I’m from Hanoi. Sure, I don’t know every street and don’t always know my way around but that doesn’t mean I’m a complete stranger. I’m not a local either but I still understand the city, even though it is constantly changing and evolving. It’s always good to come back every now and then, see the things that have been there since you’re a kid still remain the same and see new things pop-up, especially street food restaurants. Here’s a little map for you to follow along:
Phở Vui at 25 Hàng Giầy street
Seems like an interesting place on the outside. I didn’t have a chance to try pho at this place but when passing by, it seemed quite busy. According to my friend, this is a great place to grab pho when coming back from a night out drinking in the Old Quarter.
Phở Sướng at 24B Trung Yên alley
I used to go to this place when I used to not live that far away from the Old Quarter. As a kid, I would sometimes be spoiled enough to have my uncle drive me all the way up here for a hot bowl of pho at 9PM. Since my parents have moved further from the Old Quarter, it seems quite a hassle to travel 20-30mins only for one bowl of pho. I have decided to try other pho places and the general rule I stick to is to look for pho places that say “Nam Định” (the region where pho originates from). Apparently, not only locals know of this place.
Along Ngọc Khánh street
Growing up in the residential area near Ngoc Khanh street, just behind the Giảng Võ Expo Centre, I remember coming back from school every day and passing by a whole block of bún chả restaurant, one next to the other. The street would always be smokey since all the restaurants grill their meat right on the sidewalk in front of their restaurant. It’s hard to resist stopping by for a bowl of bun cha with them tempting you that way.
Obama’s bún chả: Hương Liên restaurant at 24 Lê Văn Hưu street
Obama had bún chả in a casual restaurant with Anthony Bourdain a few months ago and the US President became even more popular in Vietnam than ever before. Since then, the bún chả restaurant he visited is now always crowded and they even opened a second location. I was curious as to what made Anthony Bourdain choose that restaurant specifically so I decided to go to their second location and give it a try.
Their bún chả is decent but not really the best bun cha I’ve had in Hanoi and I find it quite pricey compared to other places.
The to-go place near the Temple of Literature: 28 Ngô Sỹ Liên street
Not sure how my mom found this place since it is quite deep into the small street of Ngô Sỹ Liên but I’m glad she took me to it. They do not have sitting room, unfortunately. What they do is just grill the meat and sell it by weight, mix the dipping sauce and sell bún chả with fresh herbs, the whole thing to go. People would line up and form a small hungry mob in front of the little stall, impatiently wait for their order to be ready.
The more you wait, the hungrier you get and especially if you come here right after the gym, you’ll make the same mistake as I did: slowly increase the quantity of your order and snack on some pieces of grilled meat on your drive home. It was absolutely worth it and I would say this place is my favourite bún chả place in Hanoi by far!
If you do not have time to tour through Vietnam, this narrow dark alley can give you a glimpse of each region’s specialty. You can find everything from Northern pho, to Huế’s tapioca dumplings (bánh bột lọc), to Đà Nẵng’s little pyramid dumplings (bánh ít) and to Southern Vietnamese food like bánh xèo (crispy crepes). For desserts, you can find plenty of chè as well.
This is quite a popular place many foreigners go to for the Vietnamese street food that isn’t known internationally. In the Old Quarter, there are many local tourism offices that offer guided street food tours and this is alley is one of their stops.
Xôi Yến at 35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân street (corner of Nguyễn Hữu Huân and Hàng Mắm)
My first time coming back to Vietnam after South Africa, I actually landed in Ho Chi Minh city first. One day while hanging out with my friends, I suddenly had a craving for xôi xéo (sticky rice with mashed mung beans) and asked them to take me to a restaurant that made this. They said you can’t really find it in HCMC and it was a Northern Vietnamese dish.
I remember often coming to this restaurant when I was still a teenager for a nice portion of filling sticky rice. It’s good to see they have renovated their place but that it’s still as “street” and casual as it used to be years ago. The size of the crowd lining up to buy sticky rice is also the same as always.
Bánh giò at the corner of Ngô Thì Nhậm and Trần Xuân Soạn street
I have actually never eaten this lady’s steamed pyramid dumplings until a friend of mine took me to her spot on the sidewalk in the Old Quarter. It was only 6PM but she was already almost sold out and only had a few dumplings left with regular steamed ham (giò).
Apparently, she has been selling these for years on the sidewalk, at this same spot, without ever bothering to open an actual restaurant. You can find her at this spot after 3PM but makes sure to come early if you want to have more options.
Noodle soups at 12 Đinh Liệt street
This place is known for its chicken-based broth and all the noodle soups that use that broth including bún thang (Hanoi shredded combo noodle soup), chicken pho and Vietnamese wonton noodle and more. The long menu, of course, is available on the whiteboard that covers one entire wall of the restaurant, something almost all casual Vietnamese restaurants do. The restaurant also offers some delicious soy milk so do give that a try and see how soy milk in Vietnam is different from abroad.
Apart from the pieces of wontons, egg noodles and maybe a bit of bok choi in the soup, Vietnamese wonton noodle is quite different from the Chinese version: it has a combination of many more ingredients like slices of char siu meat, pork skin cracklings, shiitake mushrooms, a hard-boiled egg or quail eggs, slices of boiled pork liver and chives (always chives, never spring onions). You can also order a side of fried breadsticks to dip in the broth.
Beef salad: Nộm Ông Tàu Áo Đen
Hoan Kiem Lake street is the go-to place in Hanoi for Vietnamese beef salad (nộm thịt bò). When Long Vĩ Ổn restaurant opened decades ago, when my dad was still a kid, this street became famous for beef salad. The place is more known to locals as Ông Tàu Áo Đen (the Chinese Man in Black).
Because of its success, other people have also opened beef salad restaurants or sidewalk stalls along the one-block street and profited from the Chinese Man in Black’s success. Aside from beef salad, they also sell Huế’s tapioca dumplings (bánh bột lọc) and fresh rolls since both these snacks also use the same dipping sauce.
Hidden gem: Northern Vietnamese bánh đúc in small narrow alley
The bánh đúc place in alley no. 8 on Lê Ngọc Hân street is one of the primary examples of the street food culture in Vietnam. People here value quality over quantity so even if your restaurant is small and located at the end of a narrow and dark alley, it will still be crowded all the time.
Vietnamese people aren’t too picky about the look and the location of a restaurant when it comes to dining out. On the contrary, if a restaurant selling Vietnamese food looks too fancy, people will have doubts about its quality. Many wouldn’t mind driving across the city to eat at their favourite place either. This place has been known for its hot bánh đúc for decades and never bothered to move out of that narrow and dark alley.
When it comes to choosing restaurants in Vietnam, here are some rules to follow:
- The size of a crowd is an indicator of its quality: the bigger the crowd, especially during breakfast/lunch/afternoon snack/dinner, the better the food. Be patient and wait, it only takes 5-10mins maximum because people eat fast and don’t linger long after they’re done eating.
- Don’t be afraid to go into small alleys. Location doesn’t matter if the food is good.
- The fancier and well-lit Vietnamese restaurants generally cater to a different crowd: the people who are inviting important guests to dinner for networking. If you want to experience good quality food, go for the casual looking ones with the iconic plastic tables and stools.
- While at the restaurant, just shout your order from across the room. It’s not considered rude, it’s just the normal standard. If you wait to be served, you won’t be.
- If you want to go for Western foods like burger, pizza or pasta, stick to well-lit restaurants and big chains like Pizza Hut or Lotteria.