On our first night in Hanoi, my friend Alix and I walked to dinner. The restaurant was just five blocks away, but that’s all the time it took for us to become completely stupefied by the chaos of the streets. We snagged two child-size plastic stools with a view of an intersection, ordered a round of beer, and watch in silence as the tangle of humanity worked itself in and out of impossible knots before us.
There is no ebb to the flow here, just a constant surge of grumbling motorbikes, speeding cars, and teams of people grappling their way through it all. The pulse never lets up.
Mornings bring Pho vendors to the sidewalks, squeezing tiny tables between parked motorbikes. Tea vendors, barbers, and pedicurists take their place in the afternoon, but are themselves ousted by men selling warm beer and women wok-frying spring rolls in the evening. Throughout it all: balloons, stray dogs, a chicken or two, loose electric wires, broken crosswalk signals, shrines, incense, bird cages, and nary a strip of sidewalk to walk upon.
Hanoi is, without a doubt, and exhausting city – but it’s downright charming as well. The people are endlessly friendly, the French-colonial architecture has serious photographic appeal, and, of course, the food is reason enough to attempt a potentially suicidal intersection-crossing at rush hour.
This was a super quick trip to Hanoi, but – with the aid of much Vietnamese coffee – we managed to zip around town and have quite a few memorable meals. Here are some of my favorites and where to find them:
In its worst (and, unfortunately, its most common) iterations Pho is a bland beef-based soup flavored with little else than MSG and a lime wedge. I’m honestly usually bored by this dish, but we found a few versions in Hanoi whose hints of lemongrass, star anise and cinnamon made me snap to attention. Pho 10 does a great bowl with rare brisket and crispy fried crullers for dipping.
Rice noodles, so naturally devoid of flavor, come to life with the addition of marinated beef or pork and a confetti sprinkling of fried shallots. Use chopsticks to lift and fold the noodles into the thick soy and fish sauce pooled beneath, add some chopped peanuts, a squirt of lime, and never dare to call rice noodles “plain” again. The version we had at Bun Bo Nam Bo was my favorite dish in the city.
Though usually eaten for breakfast, this mix of sticky rice, mung bean, and turmeric can be dressed up for dinner with roast chicken and a slick drizzle of chicken fat. Get it at Xoi Yen any time of day.
Even after watching a woman pour water-thin rice batter into a steamer and use chopsticks to wrap the resulting translucent noodles around pork and shrimp, I’m still unsure how she did it. Banh cuon is just so delicate and slippery I could hardly lift if with a fork, much less two wooden sticks. Head to Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyens to test your skills on a classic version topped with fried shallots, nuoc cham and cilantro.
Anyone been to Hanoi? I hope to go back some day, so leave any suggestions if you have any!