To learn about the various ethnic groups in Vietnam (and there are 56 of them), the Museum of Ethnology is a great place to spend an afternoon in Hanoi.
The circular main building is dedicated to exhibitions of the ethnic groups in Vietnam, and a separate contemporary building houses stuff from the rest of Southeast Asia. Behind both buildings are actual houses from ethnic groups which were relocated to this museum, and visitors can explore the inside of these homes to see how people live. It’s an awesome museum and well worth a visit.
Hanoi, like any other big city, requires some research if you want really great food. Sure, you can stop at any busy street food stall and have good food. If you’re lucky, it might be really good. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have wasted a couple of bucks on a forgettable meal. And, if you’re really unlucky, you’ll get e. coli and spend the rest of your trip on the toilet. I can’t help you with the potential e. coli issues, but if you want really great food then you should do a bit a research beforehand. You don’t have to go crazy finding the best of the best, but your experience in the city will be a lot more memorable when you know where to get some tasty grub. Since we didn’t have any locals to show us around we scoured the interwebs for the best places to eat and proceeded to chow down.
Here’s what we ate in Hanoi. Some meals were better than others, but all were popular with locals and tourists.
Cha ca: We had this dish at Cha Ca Va Long and it’s the only thing they serve there. It’s a proper restaurant so you shouldn’t have any problems finding it. We had a late lunch one day so we were the only ones there. We walked in, the woman looked at me and said two in Vietnamese and that was it. No hello, no menu, no specials of the day. A few minutes later she came over with a portable burner, a plate of bun (vermicelli noodles), a big bowl of greens, a small plate of peanuts, a small plate of sliced red chili peppers, and a small bowl of mam nem (pungent fermented shrimp paste sauce). A minute later she came back with a frying pan filled with sizzling fish chunks. The fish was yellow from the turmeric and smelled delightful. She started us off by tossing some greens into the pan and told us to assemble the dish in the two bowls that she placed in front of us. We put a little of everything into our bowls and HOT DAMN! that shit was good! We detected dill in the pan and realized that a bunch of the greens in the bowl were dill too. This was the first time I’ve had dill in Vietnamese food because it’s not a common ingredient in Southern Vietnamese cuisine. I’m not a big fan of dill, but it went very nicely with the other flavors in this dish. This meal was a bit expensive by Vietnamese standards, almost 350,000 VND for two, but you should try it unless you’re poor, in which case you should ask someone to take you there for your birthday.
Restaurant: Cha Ca Va Long: 14 Pho Cha Ca
Luon: Luon just means eel, but the eel here is not like the eel you’ve had at sushi restaurants. These eels are small and deep fried and they can be prepared several different ways. After we came back from Sapa we stayed at another hotel and lucky duckies that we are, our hotel was a block away from several excellent food establishments. One of them was this eel place called Nha Hang Mien Luon, translation Eel Noodle Restaurant. We had several meals here because each dish is pretty different, but equally delicious. I think most people order the mien luon for which this place is named and that was our fist dish too. It has glass noodles, fried shallots, mint, shiso, basil, cucumbers, crushed peanuts, and a generous helping of fried eel. There’s fresh lime and chili on the side that you can add to taste. This dish comes with a bowl of clear broth on the side and it’s beautiful way to end the meal. If you have room for another dish then you should also try the eel congee. It’s the best congee I’ve ever had. It’s made with broken rice and a broth that makes it a greyish color. They throw in a bunch of chopped herbs and a fistful of tender eel. Get the fried crullers and toss them in the congee so they soften up while you’re eating. Squeeze a bunch of lime in the bowl and go to town on it cuz this ain’t yo mama’s congee!
Restaurant: Nha Hang Mien Luon, 87 Hang Dieu
Bun cha nem cua: If you’re not tired of noodles yet, I’ve got another noodle dish for you! This one is a lunch meal, so don’t go moseying over here for dinner like we did one night just to find it closed. When we did come back here for lunch we found it packed with locals and tourists. The menu is short and posted on the wall with prices. Let me warn you, this is a very meaty meal. An order of their main dish comes with a bowl full of minced pork patties and slices of grilled pork and sides of greens and vermicelli noodles. You should also get a couple of the nem cua, crab spring rolls, which I actually liked more than the main dish. For the main dish you put the noodles and greens into the meat bowl and eat it straight from there. I really enjoyed the minced pork patties, but I thought the grilled pork slices were a bit tough. The crab spring rolls were tasty, but they’d be a lot better if they were fried to order and if the crab meat was dispersed in the roll more evenly. I had a couple of bites that didn’t even have a hint of crab and then another bite that was full of crabby goodness.
Restaurant: Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh
Bun bo nam bo: It seems like Vietnamese people never tire of noodle dishes. If you’re a practicing Muslim who can’t eat pork and noodles, you can come to this place for beef and noodles. This shop is crowded for lunch and dinner and the main dish is the standard vermicelli noodle with fried slices of beef, the usual suspect of Vietnamese greens, a generous topping of crushed peanuts and a bit of broth. There’s white vinegar, soy sauce, and chili on the table that you should add to taste. I found this dish to be a bit plain and uninteresting, but they must be doing something right since the restaurant looked full whenever we passed by.
Restaurant: Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu
Xoi: Oh, finally, a non-noodle dish! We had xoi on our first morning in Hanoi after a long overnight train ride from Dong Hoi. This was the perfect simple brunch dish for our sleep-deprived asses. I’ve never had xoi prepared this way before since the Northerners do things differently. If I remember correctly the menu was only in Vietnamese, but I’m not sure if that’s because I spoke Vietnamese so they handed me a Viet menu or if they don’t have an English menu. Kanako ordered a chicken and mushroom xoi and I ordered the mixed xoi. in addition to the toppings that we ordered, each dish came with a topping of mashed mung beans and fried shallots. The mung beans were something I’ve never had on xoi before and what an eye-opening or should I say mouth-opening experience! I suppose it’s a Hanoi thing, but this is the only way I’ll eat xoi from now on. Soooo gooood. You also get a side of pickled cucumbers which cuts the sweetness of the mung bean paste. Xoi is great if you’re tired of the ubiquitous bun dishes.
Restaurant: Xoi Yen, 35 Nguyen Huu Huan
Banh cuon: Remember my Da Nang food post where I mentioned the yummy banh cuon dish? Well, this Hanoi take on the dish is even better, in my humble opinion. This is another place that we came across completely by accident as we strolled the streets around our hotel. We saw a woman making the banh cuon using a crepe pan and I just had to try it. Kanako was a little unsure because her stomach was still giving her problems, but I lied and told her everything would be fine. We went in and ordered two plates of banh cuon. These delicate rice flour crepes filled with a mixture of minced pork and chopped wood ear mushroom were perfection. You get a side of greens, a slice of pork roll, and a warm diluted fish sauce broth for dipping. I’ve never had that type of sauce with this dish before and it was unexpectedly fantastic. While I was stuffing my face with banh cuon I saw a woman at the next table drinking something that looked like chunky soy milk so I ordered a glass for myself. It turned out to be soy milk with soft tofu, kind of like the Chinese soft tofu dessert. Mmmmm! We ordered two more soy milks to go and waited outside while they prepared our drinks. While we stood there a French woman was also waiting for her order and she told us that she has been living in Hanoi for over eight years and this was one of her favorite places to eat. Lucky us for finding this place! By the way, this is a small dish that isn’t enough to fill-up an average Westerner so be prepared to get at least two plates for yourself.
Note: I’m ashamed to say that I can’t find the name or address of this place, but I know it’s not too far from the Rising Dragon Estate hotel. It’s on a corner somewhere North or Northwest of the hotel and within walking distance. You’ll see a woman sitting outside making the crepes and if you look past her you’ll see people sitting at the four or five tables inside. If anyone finds this place, let me know!
Egg coffee: I usually have my eggs on a plate and my coffee in a cup, but the Vietnamese have figured out a way to save a plate. All you have to do is put the egg in the cup with the coffee. What? That doesn’t sound yummy to you? Well, trust me, it is. My awesome wife found this stupendous cafe that’s known for it’s off-the-hook egg coffee that’s like a drinkable dessert. The cafe is tad hard to find since it’s down a narrow alley where you might get run over by an exiting scooter, but it’s worth the risk. A woman will greet you at the end of the alley and present you with a short menu. We ordered their famous hot egg coffee even though it was hotter than a camel’s bunghole that day. After we ordered she directed us to go upstairs and find our own seats. There are three floors to choose from and we opted for the second floor with a nice view of Hoan Kiem Lake. A young girl brought our drinks up a few minutes later and I got all excited because it looked like dessert and you know I loves me some dessert. Well, it could’ve been dessert because it was rich, creamy, and sweet. Actually, it was a touch too sweet for my taste, but still delicious. This is a must try coffee drink while you’re in Hanoi. Just ask for less sugar if you can manage to communicate that to the woman taking your order.
Restaurant: Cafe Pho Co, 11 Hang Gai
Frozen coconut coffee: Ok, let me explain this sublime drink as best I can. It’s coffee with a huge scoop of something resembling coconut ice cream, but it’s not really ice cream. If you’ve ever had the coconut frozen treat from one of those NYC food carts with the big green umbrellas that advertise Coco Delicioso then you might have an idea of what I’m talking about here. Otherwise, you’ll just have to go try this drink for yourself. It’s so good and I can’t believe that I only had it once while I was in Hanoi. You can find this at Cong Caphe, a cool place to hang out day or night and not too hard to find since they have several branches in Hanoi.
Flan or kem caramen: My mama makes the best flan, but my mama wasn’t in Hanoi with us so we settled for the kem caramen at Duong Hoa. We found this place by accident after boo got her hurr did at an overpriced stylist. (Her haircut cost $25 dollars and mine cost $2.50!) We were walking back towards the Old Quarter when I saw a bunch of people around this shop. I looked over to see what all the commotion was about and immediately started drooling when I saw stacks of little plastic cups filled with custardy flan. We ordered a couple to go because I wanted to get back to the air-conditioned hotel room. Unfortunately, the flan didn’t hold up well to the jostling of our walk, but the flavor and texture was there and we knew we had to go back to have it at the shop. We went back on our last night and ate 4 between the two of us. We probably could’ve had more but we’re ladies and ladies don’t gorge on flan.
Restaurant: Duong Hoa, 29 Hang Than