Monday, February 5, 2018

Eating BIG in Hanoi

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Eating and Exploring the Capitol of Vietnam

The first stop of our trip was Vietnam. After a long flight we landed in Hanoi early morning but didn't get to our hotel until later in the afternoon. It's not easy figuring out how to enter but if you go to the line where you pay the tourist visa fee before the passport agents you will save your self some time. Other than that long wait to get our passports back and pay the entry fee it was a great trip. We knew we wanted to do at least two countries and I left Vietnam feeling it was the right call. It's just different.

Sights from Hanoi

No doubt about it Vietnam wouldn't have been the same if not for our visit to Hanoi. The Northern city is the most hectic place I've ever visited. But by the end of the visit I was realizing it was so perfectly in-sync at all times. The constant flow of people on motor bikes which are driven and parked all over and where they're not parked on the sidewalks there's people cooking or selling things might drive some crazy but before you know it you're in some corner of the city where there's railroad tracks  and people living their everyday lives. It's an enchanting place. And I couldn't get over how nice the people were. It wasn't that long ago we fought an ugly war but here they were welcoming us with warmth.

Sights from Hanoi 

We stayed in the heart of the Old Quarter which is the heart of Hanoi. We only had three days but that was enough time to see most of the area and it's surrounding spots. Though I still feel like there was tons to uncover as Vietnam and Hanoi aren't nearly as explored as places like Bangkok and Hong Kong. While there was plenty of good info out there it was only on so much. This is a city of more than 7.5 million so there's so much to see and eat. But much of it is unknown to tourists. Still with the knowledge of the staff at the Hotel La Siesta Trendy we were able to navigate the city pretty easily. Uber is cheap and pretty damn efficient. Riding a bike is the best way to see it from a locals eye but I would not recommend that unless you're experienced in navigating the chaotic streets. Stick mostly to the local food which is amazing. Some of the best soups you'll ever have. Just try to be understandable of the fact this isn't Suburbia, USA and so customs are different. Let's roll.

Sights from Hanoi
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Quan Bong Rieu Nam Bo

First thing I do upon arrival wherever we are is walk over to the closest place on my food map. Unfortunately we couldn't find the first two spots on my list. Vietnam is nowhere near as easy to navigate as other spots I've been to. Nonetheless when we found this place known for a good bowl of Bun Rieu we were on our way to nearly three straight weeks of good eating. I ended up finding this stall with a really flavorful crab noodle soup by using this girls street food map. Though not all the spots on the map were where they were said to be. Not a big deal as you find things along the way.

Bun Rieu (Crab Noodle Soup)
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Fried Banana Vendor on the streets of Hanoi

The best tip I can give you is to use this free service that offers free tours as a way to show visitors Vietnam. I believe it's run by the country as a means to showcase it's city. Students are paid to take you around on different tours of your choice at no cost (you pay for food). If you dont tip you're an ahole. I booked us for a street food tour on the night of our arrival an we were greeted at our hotel by our young college aged guide named Nguyễn Tiến Đạt. He was the man. Our first of six stops was this banana vendor. Fitting bc bananas would be prevalent in the streets throughout our trip.

Fried Banana on the streets of Hanoi
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Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyền

As our guide would tell us the next stop which goes by Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyền is one of the oldest and most reliable rice roll vendors in Hanoi. This indigenous classic is made with steamed rice rolls stuffed with minced pork and chopped wood-ear mushrooms. It's a delicate treat that I loved for the texture as much as the taste. When dipped in little bowls of fish sauce they were a memorable bite.

Bánh Cuốn at Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyền
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Thanh Hop

After gorging on a few plates of Bánh Cuốn we made our way to a place that was supposed to have good Bun Cha. This is another one of Hanoi's signature bites and it gained alot of followers when former President Barack Obama ate it with Bourdain in Hanoi (stay tuned). This dish is made with round rice noodles aka bún served with grilled pork patties aka chả, pork belly, fresh herbs, and a sweet and sour fish sauced laced broth. Our guide said this spot is popular for it during the nighttime hours and judging by the packed house he was dead on. This was a good bowl of the iconic Hanoi dish. It had these wonderful pork patties rapped in betel leaves that gave off a smoky, herbal flavor. 

Bun Cha at Thanh Hop
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Quan Goc Da

Our next stop was one of my favorites. Though as I sit here reliving this trip it's all so craveworthy it will be damn near impossible to pick favorites. This spot had all sorts of fried treats for revelers to eat. We were there for the banh goi which are Vietnamese fried dumplings. Our host really picked out some great spots bc these little pouches of fried dough were filled with noodles and chicken and they too were so delicious when dipped in the sides of sauce these places would supply you with. We also tried some Nem chua rán which our guide rec'd. Big with the kids these are battered spring rolls.

Banh Goi (front) and Nem Chua Rán (back) at Quan Goc Da
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Banh Mi Bamee Hoi An

I didn't really have plans to eat Banh Mi in Hanoi. Not bc I dont like the globally popular Vietnamese sandwich but bc we were headed to Hoi An after Hanoi and they're said to be best there. But our guide brought us to this popular nighttime stand and it was good enough to where I would definitely recommend if only going to Hanoi. The bread was so good but the ingredients were also top shelf.

Banh Mi at Banh Mi Bamee Hoi An
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Sinh To Hoa Qua

Last stop of our food tour which was totally by choice. Our young guide was willing take us to as many spots as we could go. We really felt like we lucked out getting him. Such a nice guy. Coconut ice cream is one of those things that's big across SE Asia. Our first serving of the trip was the most interesting. Served atop a scoop of sticky rice and topped with garlic chips this was a combo I never would've thought if putting together. It was rather enjoyable with all sorts of wonderful textures.

Coconut Ice Cream with Sticky Rice in Hanoi
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Pho 49 Bat Dan

Everyone in Hanoi has a spot they like to go for Pho. The iconic beef noodle soup is without a doubt Vietnam's most well known dish. There's minor differences in it's prep in Northern Vietnam (Hanoi) and southern Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City). With the north being cooler in weather many people say they make a heartier bowl and one of the locals favorite spots is Pho 49 Bat Dan. I had more than a few people rec this place to me and as it turned out it was like a 3 minute walk from our hotel. I arrived to a line at around 8:30a. It moved relatively fast and I was able to get my bowl and sit down within about 10 minutes.  The broth was clean but complex. The rice noodles were a tad softer than I'm used to. The thinly sliced beef was almost like roast beef that ws cut to order with a big old machete like knife. It wasn't the best beef in terms of quality but when mixed in with the green onions and cilantro it was still pretty good. The broth was extra potent and full of beef bone flavor. Always remember to add some of the condiments at each table no matter where or what it is you're eating.

Pho at Pho 49 Bat Dan
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Home Hanoi Restaurant

One day two she wanted to get lunch at a place we could also have a drink. Home Restaurant gets lots of love for their upscale Vietnamese cooking. It's situated in an old home in a nice semi-residential part of town. It's main clientele tends to be tourists whether from Australia or China etc.

Nem Cua Bể

An order of nem cua bể to start was the right call. You have to try these little fried crab spring rolls at least once while in Vietnam. I tried some from a street cart and much preferred these for the simple fact they came out hot after being fried to order. You cant really taste the crab meat in this popular snack but they are delicious dipped in the fish sauce supplied on the side. We also tried an order of grilled prawns and a shrimp fried rice. Both dishes were well prepped but perhaps were lacking a bit of that street food flavor that most likely comes from extra oil and real fire. Still this was a nice lunch that took us out of the hectic streets of Hanoi and out us in a real nice space with some tasty food.

Shrimp Fried Rice and Grilled Prawns at Home Restaurant
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Pho Cuon 31

Next up was one of my most anticipated dining spots for the entire trip. You know my love for regional food and you know my fondness for crispy bites so a trip to Truch Bach was in order. That's bc you'll find both Pho Cuon and Pho Chien Phong all over this little island neighborhood up by the lake. From what I read most places serving this dish serve almost identical versions so stuff like service was the reason to choose one place over the other. So I read Pho Cuon 31 was a good choice.

 Pho Cuon at Pho Cuon 31

For starters I had the previously mentioned Pho Cuon. These are rice rolls filled with beef and herbs popular in pho. Think of them as a bowl of Pho minus the broth all rolled up into a cigar like shape. They were great, for the texture more than anything. The same can be said for my plate of Pho Chien Phong which was everything I hoped for when I first learned about this Hanoi specialty dish. It's just fried puffed up pieces of rice noodle topped with diced beef, greens, and gravy. A harmonious blend of flavors and textures. I really hope I live to eat this dish another day. Great comfort food.

Pho Chien Phong at Pho Cuon 31
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Bun Ca Sam Cay Si

One afternoon while she indulged in a massage I chased down another legendary bowl of soup and noodles. This one from a place called Bun Ca Sam Cay Si. I followed my google maps through all sorts of alleys with little markets you would never know about if not for the fact you plugged in an address on the way. This place was in a corner where one alley meets another and I knew I found it when I saw a packed house slurping bowls of soup. Everyone is eating the house specialty which is another one of Hanoi's fantastic regional dishes. Bun Ca is a vermicelli noodle soup served with fried bits of local river fish. The broth is extra fragrant and filled with the flavors of dill. There was tons of greens and the fried pieces of fish remained relatively crispy. Maybe my favorite bite in Hanoi.

Bun Ca at Bun Ca Sam Cay Si
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Bun Cha Huong Lien aka Bun Cha Obama

We really took a liking to our previous bowls of bun cha so we hopped in an uber one day and made our way down to Bun Cha Bun Cha Huong Lien. Or at least that's what it was called before Obama paid a visit for lunch one day with Anthony Bourdain. Ever since then it's been known as Bun Cha Obama. This is something like a four story restaurant and every floor was full. I's a remarkable operation. This serving of bun cha had some really tender pork  thinly sliced pork belly which is seen on top. Below that is my favorite part which are the little patties of pork grilled over fire. The only thing I didn't love about Bun Cha was the common temp of the noodles (cold) and the broth (lukewarm).

Bun Cha Obama at Bun Cha Huong Lien
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Pho Thin 13 Lo Duc

I think my number bowl of Pho that I wanted to try was from here. Not far from the last stop I made sure to go try one before we went back to the Old Quarter. I read about Pho Thin 13 Lo Buc and their signature beef somewhere online. They make that beef by grilling it over live fire with lots of garlic. This definitely adds a different flavor element than most bowls with the garlicky beef oil floating on top. The beef itself was mighty tender too. The broth wasn't quite as fragrant as the first spot but I liked both bowls. This one more so for the beef and greens than the broth itself. The noodles in this bowl were really soft and more wide than any other I've seen served in a bowl of pho. So good.

Pho at Pho Thin 13 Lo Duc
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Bun Bo Nam Bo

At this point I was thinking that I couldn't go to Hanoi and not indulge in a bowl of Bun Bo. This is another one of the country's most popular dishes. It's even become big in Paris where I also seeked out a popular spot serving this dish. It's a wonderfully simple mix of white rice noodles, beef, herbs, and peanuts, with a small puddle of fantastic fish sauce. This spot is popular for theirs. Really good.

Bun Bo at Bun Bo Nam Bo
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Ne Cocktail Bar

As Vietnam becomes one with the rest of the world it's starting to see things that others have. Cocktails come to mind. I doubt there were many craft cocktail purveyors here a couple decades ago. The owner of Ne Cocktail Bar is a locally respected bartender who has his own signature drink. The pho cocktail is made with gin and other similar spicing to that used to make beef noodle soup. It's amazing how much it tasted like pho but it wasn't in a weird way. It was totally refreshing. This drink is served at a few spots around town were disciples of the creator work but this is the original.
 
Pho Cocktail at Ne Cocktail Bar
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Chả Cá Thăng Long

Our final dinner was yet another local specialty I couldn't wait to try. Cha Ca is so popular in it's birth city that there's a street named after it. Cha Ca can be made from mudfish, snakefish, and also Hemibagrus (Ca Lang) which is said to be best. Chả Cá Thăng Long serves all three but how can you get anything other than the Ca Lang when that's what they say is best. Cha Ca is made by cutting pieces of meat from the fish and removing the bones before grilling the meat in banana leaves. It's then kept in an oven where it stays hot until they bring it out with plates full of greens grilled tableside.

Cha Ca at Chả Cá Thăng Long

One of the servers brought out a hot pot type dish where he cooked the greens down and then crisped up the fish. It's served alonsgide peanuts and a mountain of fresh dill called Chả Cá Lã Vọng. We ended up getting two order bc the single serving wasn't enough for one person who likes this dish let alone two. This place seemed to really popular with young locals. There were several tables of friends with kids enjoying this classic dish. Just one of the many reason to visit Hanoi. Onto Hoi An.

Bowl of Cha Ca in Hanoi
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Note: To find the locations of all the spots featured in this post, as well as places I didn't make it to, please click HERE for my google maps guide to Hanoi.

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