Far from the maddening crowd: top five Hanoi eateries
If you want to get an idea of how the people of Hanoi approach their food, ponder the ancient Vietnamese saying that goes: ‘You eat slowly, that is good for stomach; you plough deeply, that is good for fields.’
While the northern city is just as fast-paced and frenetic as its southern counterpart of Ho Chi Minh, when it comes to food the locals like to sit back and take their time. From French-inspired bakeries serving coffee and croissants to a gently simmering lau (hot pot) at a street stall, eating is a communal activity that draws upon the country’s multicultural influences and, as the quote suggests, dishes are heavily reliant on the surrounding land and sea.
So when the pace of life gets too hectic, head to one of our top-five favourite retreats for a spot of peace and quiet.
1. Fish sauce or nuoc mam
This is the number-one ingredient in Vietnamese cooking. It’s used in pretty much everything and is the savoury, salty hit you’ll find in the national dish – pho – the rice noodle soup that locals eat by the bowlful for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Grabbing a serve from a street-side vendor is all part of the fun, especially if you choose to do it at 47 Pho Mai Hac De, in the Hai Ba Trung district. As soon as you fancy a break from the honking horns and oppressive heat of this popular strip, make a beeline upstairs for the calm, rooftop oasis of Bo Tung Xeo. Here you can grill ginger-and-garlic marinated slices of beef at your own table-side barbecue. Just think of the pho as a starter and get stuck in.
2. That’s noodles and BBQ covered, what about rice?
In Vietnam rice (otherwise known as the ‘pearls of the gods’) forms the basis of every meal. Look out for restaurants with the word ‘com’ in the name – cheap, family run placesall about rice and whatever meat and vegetables might be available on the day. However, ensuring you get your daily dose of this basic grain doesn’t mean skimping on luxury and comfort. By far Hanoi’s most attractive restaurant, Emperor (18b Le Thanh Tong) is housed in a stunning colonial building. Don’t let the unassuming entrance fool you – inside you’ll find a leafy courtyard lit by torches and flickering candles, with staff wearing traditional áo dài dress. Seafood specials include soft-shell crab, steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves and grilled squid. Reminiscent of the imperial palaces of Hue (roughly 500km to the south), this is as close to eating like royalty as you’re likely to get. And the best bit? By Western standards, the prices are a steal.
3. Pain au chocolat, profiteroles, mille-feuille.
If it involves chocolate and decadence, you’ll find it at Baguette & Chocolat. Enjoy your fill of French pastries safe in the knowledge that all those calories are not in vain. This gorgeous cafe is managed by an NGO providing training opportunities to disadvantaged youth who want to get ahead in the hospitality industry. And it’s the perfect place to mix culture and cuisine, situated in the grounds of the city’s Museum of Entomology (Nguyen Van Huyen Road). The gardens are lovely and, after exploring the numerous exhibits, you can sit with a cafe au lait and take in views of the traditional-style houses that dot the grounds.
Introduced by US soldiers in the 1950s and quickly adopted by the locals, you’ll find stands dotted all over the city selling fresh beer. They are rough and ready, and a great excuse to sit by the side of the road and people watch. But if it’s a special occasion, or you’re simply hankering after a proper chair as opposed to an upturned crate, then search out one of the city’s 14 (and counting) microbrewery pubs. A short walk from the imposing Hanoi Opera House, Hoa Vien (1a Tang Bat Ho St, Hai Ba Trung district) is an air-conditioned German-style beer hall that’s been pulling a mean pint for decades. True, it’s not all that calm come Friday night, but there’s space for 1000 people so you’re bound to find a seat at one of the benches inside or in the large garden, where they hold regular Vietnamese-style barbecues.
5. Ice cream
Fanny (51 Ly Thuong Kiet, Hoan Kiem district) is the place for French-style ice creams and sorbets when in Hanoi. And yes, most visitors have as much fun with the name of this sparkling-white cafe as they do with the frozen treats on offer. It isn’t exactly a destination that exudes peace and quiet, but once you’ve wriggled and elbowed your way to the counter and placed your order (it’s every person for themselves on busy, balmy nights) you can take your cup or cornet for a chilled walk around nearby Hoan Kiem Lake. When in season try the com variety – made using young sticky rice – or the deliciously refreshing ginger and green tea, coffee or coconut.
Where to stay
Once you’ve finished your ice cream, check in to one of Hoan Kiem’s many boutique hotels – the area is popular with Expedia’s Aussie Travellers who usually spend 3-4 days exploring Hanoi. That’s plenty of time to squeeze in some sightseeing along with your meals. If you’re after something with character, check into The Golden Silk Boutique Hotel. Also popular with Aussies is the Tay Ho West Lake area – where you’ll find big chains like the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi.
For more ideas on where to stay, check out Expedia’s Top Trending Hanoi Hotels.