I’ve been meaning to write about Hanoi for three years now, since I started my blog in 2015. It’s been sitting in my drafts, entitled “Hanoi, I Love You”, but months, years, have gone by, and I struggled to find the words to put together to eloquently describe why I felt the way I did for this city. Somehow, it’s the places that I fall so hard for that I have such a difficult time writing about. Maybe it’s the fear of not doing it enough justice through my words. Maybe I’m selfish and don’t want to share the charm of the city. Or maybe it’s just because there’s a personal connection I’ve had with it.
It’s 2018 now, and the draft is still there. I went to Hanoi for the second time already in May, and this time, if it’s possible, I think I like it even more. But instead of listing down every aspect I fell for, I’ll tell you how I ate my way around the city on my most recent visit. That was, after all, the reason of my visit this time around.
Hanoi in 2014
There’s always been a huge debate amongst traveler between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Personally, I never felt any connection to Ho Chi Minh, at least not the way I did with Hanoi even the first time I went in 2014. I didn’t even do that much in the city, I was there for three days, and then hopped on a bus to Halong Bay. Yet there was something about it that I knew I had to make another trip back. (READ: Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City? That Is The Question)
I went back to Vietnam again in 2015, but this time I stayed in the central and southern area for 10 days. I sampled a lot more dishes, and somehow, I kept comparing it to Hanoi’s. That’s when I realized I knew what I was gonna come back to Hanoi for one day… the food. And so one day, watching my husband’s dismay over a sad order of a banh mi sandwich, I knew that was the sign. I had to bring him there and I had to finally make that trip back. So, I did.
If you ask me what my favorite country is for food, it would be Thailand. They have curry and all the spicy recipes, so they get me loyalty. Vietnam, however, has to be the second on my list for now, which really, is speaking very highly of it already. It’s a place that I would recommend if someone says “I just wanna go somewhere with good food”. I don’t think there are any successful food and travel show that doesn’t have Vietnam for an episode. Anthony Bourdain kept coming back for a reason, and Gordon Ramsay even said the best meal he’s ever had was a noodle soup on a boat in the Mekong Delta. The cuisine is just easy to like– not too powerful like Thai, and not too greasy like Chinese. They’re herby, and they’re all about balance.
Walking around the streets of Hanoi, it’s almost impossible not to stop to try something unfamiliar, or even questionable in my eyes. After all, this is my favorite way of learning about new food. However, since I’ve been to Vietnam a few times already, it was hard for me not to search for the food I fell in love with before. And as typical as it may sound, I was determined to eat as much pho and as much banh mi like I did the other times. I successfully did that, but I also managed to squeeze in some new dishes here and there.
Food Tour vs Winging It
I really wanted to book a food tour, and I actually did, with Kkday a few days before my trip. Unfortunately, I got an email back that the tour was full already but it was too late for me to find another one by the time I checked my email. It was all good though because I’m always down for winging it. Plus, my friend Sheryl, who was already in Vietnam the last week or so, had a little Hanoi cheat sheet for us from another friend who’s currently living in Nha Trang . Here’s the thing about recommendations though– you wanna listen to people who has the same taste as you do. Sure, at the end of the day, great food is great food, but because we all come from different places and upbringing, our standards differ, and so does our palates. So what may be good for me, may be a little too bland for you, and vice versa.
But these friends, we share the same adventurous palate but with a bit of western tongue. So I know this cheat sheet would go a long way. It was complete with restaurants, bars, hole in the walls, the whole shebang. For the most part of our trip, we lived by our cheat sheet, and other times, we’ll just stop and try out random food and places we come across.
I’m contemplating whether I wanna make my own cheat sheet too, but I’m such an advocate for going the adventurous route because you never know just what you’ll discover. Nonetheless, I’ll try to include a post with some of the best spots we tried. At least the ones I kept track of! We ate so many delicious food in five days– from banh mi, pho, bun cha, bun bo hue, to other types of noodle soups, ban xeo… it was hard to keep up!
My Top Recommendations That You Must Try
This is a classic. You have at least one Asian friend who’s introduced you to this delightful bowl of goodness. I wish I could tell you where to find the cart that sells the best pho, but I don’t have the address anymore. A friend of a friend recommended it, and it was so good that we had to come back. Sadly, we came back just a little too late as our favorite pho lady was already putting away her cart by the time we got there at 10am. Pho is a breakfast meal so it’s easy to find it in the early hours.
2.) Bun Rieu
It’s sour, it’s tangy, it’s herby, and it is tasty AF. Again, I didn’t list down the exact location of the best one I’ve had, but it’s easy to find a good one in Hanoi.
3.) Green Mango Salad
My friend wanted the Vietnamese version of Papaya Salad so bad and when she found out one of the restaurants on the cheat sheet serves the dish, it was non-negotiable. However, when we got there, we found out they served green mango salad instead. And guess what? It was even better. Chim Sau restaurant has been around for ages, and every local we bugged for directions knew what we were talking about. The old school charm was pure vintage, and you can tell the time that has passed through the aging walls. They specialize in ethnic and mountain recipes, which at that time, first trimester, was a bit too intimidating for me. We did have the green mango salad and the grilled cat fish salad which were a good combo at the time. The address is a little iffy when we used Waze, so you might need a little directional skills with this one.
4.) Banh Mi
This was my husband’s sole purpose of going to Hanoi. He wanted Banh Mi sandwiches. And he ate Banh mi. A lot of them. Like three a day. A popular Vietnamese sandwich layered with your choice of meat, pickled veggies, and pate all over the freshest baguettes, this French influenced dish is pretty addicting. We have two favorites. Both are located in Old Quarter. I can’t tell you where the other one is, but I can tell you that the one right next to See You At Lily’s Hostel is pretty damn amazing. They do it panini style and toast it flat, but totally amazing. The line is always long so you can’t miss it. But, they are only open in the afternoon, around 4-5 pm until they run out!
5.) Bun Bo Hue
I’ve spoken about this dish so many times. It’s still one of my favorite in the hood. I haven’t had it where it originated from (Hue) but so far, Hanoi’s version is good too. I like it because I find it more flavorful than pho, but I like Pho because I like flat noodles better. Either way, this is a dish you need to add on your list. I really enjoyed Noodle and Roll’s version. It may be unlike me to say that about a sit-down Aircon restaurant, but it definitely hit the spot one rainy evening. Noodle and Roll is located near See You At Lily’s Hostel at the Old Quarter. (READ: Top 10 Southeast Asian Food You Need To Try Authentically)
6.) Coconut Coffee
I skipped out on the infamous Hanoi Egg Coffee because I’m pregnant and I’m supposed to avoid raw egg. So, my friend told us we need to at least try coconut coffee. So she brought us to Cong Caphe, a franchise cafe that apparently serves the best coconut coffee. My verdict? GET ONE and don’t share. Vietnamese coffee topped with coconut sherbet type goodness? This is not to be missed. You’ll find Cong Caphe all over Hanoi, and there’s more than one in the Old Quarter and by the lake.
7.) Ban Xeo
The first time I had Ban Xeo was at a restaurant at the backpacker district in Saigon. I didn’t know how to eat it, so naturally, I had it with rice and ketchup. Umm, wrong. What a rookie mistake. When I took a home cooking class, I was reintroduced to the meal. I didn’t care so much at first because I wasn’t the biggest fan, but turned out, knowing how to eat it properly makes all the difference! Oh boy. This Vietnamese crunchy crepe eaten with lettuce leaves are just the perfect indulgence.
8.) Popeye’s Biscuits
You might be wondering, Popeye’s biscuits, really?! I was watching Michelle Phan’s YouTube video on her Vietnam trip and her first bite was a Popeye’s biscuit from the airport. She claims it’s better than America’s, so naturally, I had to try it when I landed. Maybe it’s just been too long since I had Popeye’s, maybe it was because I was pregnant and it was past midnight… but it was definitely something else. My husband loved it, but he’s never had Popeye’s before (wtf right). Not a bad airport munchie and apparently drinking munchie too, as proven by my husband who ate half a dozen while on a good one. Good news is that Popeye’s is pretty easy to spot around Hanoi.
9.) Vietnamese Iced Coffee
You’ll know this right away. Get it the traditional way, because, damn it, live a little. I had only a taste because, hello, preggo. But normally, every time I come to Vietnam, I see to it that I have a glass or two regardless of how much I don’t really like coffee. But Vietnamese Iced Coffee is the only exception. Although the franchise cafes are comfy and all with WiFi and AC, try being one of the locals and join them in the afternoon, sitting in a small stool and just savoring the humidity Hanoi has to offer. I didn’t do that. Because everyone was smoking.
10.) Banh Cuon Than
A sticky little treat, this is usually served with pork or shrimp. Both are great as your appetizer before you move on to your big dinner. Try the ones at 14 Hang Ga, Hoan Kiem.
Home Cooking Class
My husband and I ended our trip with a cooking class. I booked this one with Kkday, and what I love about it is that it was located at a less hectic part of Hanoi, a residential area just right by the river. We started off with a short bike ride to the local market, which is usually how most cooking classes go. We’ve decided to cook green mango salad, as requested by me, Ban Xeo, and bun cha. I didn’t include Bun cha in my recommended list because I was going to be talking about it here anyway.
Bun cha is a staple Vietnamese dish. Surprisingly though, the first time I had this dish was during this trip so I was incredibly surprised at what I was missing out on. It’s an instant favorite. They serve you the grilled meat balls which was oozing with flavor, soaked in sweet and salty soup/sauce, a plate of fresh noodles, and a side of different herbs and veggies. I can’t explain how beautiful the dish is– in my palate and in my eyes. I learned that it’s quite an easy dish to make, but a very consuming one. I’ve been meaning to try making the dish at home but I’m still intimidated by the amount of work.
I love that we had time to squeeze in a cooking class. It’s become a favorite tradition when it comes to my travels. At least to places like Vietnam, where food is a big deal and a huge introduction to the culture. Sitting up there learning the techniques, it was like learning in the hugest definition. I recommend signing up for classes especially in Hanoi. It’s a fun way to put your creativity to use, plus, you get to eat all the good food after. For more info about this Kkday home cooking class I took, please click here.
At the end of the trip, our stomachs were full and satisfied, and our hearts are happy as they can be. I’ve succeeded in showing my husband the reason why Hanoi has a place in my heart. It may be grungy, worn out, and a little chaotic, but within all the rustic buildings and busy streets, there’s something beautiful in the reality of it all. The small stools, the rugged hole in the walls restaurants, the scent of the air in the morning, and even the sweltering air at noon– Hanoi is, and will always be, a city of wonders for me. And now, my husband too.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Kkday PH for sponsoring our cooking class. I only recommend things that I know would be great for my readers. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and photos are mine.