Visiting Hanoi, Vietnam for 3 days last year, my favourite attraction wasn’t the charm or madness of the Old Quarter, or the brutalist architecture of Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum – the best part of visiting was Hanoi’s street food – available from all corners, at all hours. Skewered on a stick, heaped into a bowl or proffered from a basket, these are among the best of Hanoi’s street food.
Hanoi’s street food #1: Pho bo
A classic Vietnamese street food, pho bo is a noodle soup served in clear, rich beef broth, topped with slivers of beef and fresh herbs. Pho is traditionally a breakfast dish, and the northern, Hanoi version is not as sweet as the Southern version (or so I’ve heard!). Best eaten while sitting on a small stool by the side of the road as a vendor scoops out hot, steaming broth over the noodles in your bowl.
Hanoi’s street food #2: Bun cha
This was my personal favourite dish when I was in Hanoi. Bun cha is a dish of smoky grilled pork patties served over white rice noodles. A bowl of vinegary nuoc, or dipping sauce, and fresh vegetables and herbs are the perfect complements. Order a plateful of nem, or deep fried spring rolls to accompany your meal, dipping them into the same sauce. Available pretty much everywhere you smell delicious BBQ meat cooking, bun cha is Hanoi’s signature street dish and one that you shouldn’t, on pain of death, miss!
Hanoi’s street food #3: Banh xeo
Slightly more difficult to find than the more ubiquitous banh cuon (steamed rolled rice sheets stuffed with pork, wood ear mushrooms and shallots – usually eaten for breakfast or as a light snack), banh xeo is basically a giant savoury crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and green onion. When we ate these (twice!) at Quan An Ngon, they came with rice paper wrappers and lettuce leaves, so we cut the crepe up and made rolls stuffed with hot, crispy crepe, stuffed with deliciousness. You can’t go wrong.
Hanoi’s street food #4: Banh ran
Sold by women wearing conical hats and carried in baskets, banh ran is a deep fried glutinous rice flour ball, sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with sweetened mung bean paste. In Hanoi, the banh ran offered by street vendors were drenched in a messy, sugary syrup – the perfect snack to revive flagging energy in between meals. Simple, sweet, and utterly satisfying, banh ran is best when freshly fried. Roaming street vendors return to stalls when their stock runs out – look out for them in the early morning when the banh ran is hot and steaming!
Hanoi’s street food #5: Che
In the search for my favourite che, the sweet dessert favoured by Hanoians, I sampled a variety of different flavours, textures and colours. Some che stalls offer a menu of sugary, colourful concoctions – at others you simply point at the different bowls of ingredients you want in your che and the stall owner will create a customised dish just for you. Rarely does one che stall offer exactly the same desserts as another. Ingredients range from flavoured tapioca balls or noodles, sweet corn, mung beans, coconut flakes, and jellies to fresh local fruits, black beans, bananas in coconut milk, rice dumplings in golden syrup, translucent palm seed – all crowned with a heap of shaved ice and a good dousing of coconut milk.