In Hanoi everyone seems to be on a scooter going somewhere, or sitting by the side of the road eating. Food is everywhere and it’s all delicious. My breakfast every day was a bowl of the famous Pho (pronounced ‘fur’) noodle soup, the national dish of Viet Nam. Although it displays influences from China (the noodles) and France (the beef) Hanoians claim it to be their invention, however this is disputed by people in nearby Nam Dinh. Pho may seem very simple but it’s all about the quality of the stock, which takes a lot of skill and time to make. It comes in two forms; Pho Bo (beef) or Pho Ga (chicken) and is served with a dish of lime and chopped red chilli with the seeds still in on the side. I’d say the chilli is pretty essential to bring the full flavours out, but is I guess optional for those who aren’t keen on the heat. Pho and noodle stalls are everywhere and while not as clean as sit-down restaurants, more often than not they have the best food, as well as being incredibly cheap. Anywhere busy must be pretty good but these really two impressed me.
Gia Thuyen Pho (Elementary A), 49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem. No phone. Open 6-11am and 6-11pm Located in a shopfront in the old quarter, this place only serves one thing and has been packed out with a loyal clientele for decades. With a rubbish-strewn floor and the big basket of misshapen chopsticks steaming on the pavement, hygiene standards are low but once you taste the stock you will forgive them anything. The bouillon is beautifully sweet with generous amounts of tender roasted beef and greens piled high. Very simple but incredibly tasty.
Bun Bo Nam Bo (Elementary A), 67 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 4 3923 0701. Open 7am to 10.30pm. Another one-dish place so it’s easy to order, just hold up however many fingers for the number you want. Your bowl will contain a handful of white bun noodles with lettuce, carrot, kohlrabi sweet turnip, peanuts and a tiny bit of sauce which you toss together. Again it’s all about the stock which brings out the taste of the other ingredients.
The above two places are very near each other so I went on a noodle crawl, interspersed with stops at a bia hoi, the Vietnamese version of a pub except it’s outside on the street. These places make their own fresh beer which is usually very good.
Hua Sua Training Restaurant (Intermediate A), 28A Ha Hoi, Hoan Kiem, www.hoasuaschool.com
Thoroughly enjoyed this place and think everyone would come for several reasons. Not only does it serve good food at reasonable prices in a very pleasant environment (an old French villa), it also functions as a training school for disadvantaged kids who will go on to get work in the catering industry when they graduate. It was set up in 1994 by a group of retired teachers and since then they have trained over 5000 students for placements all over the country.
I arrived to a lovely welcoming smile from the young greeter on the door and was given a choice of sitting outside in the courtyard or upstairs on the floor overlooking it. The spot they showed me was a good compromise, a solitary table on a small balcony, neighbouring a larger upstairs dining room that allowed me to take flash photos of the food without disturbing the other guests. It was nicely private but at the same time made me privy to all the arguments and accidents in the kitchen as the sounds rose up the stairwell. The two young guys who waited on me, one of whom spoke some English, gave me the kind of service you would expect from a posh European restaurant, albeit it with beginners’ nerves. The breadth of the curriculum was revealed in the menu which covered traditional Vietnamese and classic European, particularly French, dishes as well as more modern fusion concepts.
While sipping on a blissful Sinh To Xoai (mango juice), my eye was first attracted to the starter of Bunoc Tay Ho (Rice Vermicelli and Snail Soup with Herbs) but then I flipped the page and came across the Com Viet Nam, or Traditional Vietnamese Combination Meal as the translation in the trilingual menu (French/English/Vietnamese) would have it. This involved several dishes on a tray including; Fried Spring Rolls with Crab with nouc mam cham dipping sauce and pickled giant radish and carrot on the side. Also “Sautéed Vegetables” which on this occasion turned out to be baby pak choi with smashed garlic, a particular favourite of mine), “Broth” which was a lovely delicate chicken stock with lumps of meat and tender chopped baby pak choi leaves, and Stewed Pork in Caramel Sauce which was a fatty and delicious contrast to the simplicity of my perfectly steamed rice (all A). All of this for less than £4 so I decided to splash out on a bottle of the local Vietnamese red ‘Vang do Da Lat’ not expecting much but was stunned by an excellent, nearly full bodied red with red berry tones and good legs (B+).
Finally the set included Banana Fritters and Honey which were nice (B) and well turned out but were ultimately unsatisfying. And that is my only criticism, I still felt hungry after the meal, but maybe that’s my problem rather than theirs as it was pitched just right to feed a normal healthy appetite. Still, faced with half a bottle of wine and no cheese on the menu except the Mousse au Fromage, I decided to order the Chuoi Hap Dira Kieu Thai or Thai Style Steamed Banana with Coconut which, was healthily pleasant and came with sweet coconut milk and grated coconut and peanuts on top. To test their French credentials I ordered a Cointreau ‘Frappe’ to finish the night off with and was rewarded with a perfectly chilled digestif with crushed ice and garnished with slices of green orange (for less than £2 I might add). This place is purely for tourists but the food is great and you know all the money you spend is going to a good place. I spent 500,000 Dong, with a tip, which is about £18. I think everyone should come here at least once during their stay in Hanoi. I’ll certainly be back.
They also run these places:
Cafe Smile 3 Van Mieu St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 38 43 88 50
Baguette & Chocolate Sapa, Tha Bac St, Sapa, Lao Cai, Tel: (0)20 387 17 66
Baguette & Chocolate Hanoi at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Nguyen Van Huyen St, Hanoi, Tel: (0)4 22 43 11 16
Cha Ca is another famous Hanoian dish which consists of grilled fresh water fish (most usually the infamous snakehead fish) that has been marinated in turmeric, grated galangal, fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, stock, black pepper and shrimp paste. The fish is grilled before it arrives at the table but is heated up in a frying pan with peanut oil on a burner (preferably charcoal) with large handfuls of chopped dill and spring onions. Several other dishes hold white Bun noodles, shredded scallion, mint and coriander, peanuts, fresh red chilli and a bowl of fish sauce and shrimp paste based liquid to add moisture. When the fish is hot and the herbs have wilted, everything is assembled in one bowl according to your personal taste. The waiters here will keep topping up your noodles and other accompaniments till you have finished everything in the pan. I was charged 100,000 dong for the food and 20,000 each for two beers, about £5 in all.
About twenty minutes in a taxi from the centre, this is a good clean place where mainly Vietnamese people go. There are other Cha Ca places very nearby; in fact this looks like quite an interesting little strip with several other neighbouring restaurants selling regional cuisines. Cha Ca La Vong on Cha Ca St is the most historically famous place to try Cha Ca and is mentioned in a lot of guides, and although more atmospheric it’s apparently more crowded and expensive and they push extras on you like the ‘special essence of beetle’. I really wanted to go and try it but didn’t have time.
Old Hanoi Restaurant (Advanced B), 4 Ton That Thiep, Ba Dinh, www.oldhanoi.com
Apparently the best place in town according to themselves and many reviewers; it was recently opened in July 2010 (so not old at all) by a certain Mr Ramsay as part of his forthcoming TV series, to be screened in March 2011. Located in an old French villa (hence it’s name), this is definitely a nice place, a small oasis away from the non-stop traffic at the end of the road. The decor is pleasant but nothing special; red walls with display cases of ancient cultural artefacts as well as black and white photos of Hanoi’s past.
The waitresses, wearing traditional Do Dai dresses, are efficient and friendly. There are apparently performances of traditional dance and music, but not on the quiet week night I went.
The menu apparently represents all the Vietnamese regions, North, Central and South but I was after the local fare. To start I had Hanoi Sizzling Xeo Cakes with Shrimp; tiny crepes with a whole prawn, a small piece of pork and shredded green onion, absolutely delicious (A). To pre-empt their coming appearance on TV, I went for the Suon Lon Nuong Ngu vi aka Ramsay’s Ribs; four spare ribs marinated in five spices. They were pretty fucking good as Rammo would say but I’ve had better (B+). On the side Com Chien Hai San or fried rice with seafood (prawns) and also carrot, corn, peas and egg (B).
Sadly dessert choices were rather lacking, as is the case at many restaurants here, and I had to settle for the ubiquitous Chut Dot or Banana On Fire, (fruit flambéed with Bacardi, but the accompanying Fanny’s Rum & Raisin ice cream was great, (Fanny’s apparently make the best ice cream in town and have a shop on the west side of Hoan Kiem lake). For a digestive I was given a triple shot of Nep Moi aka Hanoi Vodka which sent me home in a merry mood. Total cost 572,000 with a couple of beers and a 10% service charge i.e. about £20, much cheaper and better food than other high-end places according to many reviewers.
Old Hanoi also runs cooking classes and I grabbed the chance to learn how to cook a lot of the things I’d been eating in other restaurants. The class is run by the lovely Ms Hoa who, although not a professional chef herself, speaks English well enough to guide you through. The class costs $35 or 735,000 Dong for about 3 hours, from 9.30 to 12.30.
Hoa took us first to a small nearby market to buy fresh ingredients and answer questions about all the food on offer there before taking us back to the restaurant to cook it under the ancient fig tree in the villa courtyard.There are two class options. I chose option one which taught you how to make the following;
Nem Ran Hanoi or Hanoi-style Fried Rolls made with minced pork, spring onions, sweet turnip, carrots, shallots, bean sprouts, two kinds of mushrooms, glass noodles, egg yolk and wrapped in slightly thicker rice paper and eaten with sprigs of peppermint, purple mint and coriander.
Fresh Rolls with Ca Nuong grilled fish (very similar to Cha Ca but fried with chilli and roasted peanuts, dry fried shallots and wrapped in thin rice paper rolls with Bun noodles, spring onion, cucumber, pineapple, carrot, red pepper, chilli, bean sprouts and lettuce).
Com Tom Cung Dinh or ‘Royal’ Fried Rice with Shrimps with sweet corn, baby button mushrooms, peppers, carrots, onions and peas.
Both kinds of rolls were excellent (A), especially with a few cold beers, but the fried rice used too much oil for my taste (C) and the pud was far too healthy to truly satisfy (B-). All the dishes are easy to make once you know how (you get a recipe booklet to take home with you) and I managed to satisfactorily recreate the Ca Nuong back in the UK, although I couldn’t have done it without my local Thai supermarket which had Vietnamese rice paper ,noodles and shrimp paste as well as fresh galangal and turmeric.
However I had to use stock granules and fish sauce that I brought back with me, although I guess Thai fish sauce can’t be much different. A good substitute for snakehead fish is monkfish which has a similar texture.
The moneychangers on Ha Trung St, near the Old Hanoi restaurant, will give you the best rates on town.
Anh Tuyet (Advanced B+) 22 and 25Ma May, Hoan Kiem, www.anhtuyet.com.vn
This place is located in a traditional Hanoi home so you have to go down the passage at the side and up the stairs at the back to the restaurant on the second floor).
On my last night I decided to treat myself with the last of my dong at this high-end place and it was the most expensive meal I had during the trip (700,000 dong, about £25). You’d do well to reserve as it was very busy with a mainly French clientele when I was there, although they do have another annex just across the street. The restaurant and its owner, Madame Tuyet are championed by my culinary hero Anthony Bourdain in his TV series ‘A Cooks Tour’.
The dish she cooks for him in the show, for which she also won the Vietnamese Best Food award in 2002 is her Roast Chicken Anh Tuyet (Ga Quay At), also the most expensive item on the menu at 195, 000 dong, although most dishes are in six figures. And it’s certainly worth the money; full flavoured meat and delectable crispy skin brushed with a mix of brown sugar and wild honey that you just want to eat forever (A+). This came with a dip sauce of lemon juiced, salt, pepper and chilli which further accentuated the flavours although it would taste fine without it.
To follow I had what should have been the starter; Egg and Crab Spring Roll Anh Tuyet (Nem Trung Cua At ), also a signature dish bearing her name but which for me was inexplicably tasteless, although very well made (C+).
I also went for the traditional Hanoian dish of Gio Luoi Tai (an aspic jelly containing pork, pig’s ear and tongue) which wasn’t on the English menu but which I was curious to try. This was served cold with pickled pak choi and large spring onions on the side. All in all a rather crunchy dish to eat (cartilage and onions) but with good flavour (B). I had it with Xoi Trang (steamed sticky white rice, as opposed to Com Trang which I presume is long grain) which was cooked perfectly. With the food I had another bottle of Dalat Red wine which I later regretted as the mark up was so high it was nearly half the bill! It was also more than was stated on the aging and often changed menu, but I didn’t say anything. I also tried a glass of Ruou Trang, described as white wine on the menu but actually the local fire water, which was very good and not at all rough.
There was no sign of the great lady herself but her staff were all wonderful, especially her niece Thuy who was very apologetic for the small hiccups in service. She told me the restaurant also runs cooking classes which if I’d known about before I would have gone to. You can find out more via their website or email above. As far as the restuarant is concerned I thought the food was great although I did feel I was paying a lot for it, so I think I would probably look elsewhere for better value in the future.
The streets around Ma May are packed with eateries, bars and bia hois. This area seems to be backpacker central, as well as catering to lots of young Vietnamese, so if you’re looking for some fun in the evenings, around here would be a good choice.
Cafe Mai, 79 Le Van Huu St
The coffee is very good in Viet Nam and this traditional shop is one of the best. It has two units facing each other across the street. The one at #79 is a sit down cafe where you can enjoy a cup of filtered coffee served with another small cup of incredibly sweet condensed milk. Over the road you can buy freshly ground coffee to take away (an essential item for the homeward suitcase). They have quite a range. The Trung Nguyen cafe chain are also very good.
In VN ou may hear the legend of ‘weasel coffee’, where an animal called a civet cat is fed the ripe coffee berries and the beans are roasted once they have passed through its digestive tract. Some believe this to be a fable and it’s true that there are a lot of fakes out there but given the number of articles about it at the bottom of this Wikipedia page, I tend towards believing it. Here also is a discussion about it on the New Hanoian website which is also useful for locating other good cafes and eateries.
Army Guest House (Intermediate B), 33C Pham Ngu Lao St, Hanoi. Tel: +84-4 3826 2896 Email: email@example.com
This is a basic but clean and fairly cheap place not far from the Old Quarter. As I hadn’t reserved till I arrived at the airport they only had ‘deluxe’ rooms left so I paid slightly over the odds, $60 a night and a half day for $35. The rooms have a TV, a desk and a balcony and not much else, although there are apparently a variety of suites. Breakfast is basic but all I needed each morning was fruit, pho and a cup of tea which were all fine. I stayed here mainly because it has a twenty five meter pool (unheard of in this price range) which would be great in the summer but was a bit chilly in November when I went. Some of the battleaxes on reception will try to ignore you at first but eventually came through on all my requests when I disarmed them by being super nice (my usually quite effective tactic for disarming grumpy people!). The hotel is well served by the taxi rank outside the Hilton just around the corner.
Taxis are dirt cheap and it will only cost two or three quid to get most places. Motorbike taxis are faster and cheaper but personally I prefer to be out of the pollution. The traffic in Hanoi travels at a fairly sedate average speed of 40 kmh, so there’s little chance of a serious accident, though rush hour can get a bit hairy. As a pedestrian the traffic will avoid you when you’re crossing over the road, unlike in China where they will try to mow you down. Edge your way slowly over and never run and you will be ok. I didn’t see a single example of road rage the whole time I was there.
From Hanoi I caught the overnight Reunification Express to Danang, an experience worth having just the once. Lower bunks cost slightly more than upper ones but you get a better view, especially nice between Hue and Danang when the train line follows the coast (a bit murky in November though). The food is pretty bad apparently so load up on baguettes and fruit before you get on. Once on the train is probably enough and catching a return domestic flight only costs the equivalent of a bout £40. If at all possible though, avoid using Jetstar who are notorious for rescheduling flights (mine was delayed by 5 hours) or at least call the airport to check before you leave.
NATIC (Noibai Airport Tourism Information Center) Tel: +84-4 3584 4476. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.natic.com.vn
When you come through the arrivals exit at Hanoi airport, you will see a tourist information booth over to your right. Be warned that these booths are private concerns rather than offices for free advice however they will safely book hotels and buy tickets for you if you haven’t already done so. I found them to be friendly and efficient although they are obviously on commission and will try the hard sell for places they think you should go.
A couple of useful websites for food and restaurant tips are:
An interesting book is ‘Vietnamese Food‘ written by Bobby Chinn, a Vietnamese American, and with a foreword by Anthony Bourdain.
Hanoi is a fascinating city and in four nights I only scratched the surface. Can’t wait to go back.