Hanoi! In between that sightseeing and powerwalking around the tiny lake in the middle of town, you've got to stop in one of the city's many teeny magical eateries. Sure, you can stay on Ma May and eat at the crappy tourist joints, or you can walk like three blocks and try some of the best Vietnamese food you'll find anywhere. Kind of a toss up really.
Here is a list of our top five favorite Hanoi eating experiences from our visit in March 2012.
1. Bún Chả from Bún Chả 34 Hàng Than
Luckily, the address is right there in the name (fairly common in Hanoi, thankfully). The place is full of scooters at lunchtime, and they even valet-park your two-wheeler if needed! The tree in front studded with nails and hung with keys is a good way to check that you're in the right place.
Bún chả is perhaps the greatest of Hanoi's dishes. You'll get a bowl of beautifully grilled pork, some in patty form wrapped in a leaf and some as sliced grilled meat. This will be floating in a rich fish sauce that also contains some slices of either green mango or green papaya. You'll also get a large hank of rice noodles that will likely be at least partially stuck together, and an assortment of fresh herbs. (This dish wouldn't be very Vietnamese without the pile of herbs!)
An order of fried crab spring rolls (nem cua bể) are a traditional accompaniment that you can take or leave. We take.
To eat, grab some noodles and herbs and mix them into your fish sauce pork. Add pickled garlic or chiles, if you'd like. Eat. Add more herbs and noodles. Eat. Et cetera. Fun and interactive, with each bite being a different combination of crunchy, funky, herby, spicy, meaty, and crisp.
And be prepared to eat hunched over, with your knees somewhere around your collarbone.
Bún Chả 34 Hàng Than, 34 Hàng Than, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi.
2. Phở Tái Nạm from Phở Gia Truyền
Hanoi Phở is very different from that of Saigon. It's lower on the veggies, and the broth isn't generally as heavy on the sweet spices. Basically, I didn't think I was going to like it very much. Phở Gia Truyền (which seems to mean "old-style Phở") proved me wrong.
Small menu, usually a great sign in places like this. Your choices: Beef soup. Rare flank steak (tai nam). Rare steak (tai). Or well-done steak (think brisket - chin). Add a chicken egg, trung ga, if you want. Yes, again, we want. Also, they had the pot of broth going over these coals when we walked in.
And the Phở? Delicious. Perfect ratio of broth to noodles to meat. I love a good stocky soup in the morning. Kick it up with some chiles to get a good healthy sweat going, perfect if you may have overimbibed the night before.
Phở Gia Truyền is on 49 Bat Dan St, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi. Careful, as this is an early in the day dish; they can sell out by noon.
3. Bánh cuốn from Bánh cuốn gia truyền
Bánh cuốn are one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. They're free-form dumplings, or tiny rolls, made with fresh rice paper stuffed with a ground pork and mushroom mix. Each tapas-size sharing plate comes topped with dried shallots and fresh sprigs of cilantro, and you can (and should) order some meats on the side to add texture. We chose a small plate of Chinese sausage and shrimp cake.
Bánh cuốn gia truyền does these beautifully. The rice paper is perfectly formed and perfectly fresh, just strong enough to hold the fillings together while being soft enough to offer your teeth very little resistance. Their nước chấm, or fish sauce dip, is one of the best we tasted in our three weeks in Vietnam; perfumed with ca cuong extract (I'll go into that more later) and with just the right amount of citrus.
We went for dinner, but I'm pretty sure they're open for lunch as well.
Bánh cuốn gia truyền is at 14 Hàng Gà, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
4. Bún Bò from Bún Bò Nam Bộ
We ate here twice. Almost unheard of for us on a short trip.
This restaurant is another of those one-dish wonders (OK, two dishes if you get the side pork sausage). Bún Bò is just a beef noodle soup. Here's the mise en place.
The thinly sliced beef is cooked quickly over high heat, tossed with bean sprouts, and then ladled into bowls, atop a tangle of rice noodles and a bed of crispy lettuce and strong herbs - shiso and basil figure prominently.
The whole is then topped with dried shallots, peanuts, and lightly pickled carrot and green papaya (or mango).
You guys. Just... you have to go eat this dish. For the children. It's just the perfect balance of flavor and texture and temperature.
You can order a side of steamed pork sausage if you're really hungry, though I might suggest just getting another bowl of Bún Bò instead. You know, for more children. Or kittens. Or whatever.
Bún Bò Nam Bộ is at 67 Hang Dieu, a couple of blocks from St. Joseph's Cathedral. Open lunch and dinner and actually fairly late into the evening, by Hanoi standards.
Number 5 is actually a twofer. Beer AND coffee! Go together like... well, like alcohol and caffeine I guess.
We call it the poor man's speedball.
5a and 5b. Cà Phê from a street corner cafe and Bia hơi, also from a street corner
Vietnamese cà phê is among the best in the world. If it's blazing hot and humid outside, get it nâu đá (sữa đá in the South); this means with sweetened condensed milk, poured over ice. It was fairly temperate in Hanoi when we were there, so we went ice-less, no đá.
We found a place that we loved in Hoàn Kiếm called Sam. They serve really good, fresh coffee, have friendly people working there, and boast screamingly fast wi-fi, which is a bit of a shock when you see the outside.
I also had a great cà phê nâu there, served in a ceramic mug set into a saucer of warm water so my coffee wouldn't cool down too fast. Genius.
You also must, in Hanoi, get a Bia hơi. This is a fresh, low-alcohol beer, served in little streetfront bars. There's a famous corner that has a couple of competing establishments.
The beer is cheap and easy to swig, and you can get a frog hotpot (among other things) if you're hungry. This time, we stuck with the beer.
Sam is at 39 Đường Thành.
The Bia hơi corner we went to is at the intersection of Bát Đàn and Đường Thành, within very easy walking distance of Old Quarter hotels and guesthouses.
We hope you enjoy these favorites too! And if you don't, well, I guess there's just no accounting for taste, you weirdos.
Next - Hanoi Food, The Best of the Rest! And a tourist trap.