A few weeks ago, I had a friend ask me for advice on planning his week-long visit to Hanoi, a place I’ve called my home for over three years. After pulling together his list of must-see spots from the rounds on Google, he had a few extra days to spare and asked for my “local opinion” on what else would make his Vietnam travel experience special.
Since moving to Hanoi in 2011, I’ve gotten to know every nook and cranny of the tourist attractions, and had my fair share of wanders around the city on my days off. I’ve fallen in love with the crumbling French colonial architecture, the locals’ cheeky sense of humour and even the manic motorbike traffic. But more than anything, I’ve become hopelessly enamored with the city’s sidewalk food culture. So when my friend asked me what’s quintessential to experiencing Hanoi, I had a pretty simple answer…
In Hanoi, food and cooking are interwoven into the very fabric of local culture. Try to find a social gathering here that doesn’t revolve around simmering hot pot or spring rolls and you’ll come up empty. Food is the glue that holds together a society separated by generation gaps, history and social class. Despite the emergence of iPhones, luxury cars and fast food, Hanoians from all walks of life still gather to eat in the same places that they have for decades – on the streets.
For locals, it’s common knowledge that the very best food in Hanoi is served up on tiny plastic stools huddled onto the street-side pavement. For visitors, the bizarre experience of slurping a bowl of pho inches from passing motorbikes is worth the safety risk, and the ticket to sampling an element of local culture you can’t find in any national monument.
But regardless of whether you’re a street food newbie or a seasoned pro, there are a few rules for engagement when digging into Hanoi’s pavement food culture. From this “local” to you, these are my tips for making the most of Hanoi’s street eats.
Follow the crowds
Rarely do I give this kind of tip to travelers heading to Southeast Asia, but when it comes to street food in Hanoi, it’s my number one piece of advice. Food is everywhere in the city, and you’re likely to stumble across 10 street side pho vendors for every one rubbish bin or ATM. The sheer amount of options make it easy to sit down just about anywhere for a meal, but not all Hanoian street eats are created equal. The best way to find the good stuff is by following the people who know where to find it!
The easiest way to gauge a street food stall’s quality is by how many locals are sitting there. Even if it’s a street food stall in the heart of the tourist district, there’s no guarantee for quality unless the locals have given it their stamp of approval. Plus, street food stalls that are cooking up dishes as fast as they’re serving them are less likely to have food sitting out for too long – which means your stomach is less likely to regret it later.
Know your condiments…
No Hanoi street food stall worth its salt will ever serve up a soup without a few key condiments at the ready. Alongside your bowl of pho ga or plate of bun moc will almost always be three important condiments – fresh lime, fresh chilli (and/or chilli sauce) and garlic water. Though every local foodie is different, most Hanoians will make generous use of all three of these when eating iconic dishes like pho, and have an uncanny ability to eyeball servings for just the right amount of spice or bite.
Taking your street food experience from good to stellar is knowing how to ‘do as the locals do’, and season to taste. Though it’s pretty daunting to pour a dollop of mysteriously neon-coloured sauce into your bowl, giving it a try at the risk of going overboard is the only way to learn. If you’re short on time and want to master the art of seasoning a bit faster, set a local in your peripheral and check out their sauce-to-soup ratios. Careful, though – too much chilli sauce and you’ll regret it!
…but taste it first
There’s an unwritten rule among foodies worldwide that adding salt to your food before tasting it is in bad taste (no pun intended). After all, until you know what something tastes like, it doesn’t make sense to start adjusting.
Since Vietnamese food is famous for using simple, no-frills ingredients to amazing effect, this same “rule” carries over to Vietnamese street food. The best thing about Hanoian street food is how tasty it is without adding anything, so make sure you’re not drowning the flavour with unnecessary additions. Plus, if the cook spots you shoveling in spoonfuls of chilli sauce before taking a sip of her carefully crafted broth, you’ll probably get a scowl instead of a smile!
Adjust your concept of “comfortable”
The most iconic element of Vietnamese street food culture is the comically tiny plastic stools on which even grown adults are perched for dinner. These tiny stools are part of the Hanoi’s quirky charm, though they aren’t particularly comfortable if you aren’t used to them. For locals, the gymnastics involved with contorting your legs into a comfortable seated position is muscle memory, but foreigners usually aren’t so skilled.
If a street food adventure is on your to-do list, make sure you’re prepared for the somewhat uncomfortable experience of doing so on kindergarten furniture. Skip the tight jeans and go for looser fitting clothing instead, and don’t worry when your feet go numb. Thankfully, it’s all worth the discomfort, and something that’ll make a great story later on.
Don’t get choosy…
In the West, most restaurant menus are lengthy catalogs of appetizers, mains, desserts and drinks. In Hanoi, “menus” are whatever is written on the sign propped up against a vat of boiling broth – what you see is what you get. While the lack of choice at street food stalls seems like a drawback, it’s actually what makes Vietnamese street food so delicious.
Since most street vendors sell only one dish, they’ve spent the better part of their entire lives perfecting their recipe – and they aren’t looking to complicate things any time soon. So when sitting down at a street food stall, don’t expect to have your requests for dish alterations met with anything except blank stares. Trust your cook to do what they’re best at – you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result.
…but know your options
Although lots of Hanoi street food stalls only cook one kind of dish, plenty of Vietnamese dishes have little variations you’re likely to never discover unless you pay attention. Vietnam’s most famous beef noodle soup pho bo, for instance, can be cooked with a few different kinds of meat. Your waiter will ask you which meat you prefer when you order, so make sure you’re ready to aonswer: tai (rare meat cooked with boiling broth just before serving), chin (well-done beef that’s hearty and less chewy) or a mix of both.
Plenty of Vietnamese dishes have a few variations, so if you’re curious what your options are, take a look around when you sit down to order. Better yet, if you’ve already done your research and know what you want, ask the locals the best spots to find those particular dishes. Since restaurants serving only a single dish might not have the variation you’re looking for, it’ll save time to know which street food spots have what you’re after.
Don’t forget the drinks
Hanoi is proud of its food – but street food culture would be nothing without the drinks. Almost as important as enjoying the city’s food is indulging in the beverages. At most street food joints, slightly bitter iced tea (or tra da) is the drink of choice, but head into Hanoi’s famous nightlife hub and beer takes centre stage.
In the heart of the Old Quarter and along bustling Ta Hien Street is an area lovingly called “Bia Hoi Corner”, named after the city’s iconic sans-preservative draft beer. At 30-cents a glass, this bia hoi is a perfect addition to a favourite nighttime street snack called nem chua, or pork rolled into a banana leaf. You haven’t experienced Hanoi’s street food culture until you’ve managed to sit down for this famous pairing at least once during your stay.
When in Vietnam, there’s no excuse not to try a little of everything. There are hundreds of dishes worth trying and even more places to try them, so the key to making the most of Hanoi’s pavement food culture is to throw caution to the wind and dig in. Take suggestions from strangers, eat things you don’t know the name of, brave the tiny stools and enjoy the atmosphere. There’s simply no foodie destination in the world quite like Hanoi.