sweet and floral.
BANH CUON GIA TRUYEN THANH VAN
12-14 Hàng Gà, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
AND THEM SOME…
Here are a few more places we visited.
7. Giang Café
Giang Café’s claim to fame is that it was one of the first (if not, the first) places to serve Egg Coffee. In fact, it has become such a trend here in Hanoi, they also came up with an Egg Beer, and other egg cream topped beverages.
I ordered the Egg Coffee, while Andre ordered the Egg Beer. The egg cream tasted like a fluffy crème brûlée. If you’re familiar with the taste of leche flan and yema in the Philippines, then it tastes exactly just like that. A little sweet, but balances so well with the strong, robust Vietnamese coffee. So if you can imagine how an ice-cold beer would taste when topped with this Vietnamese egg cream, I would say that it is exactly with Butterbeer would’ve tasted like.
39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
8. Tranquil Books & Coffee
A small, quaint café that has a lot of books for leisurely reading, Tranquil Books & Coffee is a great place to take a break after a day of walking around the Old Quarter.
They also have some cool reads here, too!
TRANQUIL BOOKS & COFFEE
5 Nguyễn Quang Bích, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
9. The Hanoi Social Club
Hanoi has been attracting a lot of tourists, and The Hanoi Social Club is positioned as an expat hangout with dishes such as Polenta Fries, Vegetable Burgers, and other dishes catered towards a more health-conscious crowd.
The Egg Coffee I had here, though, was exceptional. The egg cream was luscious yet light, and it had a tinge of burnt caramel in there. It was so good!
THE HANOI SOCIAL CLUB
6 Ngõ Hội Vũ, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
10. Maison Marou
You may have heard of Maison Marou as “that hipster chocolate” place in Vietnam. Apart from their focus on single-origin chocolates, Maison Marou also offers an array of delectable desserts and treats for tourists like me! An item I brought back to Singapore was the Marou Mooncake, which came with tart quince and rich hazelnut cream.
I had some time to kill, so I camped out here while waiting for Andre to finish work. I had their Chocolate Tea, which was really, really good! Unfortunately they didn’t sell the tea itself for me to take home. From what I gathered (because I asked the staff), all they used were cacao nibs.
91A Thợ Nhuộm, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
11. Vui Studio
I had the wrong impression about Hanoi until I started exploring it online. One of the places that caught my eye was Vui Studio, a design shop and café that specializes in a lot of handcrafted goods.
I spent a lot of time here getting caffeinated (I ordered a coconut coffee) and soaking up the beautiful interior of the space. I bought a mug here, some soap, and I asked Andre to get a candle the next time he visited. Don’t forget to pay this shop a visit when you visit Hanoi!
3c Tống Duy Tân, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
12. Polite & Co.
My friend Izzy recommended this watering hole to me, saying it was her favorite drinking place in Hanoi, and it did not disappointed. Andre and I loved it here so much; we went back a second time.
I don’t know much about this place, but my theory is that a chef designed the drinks because each cocktail on the menu is dissected into ingredients that are closely linked to gastronomy. To tell you the truth, it was one of the most inspired cocktail menus I’ve chanced upon—you can tell that a lot of thought and creativity went into crafting the beverages.
My most memorable drink here was the pho-inspired cocktail, which is made with the same components you would find in a bowl of pho sans the meat. I was served in a nice little bowl, which kind of screwed with my head because I was expecting to taste a bit of chicken. But it was so delicious, refreshing, and to say they are generous with the spirits is an understatement. We left pleasantly inebriated.
POLITE & CO.
5b Ngõ Hàng Hành, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 111000, Vietnam
13. Hạ Long Bay
We were advised to skip Hạ Long Bay, but we decided to make the trip anyway just because. Personally, I enjoyed it, but as expected, it was really touristy. It is recommended that you take the 5-day cruise, but we only had time for a daytrip, which allowed us a glimpse of the famous bay.
We ventured out only to the cusp, but I personally prefer the similar experiences you can find in the Philippines. I wouldn’t have said, “I missed out” if we weren’t able to make the trip.
The thing about Hanoi is I didn’t expect to fall in love with it as much as I did. Life there is simple, yet it is so, so sweet. Every alleyway, every corner, every street is teeming with lots of delicious, mouthwatering food. You will be spoiled for choice. Also, there are the quaint little cafés, the abundance of motorcycles, the rustic shops, the gorgeous selection of ceramics, and the friendliest faces.
We were at Hanoi for 5 days and 4 nights (12-16 September). And as most people will tell you, The Old Quarter is the most happening spot in Hanoi—and they are right. So take this advice, book your hotel or Airbnb in this area (you also might want to take advantage of the Airbnb Experiences—local tours!), and of course, don’t forget to enjoy.