Hanoi Street Food Tour: budget eats and sweet treats
Hanoi is a hungry city, with living room eateries, plastic-chair joints and simple stalls offering some of the tastiest food in the capital.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Vietnamese food barely stretched beyond bánh mì and pho before I landed in Vietnam. So, what better way to try some authentic and local dishes, than by spending an evening gorging on the streets of Hanoi?
My mother and I walk through the Old Quarter to the office of Hanoi Street Food Tours, a reputable and long-running company that runs private and group tours in the city.
Our guide, Vi, introduces herself and wastes no time taking us to our first stop - Bun Cha Ta, a restaurant serving some of the best (you guessed it) bún chả in the city.
Delicately crispy spring rolls (nem, in the North) and herbs such as shiso and holy basil accompany the main event: a bowl of warm broth containing chả, grilled pork, into which you add white rice noodles (bún).
Washed down with a can of local Bia Hà Nội and two shots of rice wine, it's delicious.
"Are you single?"
Vi asks us, as we walk to our next stop. For the green papaya salad (nộm thịt bò khô) that we eat at our next stop is 'good for single women', as it keeps them slim and gives them 'nice curves'...
Next, a thin banana leaf parcel arrives, and within a stick of raw fermented pork with coriander. The youngsters nowadays prefer theirs fried and cooked, whilst the older generations enjoy the raw sausage.
Vi leads us around the Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm) and tells us the story of Emperor Lê Lợi's sword and the turtle God, before stopping for rolled rice cakes (bánh cuốn) filled with minced pork and vegetables, including shallots and mushrooms.
The pancake sheets are incredibly thin, so attempting to peel our own off the hot surface with a stick doesn't quite go to plan - but it's fun all the same!
While we eat our pancakes, Vi speaks about her life growing up in a small village before moving to Hanoi to study. She goes on to talk about ancestor veneration, which can be seen across all of Vietnam, despite whether people describe themselves as Buddhist. She shows us people burning fake money in a small stove on the side of the road, as an offering to their ancestors in the next world. You may spot people burning other fake things, too: iPhones, cars, food...
We'd seen ladies selling donuts on the side of the road, and we finally got to try the fresh versions! Bánh rán is a sweet sticky rice ball which we consumed in about five seconds. Realising I had a sweet tooth, Vi suggests I try bánh chuối, banana cake. Both are delicious!
We pass St. Joseph's Cathedral on Nha Tho (Church) Street, Hanoi's own Notre Dame, built by the French colonial government in the late 19th century. After Buddhism, Catholicism is (apparently) the second biggest religious group in Vietnam.
Vi shows us Chùa Lý Triều Quốc Sư, a carefully-restored shrine dating back to the 12th century, dedicated to a Buddhist monk admired for his healing practices. She speaks more about Buddhist practices, including describing the altars seen in temples and family homes, and the frequent existence of large steps at many entrances to temples (it forces you to look down, thus bowing your head as a sign of respect).
A short walk away is our next stop, for some bún riêu cua. This is my favourite savoury dish of the night: a light vermicelli soup served with tasty freshwater crab and a clear tomato broth. Vi tells us that the lady who runs the eatery starts cooking at 5.30am every day, after buying fresh tomatoes and crab from the markets, to create this rich and delicate dish.
Down a small alleyway and through a thin doorway, we take a seat at a dessert-only establishment (i.e. heaven).
We're served kem xôi (sticky rice with ice cream) and caramen nếp cẩm (black sticky rice with creme caramel), and some jackfruit on the side. Whilst not to our taste (we were still thinking about the donuts...) it is good to try some local sweet treats.
We drink more Bia Hà Nội and 'happy water' (rice wine) before trying something non-alcoholic: cà phê trứng, or egg coffee. Made with condensed milk, sugar, egg and even cheese, this is the pick-me-up that even non-coffee drinkers such as me appreciate!
After three hours of munching on the streets of Hanoi, we are set to burst. Vi writes down the names of the foods that we've eaten and says farewell, as we stroll back to our nearby guesthouse to the sounds of honking scooters, live music and chattering locals.
Our Hanoi Street Food Walking Tour was a great introduction to the city's street food. To book your tour, visit their website or their office (74 & 76 Hang Bac Street, Old Quarter, Hanoi). You can also follow them on Facebook and Google+.
Across Land & Sea were guests of Hanoi Street Food Tours. All opinions, photographs and typos are our own.