Beyond the Five Boroughs: Hanoi Street Food

From top left, crunchy eels with glass noodles, pho bo, bun cha, and grilled pork sandwich
I spent a month travelling around Vietnam and Laos. Here is the first entry in our Beyond the Five Boroughs feature on Vietnam and Laos. The second entry is on Lao street food in Luang Prabang, the third entry explores the enchanting city of Hoi An, and the fourth covers the imperial city of Huế.

Hanoi is the street food capital of Vietnam – in addition to being the political capital. Every motorbike-strewn street still has room for numerous street-side shops and vendors that crowd the sidewalks. Even the streets themselves are packed with tasty dishes, some of them mere snacks or desserts, others whole meals.

The food in Hanoi more closely shows the influence of the centuries of Chinese occupation of the country than in areas of Vietnam further South – the food is generally less spicy, more rustic, and more noodle-focused.  All those concepts are reflected in the city’s street food – with the focus on street; most were eaten either sitting on plastic stools on the road or sidewalk, or in small open-air store fronts.

Breakfast: Pho

Pho bo at Pho Gia Truyen

Pho is served all over Vietnam but its origin is in the north of the country. Usually served with beef (Pho Bo), it is easily Vietnam’s national dish and perhaps the best known example of Vietnamese food. The broth is usually spiced with a combination of shallots, galangal or ginger, fish sauce, cardamom, star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon, and sometimes lemongrass. Vietnamese people eat pho for breakfast, which is a surprise to most westerners, who don’t usually eat spiced beef noodle soup early in the morning.

Rows of hand-cut brisket & raw beef waiting to be cooked in broth

The best Pho Bo in Hanoi is served by the gruff but expert staff at Pho Gia Truyen. This packed storefront restaurant is only open from 7-10 AM and only serves Pho Bo. The owner endlessly hand cuts brisket, placing it in a bowl with some raw chopped beef. Noodles and steaming hot broth are ladled on top, cooking the chopped beef. A few herbs and spring onions are added for good measure.

Bowls are filled at the front, leaving patrons to carry steaming hot bowls to some tables in the back – virtually impossible to do without burning your fingers; but it’s worth it. The broth is rich and flavorful, the brisket and ground beef combo excellent, and the noodles are freshly made. A bowl costs about $2.25. Can’t think of a better way to start the day.

Lunch: Bun Cha and Fried Eels

Bun cha with crab spring rolls & beer

No trip to Hanoi is complete without trying Bun Cha, grilled sliced pork and pork paddies floating in fish sauce with pickled vegetables. Rice vermicelli, a mountain of fresh herbs, and chopped chilis and galangal are served on the side. The best version I tried was at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim – quite a mouthful of a name, but fortunately you don’t have to pronounce it. Only open for lunch.

The enormous portions of pork, vermicelli, and herbs that make up the bun cha is greatly supplemented by excellent crab spring rolls and beer, the combination making up their entire menu (about $5). At first it’s hard to know what to do with everything, but eventually we figured out that everything should be dipped into the fish sauce and eaten together.

Fried eels & glass noodles with eel soup

The herb selection is outstanding with multiple kinds of Asian basil, coriander, mints, and other herbs I wasn’t familiar with. Using different herbs makes each bite different. Don’t worry about finishing the herbs – they’ll just slide the plate over to the next customer. Like Pho Gia Truyen, this store front shop is a buzz of activity. Grilling takes place out on the sidewalk, while other workers are pickling, chopping, and cutting vegetables and pork inside where the patrons sit.

Another fantastic street food option for lunch (only) is found at Mien Xao Luon — a large bowl of crunchy fried eels prepared in 3 or 4 different ways.  Helpfully, there is a menu on the wall with photos, though it’s hard to figure out what’s what. Perhaps accidentally, we tried one preparation with glass noodles, fried shallots, peanuts, cucumbers, and herbs, with a side of eel soup ($2).

The eels are excellent and very crunchy; they’re not fishy tasting at all. I’m not sure what kind of eel they use, it’s certainly not what you’d find at a sushi restaurant — they’re very small. The eel soup had an interesting flavor, basically an umami soup with crispy shallots; can’t go wrong there. They also sell bags of their fried eels to go; not a bad gift for a loved one.

Dinner: Grilled pork and bahn beo

Grilling pork on makeshift charcoal grills at the Hanoi night market

Other street food options can be found at Hanoi’s riotous weekend night market, where several streets fill with stalls selling everything from clothes to baby toys and it seems like the entire city shows up to hang out.

Lemongrass pork skewer with hot sauce

Abundant preparations of pork grilled on makeshift charcoal grills line the streets. A lemongrass-marinated skewer with sesame seeds and mild hot sauce was delicious. The charcoal provided a great smoky taste and the unexpected hint of lemongrass created a nice contrast (50 cents per skewer). Even better were pork skewers mixed with hot sauce and topped with chilled pickled cucumbers stuffed inside a grilled baguette — finally some of that French influence in the street food! ($2)

The crowds enjoying pork & egg skewers in the alley

Perhaps the best grilled pork we found in Hanoi was served tucked away in a small but crowded alleyway near St. Joseph’s cathedral. Each night crowds of Vietnamese exclusively in their early 20s swarm to this alleyway to socialize and eat.

Messy bahn beo with tons of fried shallots

One dish is served – skewers of grilled ground pork mixed with egg and marinated in lemongrass then served with a scorching hot sauce and a side of sliced mangos or apples. The egg holds the skewers together and provides a slightly sticky covering for the pork. Young Vietnamese sit on tiny plastic stools here for hours enjoying the skewers and way too sweet “tea” mixed with lime (about $2.50 for all).

Another highlight was Bahn Beo – thick rice crepes topped with ground pork, mushrooms, tons of crunchy fried shallots and of course an equally large plate of herbs.

Mixed with fish sauce it provided a pleasant contrast of textures and flavors – sweet, savory, crunchy and smooth. It was messy, especially eating it with chop sticks on the street.

Dessert and Coffee: Che, sesame balls, coconut ice cream, and local coffee creations

Fried sesame balls

For dessert, the Vietnamese love “che” – a variety of brightly colored jellies and drinks often made with mung beans and other such things.

Hundreds of these cones are lined up for waiting teenagers (and me!)

I generally stayed away, preferring instead fried sesame balls, or ice cream from Kem Trang Tien. The ice cream in particular was excellent – this store front hugely popular with the locals serves just one flavor – soft serve coconut-vanilla ice cream in home made cones (about 50 cents). It’s excellent on a hot day (as all days are there) and it’s fun to see where the Vietnamese teenagers hang out.

While Hanoi has its share of western coffee houses (one called Joma, for example is excellent), traditional coffee houses selling peculiar but surprisingly excellent and refreshing coffee drinks still dot the city.

Coffee with yogurt (L) and beaten egg whites

One standout in particular is Cafe Pho Co – a multi-story gem tucked behind a silk store – literally behind, you have to walk through the store to find it. The coffee shop boasts excellent views of the city, especially from 3rd and 4th floor balconies – be careful on the narrow spiral staircase up.

Specialties include caphe trung da – iced coffee with beaten egg whites, and caphe sua chua – iced coffee with thick greek-style yogurt ($1-2). Both were unusual to say the least, but actually very good. I especially liked the yogurt concoction, which was quite refreshing. They were certainly better than normal Vietnamese coffee, which was truly terrible – thick, bitter, and served with way too sweet condensed milk.

Check out this map if you get lost – which you inevitably will.

View Hanoi Street Food in a larger map

Pho bo: Pho Gia Truyen, 49 P. Bat Dan – open 7-10am.

Bun Cha: Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh – open 11am – 3pm.

Fried Eels: Mien Xao Luon, 87 P. Hang Dieu – open 7am – 2pm.

Lemongrass grilled pork, pork and cucumber sandwich, bahn beo: The Hanoi night market, open weekends starting around 5 PM on Hang Ngang

Grilled pork and egg skewers with fruit: Alleyway off Au Trieu – open from around 4 pm to 11 pm

Sesame balls: Hang Chieu, near the Old East Gate, open at unpredictable times but usually during the day.

Ice Cream: Kem Trang Tien, 35 Trang Tien, open late.

Coffee concoctions: Cafe Pho Co, 11 P. Hang Gai, open late.

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Beyond the Five Boroughs feature on Vietnam and Laos. The second entry is on Lao street food in Luang Prabang, the third entry explores the enchanting city of Hoi An, and the fourth covers the imperial city of Huế." />