Just because I'm travelling to a different country to feast my heart out does not mean that I will abandon my penchant for finding the best foods at the most affordable prices. Few places on earth can make such a task more effortless than Vietnam. As this is a country whose cultural identity is carved out by its regional cuisines, we knew that to pin down Vietnamese food as a whole was a mission that we were too chickensh** to take on, so we decided to start small and tackle the north on a short weekend trip. I hit the streets of Hanoi to do what I do best.
Here are some recommended restaurants and dishes to try on your next trip:
Pho at Phở Xào 32 Bát Đàn
Phở and bánh quẩy at Phở Xào 32 Bát Đàn
First things first: pho. Because we're basic. Straight from the airport, with our backpacks in tow, we made it a point to wander to the smallest, most local-looking hole-in-the-wall that we could find. When in doubt, follow the jumbled assortment of rickety plastic stools and there will be a pot of gold at the end. Or a steaming hot bowl of pho, which is almost the same thing. Our first stop was Phở Xào 32 Bát Đàn near the Old Quarter (and our Airbnb lodgings). There's seating for about eight people inside the shop, but that doesn't stop the owners from spilling their foldable furniture out onto the pavement. Our bellies bayed for the beef pho/phở bò (₫35,000) and fried Vietnamese crullers/bánh quẩy (₫10,000). A generous portion of the scalding hot, fragrant broth was immediately served up with a side of deep-fried dough crullers, and we began happily slurping noodles and dunking quẩy on a sunny, 36ºC afternoon. Recommended for a fuss-free meal before wandering into the Old Quarter.
32 Bát Đàn, Quận Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Việt Nam
Coffee with coconut smoothie and coffee with condensed milk at AN Cafe
Banh mi with pâté at AN Cafe
Vietnamese egg coffee at AN Cafe
Banh mi with beef meatballs and sliced beef at AN Cafe
Bánh mỳ and egg coffee at AN Cafe
Well, now we were tired and lurching toward an inconvenient food coma. What next? The blessed stuff we smelled on almost every street corner: good ol' Vietnamese coffee. A short 10-minute walk towards the Old Quarter brought us to AN Cafe, a roadside spot that would become a quick favourite of ours. Though we try to avoid tourist-infested areas and eateries on our travels, this one seems to hold up, despite the influx of camera-carrying, billowy trousers- and sandal-wearing visitors. When here, order the coffee with coconut smoothie/cà phê cốt dừa (₫40,000) and coffee with condensed milk/cà phê nâu (₫22,000). The first is light and frothy and perfect for a hot summer's day – which it always is in Hanoi, it seems – and the latter struck the right balance of potent and delicious.
For more adventurous coffee drinkers, the Vietnamese egg coffee/cà phê kem trứng (₫38,000) at AN Cafe is a must try. A concoction we had heard tales of but never had the chance to sample before, Vietnamese egg coffee came about owing to a milk shortage in the 1940s, when whisked egg yolk was brought in as a substitute. The egg flavour is surprisingly mild, with sugar and vanilla dominating the drink.
Feeling snacky? A generous portion of banh mi with pâté/bánh mỳ pâté (₫25,000) shared between two did the trick for us. We'd later come back for din-din and snag ourselves some banh mi with beef meatballs and sliced beef/bánh mỳ thịt & bò viên (₫35,000) and banh mi with meatballs/bánh mì bò viên (₫30,000). These buttery, loaded sandwiches come with a spicy mayonnaise sauce that was consistently delicious.
15 Phủ Doãn, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Việt Nam
Grilled pork and noodles at Bún Chả Đắc Kim
Spring rolls at Bún Chả Đắc Kim
Bún chả at Bún Chả Đắc Kim
We began our second day with grilled pork and noodles/bún chả (₫60,000) and spring rolls/nem cua bể (₫45,000) from Bún Chả Đắc Kim, possibly the most famous bún chả joint in Hanoi. Our servings of fatty pork were grilled right beside us at the mouth of the shop. The rice noodles immediately soaked up the cool, sweet-and-sour broth, and we happily piled a plethora of herbs onto our spoons until they spilled over and we began to stuff ourselves silly. Anticipate messy eating while assembling every spoonful. The side dish of deep-fried golden spring rolls had a flaky, crunchy crust and a rich, moist filling that perfectly complemented our bún chả lunch.
67 Đường Thành, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Việt Nam
Vermicelli with grilled beef at Bún Bò Nam Bộ
Bún bò nam bộ at Bún Bò Nam Bộ
For dinner, our local hosts turned us on to Bún Bò Nam Bộ, which allegedly serves the best eponymously named vermicelli with grilled beef/bún bò nam bộ (₫60,000) in town. Well, at least the restaurant name is easy to remember, but we'd be hard-pressed to forget this meal regardless. This Vietnamese beef noodle salad was light and refreshing without compromising in richness and flavour. The dressing of fish sauce, sugar, lemon and chilli was perfectly sweet, sour and spicy – and doubtlessly the reason why the shop was packed with tourists eager for a bite. For something this tasty, we'll make an exception and mingle with the masses.
67 Hàng Điếu, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Việt Nam
Read more: Vietnamese Coffee and its Gloomy Future
Huế vermicelli and beef at Xanh Cafe
Bún bò Huế at Xanh Cafe
The last day of our weekend trip saw us cramming as much food and sightseeing as we could fit into four hours. We discovered Xanh Cafe, a little hole-in-the-wall with a sturdy tree growing through the middle of the shop, whilst searching for historical Hanoi sites on foot. In the interest of ordering something a bit more adventurous, we opted for the Huế vermicelli and beef/bún bò Huế (₫35,000). These noodles originated in Vietnam's former capital, Huế. The broth of beef bones and beef shank was flavoured with lemongrass, then seasoned with fermented shrimp sauce and sugar for taste. I wasn't a fan of the cubes of congealed pig's blood, but my dining partner took a huge liking to them, and it holds up to be a dish that ought to be experienced.
Stir-fried rice noodles with beef at Bánh Cuốn Kỳ Đồng
Phở xào bò at Bánh Cuốn Kỳ Đồng
For our last meal in Hanoi, we had a quick dish in one of the city's popular food streets (which are usually most alive at night), and we went for the stir-fried version of phở bò to satisfy our cravings. Bánh Cuốn Kỳ Đồng does a good version of stir-fried rice noodles with beef/phở xào bò (₫50,000), with tender beef and soft noodles marinated in sauce.
11 Tống Duy Tân, Quận Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Việt Nam
Trust us when we say that we tried really, really hard to spend all the money we had tightly budgeted for this weekend trip and failed spectacularly, even when factoring in various transport costs, a constant flow of snacks, cups of coffee consumed about every three hours and alcohol. Our already very reasonable – even verging on stingy – spending allocation was still too much for three days in Hanoi. You know what that means: if you're like me and like to eat a lot and pay very little, there is no better city to do it in, especially if exploring alleyway joints and eating out on the street is your jam.
What did we miss?
With a city as bountiful as Hanoi, surely there are great grubbing spots that we've overlooked on our very brief trip. Share your traveller's wisdom with us! Where are your favourite places to eat in Hanoi?
Peep at all the things I put into my pie hole at @greedygrubs.