Sam Rice travelled to Southeast Asia’s street-food capital in a culinary tale of two cities: Hanoi in the north, where the pavements are for eating rather than walking, and the ancient town of Hoi An, whose original timber-frame buildings are now home to a vast range of local and international eateries. And the shopping in both places is pretty good too!
Frenetic, chaotic, authentic – Hanoi is a “Marmite” city, one that divides opinion, because it is nothing short of a full-body experience. From the moment you set foot on the over-crowded pavements (in truth, we spent most of our time there weaving to avoid the traffic), it’s evident that this city is all about the food. From street vendors selling pineapples from the back of a bicycle to the myriad food stalls tucked into every doorway, the only thing to do is get stuck in.
The best way to sample Hanoi’s food delights is on an organised tour. Your guide will lead you to their favourite spots for classic street food. Yes, it is a bit touristy – you’ll see lots of other people doing the same thing – but it’s a great way to see the city and quiz a local about their preferred foodie haunts. Our tour began with a “cyclo” (bicycle taxi) tour of the Old Quarter’s “36 streets”, each named for the commodity traditionally sold there; Hang Mam Street, for example, is where mam (the local word for fish sauce) was originally produced and sold. We then continued on foot, sampling no less than seven authentic dishes, including Hanoi’s famed egg coffee which, in spite of our skepticism, was utterly delicious. Tours run daily. US$35 per person.
If you’ve got a backache from perching on the tiny plastic stools at those food stalls and need a break from the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter, take refuge at this atmospheric restaurant located in the Truc Bach Lake area. There’s an Indochine vibe here; a violin duo were playing Edith Piaf as we arrived and pretty coloured lanterns hang low over wooden tables. The food is fine dining Vietnamese style, with beautiful presentation, big flavours and prices to match. Our bill for four came to US$120, which is top end for Hanoi, but still very good value for such a memorable meal. The grilled fish in bamboo stick and wok-fried beef with chilli were the standout dishes.
If you’re looking for something in the middle, not quite street food but not full-on fine dining either, head to this fabulous restaurant set in a preserved French villa in the museum district of Hanoi – a great choice for lunch. The menu is extensive, so there’s plenty of other things to choose from if you’re feeling a little pho’d out. The menu has photos of most of the dishes, which is helpful for families with picky eaters, and is very reasonably priced, with mains coming in at around US$3.
If small and funky is your thing, Lang Trang should be on your to-drink list. Located around the corner from HOME restaurant (see above), it’s perfect for an aperitif. From the hand-drawn cocktail list to the mismatched furniture, this quirky street-level bar with big picture windows is sure to charm you. The Gin Cinamis (US$3) was our favourite – gin, cinnamon syrup, lime juice and orange bitters.
No trip to a Southeast Asian city is complete without visiting a rooftop bar, and Hanoi has many from which to choose. We checked out Lighthouse Sky Bar, located on the 11th floor of the La Siesta Premium Hang Be hotel, where the ambience is low-lit and classy and the wrap-around open-air terrace is cleverly arranged to make the most of the fantastic views of the city skyline. Prices are international, so expect to pay US$10 for a classic cocktail.
Bat Trang Ceramics Village
Located 10km outside Hanoi (reachable by bus or Grab; we exclusively used the Grab app to get around in Hanoi), this traditional village is the centre for ceramics production in the region and the place to go if you want to pick up some kitchenware souvenirs. You can even have a go at throwing a pot if the mood takes you.
Of course, you can shop at the numerous markets and street stalls in Hanoi (be prepared to haggle), but sadly, much of what is on sale these days is mass-produced in China. If you believe, like the owners of Collective Memory do, that “gift shopping should expand your knowledge of the destination and its culture”, this is the store for you. Foodie souvenirs include organic coffee beans grown by the fifth generation of a farming family from Lang Biang and Saigon Charlie’s bottled chilli sauce, made using a 100-year-old family recipe from the imperial city of Hue.
Hoi An has to be one of the prettiest towns in Southeast Asia and is quickly gaining a reputation for being one of the best for food too. Most people visiting for a few days won’t even scratch the surface of what’s on offer, but, rest assured, it will all be delicious.
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip, Mr Kien runs this excellently organised cooking school like a military operation, but don’t let that put you off; his efficiency is endearing, and you’ll come away with a much better understanding of what makes Vietnamese food so unique. The day starts with a market tour that, from previous experience, can be rather touristy, but not so here. We were taken to a truly local market selling beautiful fresh produce, and Mr Kien was keen to tell us about some of the less familiar items. From there, we headed to the river for a trip in a traditional basket boat to try our hand at catching crab (we didn’t!), and then it was time to don our chef’s hats and aprons and get busy in the kitchen. You’ll learn how to make six classic Vietnamese dishes including fresh spring rolls and – my favourite – banana flower salad with shrimp. Approximately US$30 per person.
We loved this mid-range restaurant at the quieter end of Hoi An, overlooking the river. The decor is all heavy wood, decorative tiles and scarlet lanterns, which feels a little bit Miss Saigon. We stuck to the Vietnamese specialities menu and weren’t disappointed. The bong hong trang (white rose dumplings) were delicious and reminiscent of delicate wontons. Be sure to try the cao lau, a cousin of pho that originated in Hoi An; the noodles are smoked and have a slightly chewy texture. With most dishes around US$4, why not order one of everything?
If you’re craving something a little different but want to stick to Vietnamese flavours, Nu Eatery offers a modern interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a little hard to find, wedged down a narrow alleyway (and Google Maps couldn’t get us all the way there), but if you follow your nose, you’ll eventually find it. The pork belly buns, spicy pork fettuccine and chilli lime shrimp had our mouths watering, but the real star of the show is the homemade lemongrass ice cream at US$1.50 a scoop. You’ll need to get there early to bag a table – or be prepared to wait at The Sea Shell bar next door.
The streets of Hoi An can get very busy in the early evening, so one way to escape the crowds is to head to this open-air bar located on the first floor of a heritage building, overlooking the river. People-watch as you enjoy a cold one, and be sure to order one of their delicious cheese and charcuterie sharing platters.
If live music is your thing, E Village is the place to head for good food, good drinks and exceptionally good music. On the night we visited, the house band was truly excellent; even the younger ones in our party were impressed.
We all want to shop ethically when on holiday, so if you’re keen to support local artisans, head to this lovely gift and tea shop located in the heart of the Old Town, where you can pick up beautiful homeware, jewellery and other crafts.
Okay, it’s not food related, but you can’t come to Hoi An and not have some clothes made. It’s the copy capital of Asia, so if you have a favourite shirt or dress, bring it with you and you’ll be going home with a brand-new one at a fraction of the price. There are many tailors from which to choose, but BeBe has a great reputation.
You can follow Sam on Instagram @midlifekitchen or subscribe to her blog, which is packed with healthy recipes for lazy cooks.
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