Vietnamese cuisine is renowned for bright and balanced flavors, a prolific use of fresh herbs, and a seemingly infinite number of soups (and we all know how I feel about soup). But, like any modern country, Vietnam is not homogeneous, and its varied landscape, climate, people, and history mean each region has a culinary style all its own.
The north is known for its clean and subtle flavors – you won’t find hoisin sauce or coconut milk used in these parts, but you will find lots of black pepper, pickled chilies, and dill … yes, dill. The central region has the spiciest cuisine in Vietnam and lays claim to some very complex and elaborate dishes thanks to Hue’s position as the seat of royal power during the Nguyen dynasty. The south’s warm climate and rich soil mean you can find almost every fruit and vegetable on earth there, giving its cuisine the big, bold, fresh flavors for which Vietnam (and SE Asia more generally) is famous. Food here tends to be on the spicier side, but less so than in the central regions, and sweeter than anywhere else in Vietnam.
We liked northern cuisine best, but, admittedly, it was not an entirely fair battle. We spent more time in Hanoi than anywhere else in Vietnam (largely by fate, not design), and we were such Asia newbies when we arrived in Saigon that I think it hardly got a fair shake. As for central Vietnam, Hue and Hoi An do indeed have some pretty incredible and unique dishes (mmm … mi quang), but I think our declaration of Hanoi as one of SE Asia’s best street food cities still stands. The variety, quality, and simplicity of the food blew us away, and the things we ate here still stick in our minds months and months later.
We were in Hanoi for almost a month, which gave us ample time to sample nearly everything, discover our favorite dishes and the best places to eat them, and then go back for seconds, sometimes even thirds. If you’re visiting Hanoi anytime soon or even thinking about it, here’s our list of must-try dishes and where to find them.
Let’s start right off with drinks, shall we? This is a must-do for soaking in the street scene. We tried all three places on “bia hoi corner” and liked Bia Pho Co the best. Green Pepper across the street had ok beer, but the service was terrible, and the bathroom does not have a door, which means the person cooking can see you go to the bathroom. A most unpleasant surprise, especially for the lady. The place kiddie corner from Green Pepper should be avoided on account of its absolutely rancid beer. Make sure you order some snacks with your beer like nem chua ran (fried fermented pork bites). Corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen
This is a pork-lovers wet dream and one of our favorite Vietnamese dishes ever. It features a medley of grilled pork (ground patties, belly, and sometimes sausage) served with vermicelli noodles (like angel hair pasta made with rice flour), herbs, a special broth, and nem cua be (pork and crab spring rolls). It all gets dipped into a sweet and sour broth. The best bun cha we found was outside of Hanoi, but you can find a decent versions at 34 Hang Than and 29 Cau Go.
One of our favorite northern soups, bun moc features pork paste meatballs, pork sausage, vermicelli noodles, and greens in a pork- and mushroom-infused broth. Simple, delicious perfection and quintessential northern Vietnamese cooking. Our favorite place has no name and is right up the street from bia hoi corner. The lady there is really sweet and loved to have repeat customers. 2C Ta Hien (between Luong Ngoc Quyen and Hang Buom)
Bo Bit Tet
The best Vietnamese dish you’ve never heard of – thin beefsteak, french fries, fried egg, and pate all served sizzling on a hot plate. Our favorite bit tet place in Hanoi was Bittet Hai Ty, which serves it with some sort of gravy – perfect after a night of drinking bia hoi. This place offers the quintessential Vietnamese side-walk dining experience, so expect to be packed like sardines onto plastic stools, shoulder to shoulder with your neighbor, which gives you a good gander at what they’re eating. It all looks good, but we were partial to the bo bit tet (duh), pho xao (stirfried wide rice noodles with beef and greens), and chim quay (roasted pigeon). 25 Hang Giay
For a very fun and interactive dining experience, try grill-your-own beef at Than Thuy. A gas-fired hot plate sits right on top of your table, accompanied by a platter of raw beef and vegetables for grilling. They also serve bo sot vang, which is a Vietnamese beef stew made with red wine. 15 Hang Cot
Cha ca is unlike anything else you’ll eat in Vietnam – white fish sauteed in tumeric, dill, galangal (close cousin to ginger), and green onions, served with vermicelli. The best place to get it is Cha Ca La Vong – beware of other imposters right around it. H.J. doesn’t eat fish, and since they only serve cha ca, it was just me eating. They seemed pretty unhappy to have him taking up space, as suggested by the small portion and extra terrible service we received thereafter. It’s also pretty expensive by Vietnamese standards, but it’s still worth a try. 14 Cha Ca
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Similar to Bun Cha, it’s a beef and rice noodle dish, but it’s all served in one bowl, and there’s a lot less broth. It’s topped with herbs, bean sprouts, fried onions, and peanuts – an exemplary use of texture that Vietnamese cuisine is known for. 67 Hang Dieu
Morning Glory Beef Salad
Noodle & Roll is a great place to sample popular street dishes but in a restaurant setting with real tables and chairs, beer, and bathrooms. The morning glory beef salad is so, so good, and their other dishes are decent as well. But still … the salad. Get the salad. Did I mention the salad? 39C Ly Quoc Su
These fried pastries are filled with glass noodles, ground pork, and woodear mushrooms – little pockets of heaven. You can find them and a bunch of other fried delights like nem cua be at a little stand with no name across the street from Noodle & Roll, a few doors up. You’ll know it when you see it. When we went, the seating area was packed, and there was a line for takeaway – always a good sign. We managed to snag a seat, but the church square just down the road provides a good place to chow down too if the weather is nice. 52 Ly Quoc Su
Famous for, what else, its BBQ chicken as well as grilled sweet potatoes, and grilled honey bread (the best of the bunch). We thought it was way overrated: the chicken was stringy, the potatoes under-cooked, and the sauce was way too sweet, lacking in heat and tang. Some say it’s the best BBQ in the world, but I would venture to say those some have never eaten BBQ in ‘Murica. This is decidedly a recommendation against, so why am I including it in a top picks list? Because this is bound to show up in any research you do on eating in Hanoi, and everyone inexplicably seems to think it’s the best thing on earth. It’s not, and if you have limited time in Hanoi, there are much more worthwhile things to eat. End of Ly Van Phuc
SE Asia’s Best Indian
If you’re looking for a break from the local cuisine, try Namaste for some of the best Indian food outside of India. H.J. loved the Chicken Mashuka, while I preferred to have the owner surprise me with dishes. Tell him what you like (i.e. meat, spice level, types of dishes), and he’ll surprise you with something amazing. 46 Tho Nhuom
Spicy Tamarind Duck
The Little Black Duck is a nice date place – the owner trained in Australia and is absolutely adorable. It’s definitely not street food, and it’s definitely a tourist spot, but they serve alcohol besides beer, and the the duck dish is worth a visit – once we tried it, we never ordered anything else there. 23 Ngo Gach
More Worthy Eats
- Ca phe trung (raw egg coffee), Cafe Pho Co, 11P Hang Gai
- Mien xao luon (stirfried glass noodles with crispy eel), Nha Hang Mien Luon, 87 Hang Dieu
- Bun rieu cha (crab and pork soup with grilled pork skewers), Tuyet Bun Cha Rieu, 12 Phung Hung
- Banh cuon (rice rolls filled with ground pork and woodear mushrooms), Banh Cuon Gia Truyen, 14 Hang Ga
- Pho ga (chicken noodle soup), 42 Quan Thanh
- Pho bo (beef noodle soup), 49 Bat Dan