Forget chicken soup and grilled cheese – snail noodle soup is Hanoi’s classic comfort food. A standard bowl comes with rice noodles (bun), tofu, sometimes beef and crab meat, and a heaping plate of the greens that accompany most Vietnamese dishes. Key ingredients in the broth are tomatoes, wine vinegar, and pepper, giving it a nice kick. This dish can be found all over Hanoi, but a bowl at 13 Hoe Nhai in Ba Dinh District is a little spicier and more flavourful than other varieties. You can also select the size of your snail: big or small.
Bun bo Hue
Another variant of the bun noodle family, bun bo Hue is a regional dish hailing from the ancient city of Hue in central Vietnam. But Hanoians can also cook up a mean bowl of these noodles, with pig knuckles, oxtail and pork, topped with a cube of congealed blood and broth that is somehow sweet, sour, and spicy all at once. The complexity of flavours prompted Anthony Bourdain to say it would be a ‘relationship-ender’ if he learned his significant other didn’t like the dish. Don’t fret if blood and pig feet aren’t your thing – you can request a bowl without it. A street stall at 3 P Quang Trung, Hoan Kiem District, serves the real deal.
Grab a plastic basket and some tongs. A Hanoi barbecue street food stall is a little like a farmers market, but with more squid and cow udders. A popular barbecue in the Old Quarter at 66 P Hang Bong has a good selection of veggies, meat kebabs, and seafood skewers. After choosing from the mystery meats (nothing is labelled), pull up a stool and get grilling on one of the mini burners that are placed at each table. Another barbecue at 61 P Quan Su offers tasty ribs, glazed okra, and funky-looking enoki mushrooms.
Mien xao luon
Like sliced pig-ear meat, eel is not an uncommon ingredient in Vietnamese salads. And no one serves it quite like Dong Thinh at 87 P Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem District. For the dish mien xao luon, crispy eel is mixed with stir-fried glass noodles, egg, and bean sprouts. Other options include mien tron (noodles tossed with eel, cucumber, and herbs) and chao luon (eel porridge). A display case out front is kept filled to the brim with dried eel, and with the constant foot traffic it’s easy to see why.
Banh xeo is part crepe, part pancake and 100% delicious. The Hanoian version of the savoury rice-flour cake is filled with prawns and bean sprouts, served with assorted greens, cucumber, and sour mango or papaya. Scissors are often supplied to help diners cut up the crispy banh xeo, which can be rolled in rice paper along with other toppings. Most banh xeo places also serve nem lui, grilled pork sausages, which can be eaten in the same fashion. P Doi Can, Ba Dinh District, has many street vendors that sell this popular dish.
Banh da tron
For a unique local food experience, head to 42C P Ly Thuong Kiet, Hoan Kiem District. You’ll see a woman on the side of the street with a carrying pole and two baskets: one holds a steaming pot and the other is filled with raw ingredients. She carries this load to that spot every day, and mostly feeds hungry office workers during their lunch breaks. Her speciality is banh da tron: thick, flat noodles topped with sausage, fried fish cakes, tofu, peanuts and leafy vegetables. Thin glass noodles called mien are another option.
Ha cao and banh tom
A small food stall at 55 P Hang Bo in the Old Quarter has been churning out deep-fried dumplings for 30 years. These golden snacks are only served for a short window each day from about 2.30pm to 5pm. The ha cao chien is filled with mushroom, pork and red onion, while the banh tom is made from battered sweet potato and prawns. The side of fish sauce with slices of papaya is sweet and slightly spicy. Wash it down with a glass of iced soy milk.
For more fried goodies, head to Quan Goc Da at 52 P Ly Quoc Su near St Joseph’s Cathedral, where several women tend to a massive vat of frying oil. Pork, woodear mushrooms and vermicelli noodles are encased in a pillow-shaped pastry called banh ghoi, the the most in-demand menu item. Other options include nem cua be (crab spring rolls), banh ran thit (glutinous rice balls filled with pork), and banh ran ngot (sweet glutinous rice balls).
My ga tan
My ga tan is one of Hanoi’s most intimidating dishes. But after getting past the shock of realising there’s a chicken head peering back at you from your soup, you’ll find the dish is hearty and fulfilling. Diners have two options: the ‘regular’ chicken, or a miniature (and slightly more expensive) chicken called a black-bone silky, named for its black skin. The chickens are stuffed into empty soda and beer cans with aromatic Chinese herbs. Next, the cans are placed over heat, allowing the meat to soak up the flavours while it simmers. Ramen noodles are added to the stew, and Vietnamese swear by the soup’s healing properties. Quan Cay Si restaurant at 29 Tong Duy Tan in Hoan Kiem District serves up the best in town.
To finish off with something sweet, try che, a sweet soup made from coconut cream and tapioca, available in many variations. On a Saturday afternoon, a che stall at 31 Dao Duy Tu in the Old Quarter buzzes with young people sipping lemon tea and spitting sunflower seeds. Some order che chuoi nuong, a sweet soup with tangy, caramelised banana and pink jelly. Others go for the popular che nep cam, made from rice and taro. Crushed ice is served on the side so that the level of sweetness can be adjusted to suit individual tastes.