This guest post is by Pete Vrouvas of TheOnlyPete.com. Pete is a California-based traveler, food lover, beer drinker, and adventurer focused on sharing experiences and tips on travel, technology, and food. Here are his recommendations for what to eat in Hanoi.
Pho in Hanoi; photo by Pete Vrouvas
For nearly two months this summer, I bounced around 13 cities eating everything in sight throughout the entirety of Vietnam. As a budget traveler in my mid-twenties, when I say everything in sight, I mean street food and local restaurants that never cost more than 100,000 dong (about $5 US) and usually hover around 30,000-60,000 dong ($1-3 US). Nowhere has more delicious food options in such a small geographic area than the Old Quarter in Hanoi.
Entry gate to Hanoi’s Old Quarter; photo by Pete Vrouvas
Food-Centric Atmosphere in the Old Quarter
As soon as I enter the the small, lively streets in the middle of the Old Quarter, I see dozens of street vendors lining the non-existent sidewalks in the gaps between even more restaurants. Meat skewers, noodle soup, and fried desserts are readily available on most streets. In fact, beyond the pockets of the city that are designated areas for shopping/clothes or industrial shops, it seems every other business is an eatery. I like to try as many types of food as my stomach and wallet can handle; though, in the end I did find some favorites I will recommend for you here.
My 3 Favorite Restaurants in Hanoi
Despite thoroughly enjoying just about every meal in Hanoi, my favorites include a pho bo restaurant (duh), a bun cha restaurant, and a restaurant that serves fried pigeon. Most of them are quite famous, and it’s no mystery why to me anymore.
Pho bo from Bat Dan 49; photo by Pete Vrouvas
1. Pho Bo from Pho Bat Dan, 49 Bat Dan Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
As I wander through the crowded streets of the Old Quarter on a hot, humid night, my iPhone displays my map of the city in my right hand. When I hit the intersection of Bat Dan and Hang Bieu, I know I am close. The sidewalks are covered with little plastic chairs and tables of various crowded restaurants. I don’t get distracted though. I only have Bat Dan 49 in mind, which a highly reputable street food tour guide emphasized I must try.
Finally, I see a small “49” nestled in the middle of the block above a line of hungry people that curves out into the street. My excitement builds as the line quickly melts away. People seem to only be at the venue for 20 minutes or less – just long enough to eat their pho and wipe their sweaty faces. The middle-aged couple running the restaurant expertly pour and assemble bowl after bowl. Nobody orders anything except pho bo (beef soup), which costs 60,000 dong ($2.75 US) per bowl.
As I am handed the steaming bowl, I gently carry it to my table like it’s a newborn baby. The beef is pink and less cooked than any other pho I have had. I mix it in the broth to cook it a bit more. The broth, oh, the broth. Fatty, spicy broth that after one sip wordlessly explains the line of people waiting to shove it in their faceholes. I don’t even add any chili or sauce to the soup. I want the raw, untainted deliciousness.
On a whim, I also buy some of the fried bread stick things up front. I saw some locals get them, so what the hell. I dip one in my pho and take a bite. Is it surprising that a greasy, fried carb stick dipped into a hot soup full of beef fat is good? No. Even after finishing the bowl and discarding several napkins, I can feel the grease from both the soup and bread on my face and hands. As contentedness washes over my body, I think I may actually need a shower. Like a star-struck fan who vows not to wash his/her hand after touching an idol, I decide to bask in the grease.
Springrolls and bun cha from Bun Cha Dac Kim; photo by Pete Vrouvas
2. Bun Cha from Bun Cha Dac Kim Located at 01 Hang Manh, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
The people in Hanoi and northern Vietnam are very particular about their bun cha (grilled pork with noodles). Bun cha from other parts of the country is not “real” bun cha. So, on a sunny afternoon, I set out to get an authentic meal from the highly reviewed and recommended Bun Cha Dac Kim.
Slowly drifting down the street looking for my tummy target, I somehow walk right past the faded, yellow building with giant letters. When I double back and walk into the restaurant, the crammed tables and narrow staircase give off a cozy but claustrophobic vibe. The ground floor is completely packed. I get the last table on the second floor and glance up to see that there is at least one more floor above. The staff is quick and attentive and within minutes I have my bun cha and a plate of spring rolls in front of me.
The broth of the bun cha is much sweeter than expected, but complements the salty pork chunks perfectly. By the time I am halfway through both plates, I realize the spring rolls were a mistake. Like a true American, I ignore the signals my bulging stomach is sending my brain and power through to the end. Delightful. Perhaps a bit too much pork for one meal. Oh well.
In the end, the price of the bun cha is on the steep side, around 80,000 dong ($3.50). Not too bad for a famous dish from a reputable venue in the capital city. When considering it is half the price of a meal at McDonald’s, it sounds even better.
Fried pigeon from Cha Ca la Vong; photo by Pete Vrouvas
3. Fried Pigeon from Cha Ca La Vong Located at 14 Chả Cá, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Fried pigeon is not a food I have ever craved nor desired to pay money for. Pigeons are gross little highway underpass dwellers I hate second only to seagulls (the true rats of the sky). After eating one of those fried little suckers, though, I will definitely have it again.
Tucked on a narrow, stone block street, as soon as I’m seated I realize Cha Ca La Vong is the classiest restaurant I have been in. No small stools or plastic chairs here. Real western style tables are full of families and couples, and the place is packed. At 100,000 dong ($4.50 US) for one pigeon, it is also the priciest Vietnamese meal of my trip.
As the waiter sets down my pigeon, the eye-less fried bird head is staring up at me from the middle of my plate, beak agape. I save that for last. Best/scariest for last, right? After my first bite of the delicate, crispy skin, I immediately forget it’s pigeon. If you can imagine perfectly baked or very lightly fried chicken (with no batter) that is more flavorful and salty, that is what it tastes like.
The whole thing is a messy affair. I look around the tables at the couples, thinking I would NEVER come here on a date. It’s hard to look cute, graceful, or sophisticated when you are nibbling or sucking the tiny pieces of meat off of a pigeon. The meat is way too elusive to use silverware. I guess it is similar to eating ribs on a date, but more high-end.
Legs, wings, breast, finally it’s time for the feet and head. The feet are so fried they actually crunch down and taste just like the skin. I avoid the claws/talons though – no thanks! Similar to the feet, the beak is actually quite edible. The rest of the head is all skull and cannot be devoured. Of course, I did what anyone would do, crack open the skull and eat the brain.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much meat and one bird is not filling at all. Instead of spending a relative fortune getting full, after a few beers in town I settle for a nice, greasy plate of fried noodles with egg.
I still highly recommend trying fried pigeon at least once, even if you don’t think you will like it. Give it a try.
Final Tips for Dining in Hanoi
It’s always good to do some research on where to eat in a foreign city. You check some reviews, look on the map, or read posts like this one. However, some of the best experiences come from finding your own little hidden street stalls that no one has read about online. Just because a place isn’t plastered on the internet does not mean it is not the best food you can find. So remember, when you are walking down narrow alleys or market areas and you feel a rumble in your belly, just take a seat and roll the dice – sometimes.
Lastly, a few things I noticed about the best places to eat in Hanoi to keep in mind include:
- None of them have staff on the street trying to convince people to eat there.
- A majority of the people eating in the restaurants are locals.
- The menus focus on just one or two specialty items, not a laundry list.
Do you have any other amazing restaurants, street vendors, or experiences in Hanoi? Please comment and share!
If you are traveling throughout Vietnam, you can read more about where to eat in Saigon in Food in Ho Chi Minh City