PHOTO: Delicious Bum Bo Nam Bo, one fo the many exquisite dishes that await you in Hanoi. (Photos by Michelle Rae Uy)
As you walk your way through the streets of the Old Quarter, manic as ever even as the sun’s starting its descent and the dusk is slowly settling in, no doubt you’ll hear the unmistakable clanking of dishes, the enticing sizzle of meats cooking on small portable grills, and the occasional slurping of hungry patrons absorbed in whatever noodle dish they’ve decided to warm their bellies with that night.
This is Hanoi after all. It’s one of those exquisite places whose cuisine is as head reeling as its attractions, if not more. And its humming center—the Old Quarter—is unwavering in its gastronomic undertakings, ready to serve the hungry masses as well as please the visiting gourmands eager to sample everything and anything the city has to offer.
Here are five mouthwatering Vietnamese fares visitors must absolutely have when visiting the Vietnamese capital.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Start your day or get an early afternoon boost with a cold glass of ca phe sua da, better known to the Western world as Vietnamese iced coffee with milk. This may not be a dish, per se, but it is a Vietnamese treat that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world that would be remotely as good.
It’s easily the one thing you must try when you’re visiting the country, which is why it’s at the top of this list. Ground Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee drip brewed then poured over condensed milk and ice in a glass, this coffee drink’s strong yet sweet, chocolaty and refreshing goodness is nothing short of addicting. It’s a Vietnamese drink that both caffeine addicts and non-coffee lovers will appreciate.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Essentially Southern style beef noodles, this beef vermicelli dish may be simple to make. But it still packs a complex medley of flavors and textures that will surprise and delight any first time eaters. There are a number of places that serve Bun bo nam bo in the city, which makes it an easy find.
Just keep an eye out for the dish name printed on store signs or better yet, a storefront displaying stacks of plastic bowls filled with rice noodles and a dish of grilled beef, marinated, as well as lemon grass, veggies, roasted peanuts and bean sprouts, and you’re in business. Everything is set and ready to be prepared and served within minutes so it’s the perfect hearty (yet also light) lunch option.
Of course you cannot leave Vietnam without eating pho. It is the cuisine’s pride and joy, after all; it’s the cream of the crop, the one Vietnamese dish known the world over. But while you can find this light rice noodle soup in practically every major city in the world, the simple fact is you have not had pho until you’ve sampled it in Vietnam. This traditional dish that originated in Nam D?nh Province is simply much more flavorful there, with the broth meticulously cooked for hours, making its international counterparts taste like bland, watery failures.
Order this street food steaming hot and with beef, and slurp your way to the bottom of the bowl whilst sitting on a short plastic red stool right on the sidewalk in the Old Quarter on a warm Hanoi night. You’ll feel like you’ve just discovered the secrets of the universe.
If pho is the one dish you must have before leaving the country, Bun cha is probably THE one Vietnamese dish you’ll want to eat over and over again during your visit. Not only is it almost impossible to find anywhere else; Bun cha was also Anthony Bourdain and President Obama’s dish of choice when they went for a night out in Hanoi, and these two brilliant, worldly minds cannot possibly be wrong. Treat yourself for lunch or dinner (or both because you won’t help yourself) to this incredibly tasty meat-and-noodle soup dish of grilled pork belly, pork patties, rice noodles, and fresh herbs swimming in a heaping bowl of fish sauce-based broth. You will never look back. For the complete Obama-style experience, order it with a side of fried seafood rolls and Hanoi beer.
It seems like everyone in the Western world calls any type of French baguette sandwich banh mi these days. It matters not whether it is a small, roadside stand in the middle of the Old Quarter or an established café; simply stop at one of the busiest spots in Hanoi for a taste of the authentic stuff. Traditional banh mi is essentially French baguette stuffed with delicious pate, ham, barbecued pork, chicken or sausage, along with shredded carrots, crispy lettuce, cucumber slices and cilantro. But like with most Vietnamese fares, it’s astonishingly light in the belly despite being delicious and hearty.