The streets of Old Town Hanoi are both heaven and hell, but love it or hate it, that’s where it’s all at in this city of orderly chaos. It’s where caged chihuahua puppies wrestle and the crows of urban roosters fight to be heard against the never ending roar of motor cycles that make it a constant mission impossible to just cross the road. It’s where craftsmen make bamboo ladders and steel workers weld new sinks, not in the privacy of a workshop but holding court in the middle of the street.
We learn very quickly that walking even the shortest distance in Hanoi’s Old Town means negotiating all of these things that are happenings on the streets right in front of us. But the pavements are cluttered with one very important thing: food, being prepared, cooked, served and eaten, at all hours of the day. Here’s what we ate as we made our way around the Vietnamese capital.
It’s 6am. We’ve just come off the night train from Nanning in China and are bleary eyed and disoriented with overnight border crossings robbing us of all our sleep. Our hotel pleasantly informs us our room won’t be ready until 9am. Those three hours seem like eternity. Where do we turn? To the ever faithful and always delicious banh mi, a fresh crispy baguette packed with barbecued meat, salad and a secret concoction of Vietnamese herbs and sauces that make this a cut above your average sandwich. There are banh mi stands in the streets all over Hanoi but Banh My P, a trendy little hotspot on Hang Buom, was our saviour on that very early morning.
Fried fish, Cha Ca La Vong style
This place welcomes you with its huge sign, open dining room and reputation that precedes itself, serving a signature fish dish that is unique to Hanoi. The staff cook your fresh juicy fish fillets in front of you, fragranced with huge bunches of dill. I hate dill with a vengeance, but somehow when fried and put together with the fish, noodles, peanuts, chilies and sauces, it became not just tolerable but somehow immensely likeable!
You can’t leave Hanoi without trying this epic dish. The waitresses bring you noodles, leaves, sauces, barbecued pork and spring rolls in a rather unceremonious fashion but the end result is definitely something to celebrate! We took a tip from Lonely Planet’s top 10 Hanoi street eats for this one and the next two and sought out a place called Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim at 67 P Duong Than.
These deep fried morsels, found at 52 P Ly Quoc Su, are both simple yet delicately wondrous creations, filled with seafood, mushrooms, noodles and pork and accompanied with a simple vinegar sauce. Choose at the entrance from a pre-cooked selection of shiny, crispy pastries which are then re-immersed into a vat of hot oil for your immediate enjoyment.
Watching the women make these at the front of 14 P Hang Ga is nothing short of a work of art. The delicate rice pancake batter is spread thinly over a large circular hot plate and cooked over steam, alternating being covered and not. The result is a smooth silky blanket to encase the shrimp filling. Dunk in chili and soy and it’s a winner.
No Vietnamese street food experience would be complete without a few glasses of bia hoi to start or finish it off. These street corner joints are the equivalent of the local pub as despite being grubby and sweaty they are full of gas bagging, laughing locals. The bia hoi is freshly brewed, light in flavour and incredibly refreshing. At 15 to 30p a glass, it makes it worth the uncomfortable sweaty perch on a tiny plastic chair built for a 3 year old. My new favourite beer I think! There are some particularly good stands around the corner from our hotel, Hanoi Chic Boutique Hotel, on Bat Su street in the old town. We also spent an evening perched at Beer Corner, which in the evenings is packed with locals swilling bia hoi accompanied with typical beer snacks like fried chicken feet.
Eaten and drunk enough? Then it’s time for a haircut, also in the street – in Hanoi you wouldn’t do it any other way, as Phil discovered!