One of the highlights of my trip Hanoi was the food. Vietnamese cuisine is known worldwide, and I got a firsthand experience of how good it was. I tried the staple banh mi, pho, and spring rolls, and I still crave for it today.
The trick to eating in Vietnam, and anywhere else, is to eat where the locals eat. Many of them eat in holes in the wall or on humble stands next to busy intersections. Most of the time, proprietors set up clusters of low tables with even lower chairs, a challenge for someone like me who stands six feet tall. The experience was definitely worth it.
In the six days I spent in Hanoi, my favorite meal would have to be the bún chả at Bún chả Hương Liên. It became famous when food authority Anthony Bourdain took US president Barack Obama, there and the food they ate became the Obama special: bún chả (fatty grilled pork in soup, vermicelli noodles, and loads of leaves), fried shrimp roll, and a cold bottle of Hanoi beer. Not bad for P180.
Yes, the crowd can be unwieldy and it can get packed even if they have three floors, but strangely, the place was filled locals even if it was graced by the presence of the US president.
The bún chả had a sweet and smoky flavor, which was quickly absorbed by the noodles. I followed the locals and wrapped the pork in the leaves, which added an interesting texture. The shrimp roll was good and went well with the beer. I loved the meal so much that I came back on my last day.
Besides the bun cha, I had my fill of banh mi, a sandwich made from the French baguette. I had three during my trip, and I noticed that banh mis are not made the same. My first taste was in Highlands Coffee, a local coffee chain. I had a regular banh mi and found their bread airy, closer to the baguette. The serving wasn’t a lot, but the ingredients were flavorful and enough for a light meal. I paired it with their caramel cafe Freeze, which has lots of coffee jelly. For the two, I paid P180.
Highlands Coffee is their version of Starbucks, so expect to see a lot of branches. Their branches are al fresco so it’s refreshing to just take a seat and watch life go by. My favorites were the branches beside the Hanoi Opera House and the one across Lenin Park in Ba Đình. Both times I stayed in the afternoon, but I can imagine how romantic it would look at night.
The second banh mi I got while I was already in my hostel. I was watching a movie when I suddenly had a craving. Unfortunately, many food stands close in the afternoon or early evening, but luckily, a hostel staff asked a vendor on my hostel’s street in Ngõ Huyện to make me one. Since it was at 10pm, she could only make me a vegetable banh mi for P40. The bread was chewier, and was good enough to satisfy a craving.
My last banh mi was recommended to me by a friend who recently went to Hanoi. She recommended a banh mi stand called Banh Mi 25, which is sort of far from where I was headed. I was to catch the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater along Hoàn Kiếm Lake, but I still had time to catch a pre-show meal. I was famished by the time I got there so I wasn’t able to take a picture of the stand or remember what I had, but I got one with everything on it. The banh mi was toasted so the baguette was crunchier. It was my favorite among the three.
My first meal at a hole in the wall is in this intersection along Phủ Doãn. I came in and no one spoke English so I signaled “one,” meaning I was going to eat alone. A woman came back with a mystery pho, which I suspect had duck. There was also a brown mass which was probably liver. It was okay, and taught me an important lesson: signal “one” and expect to be served one bowl/plate of something. I wasn’t sure what I got, but I assumed it was their specialty.
I did the same trick at a food stall in the intersection of Mai Hac De and Huế. I was served a piping-hot bowl of pho (P75), which I drenched in a slice of lime. It was a memorable meal: I sat on a low stool literally right next to a bustling intersection teeming with motorcycles and cars. Nearby, I had an incredible barbecue (P20) which I ate while walking.
There were tons of restaurants near my hostel, and there was this one I ate at twice. It was called Noodle & Roll, located in Lý Quốc Sư. It’s nice to eat in a proper restaurant and know exactly what you’re getting, and in Noodle & Roll, I had the spring rolls both times. The rolls were overflowing with vermicelli noodles, and the peanut sauce that came with it had so much peanuts that you could practically hear it crunch in your mouth. I still dream about it to this day.
For my first meal there, I had the bun bo nam bo, a dry vermicelli noodle dish with grilled beef, vegetables, pickled carrots, and nuoc cham, a dipping sauce made of lime, sugar, fish sauce, and garlic. I wanted to get it again, but on my visit, I had a delicious rice dish with local kebabs. Each meal cost roughly around P180.
Another restaurant I ate at is called Nét Huế, located in Nguyễn Hữu Huân. I was supposed to eat in Cafe Giang, but I was horrified to learn that they only serve drinks. I was starving so I decided to eat at the first restaurant I saw. It was Nét Huế, and they had bún thịt nướng, a dish a friend recommended. It’s a rice vermicelli noodle dish with grilled pork, herbs, roasted peanuts, and bean sprouts, dressed in nuoc cham. It came with a sour soup much like our sinigang, except it had a kick. It was so good.
Speaking of Filipino food, I found a Jollibee in Hanoi! I was surprised to find that it’s only a five minute walk away from my hostel, and I immediately rushed in, willing myself not to scream “mabuhay!” I was expecting to meet fellow Filipinos, but the place was packed by locals. Even the staff was made up of locals. The store manager was accommodating and brought my food up to the third floor.
I got my favorite dish: Chickenjoy with the Jolly Spaghetti. The Chickenjoy in Hanoi was much larger and came with barbecue sauce and sweet and sour sauce, and tasted almost the same, while the Jolly Spaghetti didn’t have the same awesomeness back in the Philippines. But hey, after having so much Vietnamese food the past few days, it felt great to have a taste of home.
The menu was also different. The only thing that looked familiar to me were the Chickenjoy and Jolly Spaghetti. There was a part of the menu that served what looked like Korean chicken, and their fries come in flavors. They had ube pie, ube ice cream, and a matcha drink. The matcha was okay, but refreshing.
For drinks, one of Vietnam’s specialties is egg coffee, and if you’re thinking of trying this Curious Thing, Cafe Giang is highly-recommended. The place has been using the same recipe since 1946, and uses chicken egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter, and cheese. It’s a rich and creamy creation, and can be enjoyed hot or cold. I also tried the yogurt coffee but I didn’t enjoy it as much because the yogurt’s flavor overpowered the coffee.
For desserts, I highly recommend the Kem Tràng Tiền along Tràng Tiền. The place has been around since 1958 and serves simple ice cream in a garage. I tried both the coconut and vanilla flavors (the flavors recommended online), and I liked the coconut more. It has a milky flavor and is the perfect refreshment after a hot day of walking.
My trip to Hanoi doubled as a culinary journey. I believe that one of the best ways to get to know a country better is through its food, and I am happy to have discovered Hanoi through its various dishes. The meals I have had confirmed my thoughts about the Vietnamese capital: a mishmash of things that don’t necessarily add up, but still distinctive and enticing.