I squeezed this poor unsuspecting lime to within an inch of its life, trying to get as much of its sweet, zingy juice as possible. To it, I added generous squirts of pungent fish sauce and a dash of soy, a spoonful of sugar, and a sprinkle of finely sliced fresh chilli and coriander. All my memories of Vietnam came flooding back… I may have physically been standing in our London kitchen but my mind had wandered way back to those streets filled with vibrant aromas. I thought had eaten decent Vietnamese food, even managed to rustle up an adequate shaking beef, but I was wrong. Anything I had tasted or tried to recreate previous to our trip was painted in muted, pastel tones compared to the technicolour masterpieces we encountered at the source. I had long been a fan of the cuisine, and everything we tasted lived up to my expectations.
Touching down in Hanoi was a jolt to the senses. We had just come from Vientiane; although equally as smog-filled and suffocating, it was far less exciting. Hanoi oozed the kind of seductive appeal which was pointless to resist… Staying in a hotel in the thick of the old town meant that we were thrown head first into the manic cityscape. We got incredibly lost in its maze on our very first night but it was fun, we were in our element. We had very few aims for our time in the city – see a few sights, absorb the ambience, inhale as much food as possible.
Bun Cha Hang Quat
We literally followed our noses to the entrance of this cramped little alley, were welcomed by a face full of smoke, and then sat down to the best bun cha of the trip. If I was to associate any food memory or dish to this city, this would be it. A local speciality, bun cha is a combination of three simple things – grilled pork, rice noodles, dipping sauce – but when balance correctly, the result is magical. We nabbed the last available table, crouched down and minutes later our small plastic tabletop was covered with a two plates of rice vermicelli, a huge pile of fresh salad and herbs, fresh chopped chillies and garlic, and finally, the stars of the show… the sauce and pork. Fish sauce, sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, stock… each stall will have their own signature blend but the gist is the same – something slightly tangy, sweet, and salty. In it you’ll find often find pickled carrots and green papaya, and then just before serving, it will be topped with thin slices of pork, delicately seasoned and grilled over coals.
Bun Cha Hang Quat, 74 Hàng Quạt, Hang Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
Banh Cuon Nong
This small plateful of steaming hot rice rolls, overstuffed with pork and mushrooms, were our first taste of Hanoi. We had gone straight from airport to taxi to hotel then straight to the streets of the Old Quarter in search of food; the plan was to find a pho as that was really the only Vietnamese dish we knew. However when we saw the crowds huddled outside this hole in the wall, our interest was piqued. We patiently waited for a couple of stools to come free, held up two fingers to indicate two portions, and watched as the rather grumpy aunty deftly spread the rice batter thinly over a large hot plate, then just as it was starting to turn a glossy white, transferred it to nearby board, spooned on the mixture then rolled it up and off onto plates. A sprinkling with fried onion and pork floss and it was ready to be eaten with a side of sauce and fresh herb. Service definitely did not come with a smile, and some of her practices were questionable but she served up the best banh cuon we had throughout our whole month in Vietnam.
Banh cuon nong, 73 Hàng Bồ, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
Bun Bo Nam Bo
The bun bo, beef salad, from the restaurant with the bright blue sign is no hidden gem, it’s probably been listed in the Lonely Planet for years and well cemented in the tourist food trail, but despite my scepticism, I thought it was pretty good. Bowls filled with a tangle of rice vermicelli are stacked about two tiers high, ready to be topped with all the usual fragrant suspects like fresh coriander and mint, then on go handfuls of pickled carrots, green papaya and beansprouts, crushed peanuts, crispy shallots, and the tender slices of beef straight out of the screaming hot wok. While not one of my top Vietnamese dishes, I do think this bun bo is a fine example of the balance that exists in almost all of the local cuisine. Here we had slippery noodles up against the crunch of peanuts, the potent saltiness of fish sauce delicately counteracted by sugar and vinegar – simple but satisfying!
Bún Bò Nam Bộ Bách Phương, 67 Hàng Điếu, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
Whilst travelling through South East Asia, we came across a number of training restaurants with the aim of giving disadvantaged young people an opportunity to learn skills and gain a career in the hospitality industry. Koto (which stands for Know One, Teach One) is one such enterprise which has been doing great things with youth in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for over 16 years. We decided to dine at Koto first and foremost to support such a great initiative, but we would happily return for the food. The menu is a blend of local favourites and internationally influenced dishes; though there is always room for improvement, it was definitely of a professional standard. The front of house team are also all students, each of them friendly and endearing, making the whole experience quite wonderful!
Koto Restaurant, Văn Miếu, Đống Đa, Hanoi
What happens when two Frenchmen go camping? They return with an idea to create a ‘bean to bar’ chocolate company in their adopted home of Vietnam, and thus Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat was born. This artisan chocolate company uses the best ingredients sourced from a network of local farmers in Vietnam, has a stringent manifesto around fairly and ethically, and also places great value in ensuring a sustainable production loop. The product itself looks and tastes fantastic; we can definitely attest to that after stopping into one of their two cafes (the other is in Ho Chi Minh City) for a well-earned rest after a morning of sightseeing. At their Hanoi café we were able to enjoy hot chocolates while having a view into the kitchen where the patisserie chefs were putting together the finishing touches of our desserts, and all sorts of other chocolate-work!
Maison Marou Hanoi, Thợ Nhuộm, Tran Hung Dao, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
So Make a Move
- Stay at JM Marvel Hotel – a stylish, boutique hotel right in the heart of the Old Quarter which won’t break the bank. Given the location, expect the rooms to be quite compact but well laid out with super comfy beds, pretty but practical furnishings, and a modern bathroom. We opted for a Suite City View room (approximately £70/night) which gave us just a little bit more space during our four night stay. 16 Hàng Da, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, rooms start at approximately £50/night with breakfast
- Walk around Hoan Kiem Lake – a hub for locals to gather, it can either be a peaceful or bustling depending on day of the week and time of day. We particularly loved it on the weekends when it’s completely pedestrianised and you’ll see families having picnics, street performers, food stands, and kids playing games.
- Check into the infamous ‘ Hanoi Hilton’ for a sobering history lesson – officially called Hao Lo Prison, it got its nickname from the US prisoners of war in the Vietnam War but it has been in operation long before that. Only part of the original prison remains but that’s enough to get a glimpse into the brutality that occurred within those walls. It has served as a prison under both the French during their colonial period and the Vietnamese for decades after that before finally being closed in 1990. 1 phố Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, entry fee approximately £1/adult
- Visit the Vietnamese Women’s Museum – very interesting museum showcasing the contribution of women in Vietnamese society. The exhibits contain a good mix of traditional cultural items, historical artefacts and personal stories of the notable female figures. The section on the women’s involvement in the war was particularly fascinating. 36 Lý Thường Kiệt, Hàng Bài, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, entry fee approximately £1/adult
- Get some light entertainment at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – while we thought the show itself was a little naff, it was very interesting to see the intricate puppets, and consider the the technical elements involved in operating the puppets and putting together a show like this. 57B Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, tickets must be booked in advance and cost approximately £7/adult
- Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – thousands visit the mausoleum every year to pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh so be prepared to go early and queue if you want to catch a glimpse of the country’s most notable leader. Make sure you check the opening times (this scuppered our ability to visit) and ensure you are dressed appropriately. 2 Hùng Vương, Điện Bàn, Ba Đình, Hanoi
If you are looking for more Vietnam travel inspiration, check out my other posts…
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