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WHERE TO EAT?
Hanoi is an exceptional city for eating. An entire book could be written about the street food alone. Much of it is offered by vendors who set up on the footpaths wherever they can and keep whatever hours they please, so all we can say is follow your nose, pull up a plastic kid's chair, point at what the people next to you are eating and enjoy.
At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find a great variety of fine, authentic international cuisine cooked by some top chefs. It's pretty much standard for a restaurant to have a charming atmosphere with balcony seating overlooking the road, along with great service, and reasonable prices, at least by Western standards.
A good introduction to the Hanoi food scene can be found at the blog Sticky Rice. Their coverage of Hanoi is well-written, and the photos alone will have you drooling for a bowl of bun cha or a sizzling dish of cha ca.
The first place people often go for a traditional Vietnamese meal is Little Hanoi. There are actually two Little Hanois under separate ownership. The Hang Giay location is, we think, a bit better. The one on Ta Hien actually has two locations on the same street, and is more of a tourist processing facility. But, while the food is okay, these places don't capture the heart and soul of Vietnamese eating that a good hotpot outfit does.
We don't hesitate to steer people straight for New Day Restaurant on Ma May. It has a wonderful combination of beauties: the menus are in English, but the food is still authentically Vietnamese, along with the atmosphere. They specialise in hotpots, which are great with a group, but individual dishes are on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they are all consistently good. Revealingly, this place fills up in the evening with local Vietnamese and expats in the know.
If you want some satisfying traditional Vietnamese food on sparkling clean plates, prepared in a spiffy-looking kitchen by staff wearing hair nets, don't overlook the restaurant in the lobby of the Hanoi Youth Hotel on Luong Van Can street next to Minh's Jazz Club. They also have a decent selection of wines, and the prices aren't much more than you'd pay at one of the more hygienically challenged local places.
A few very popular steak joints are on Hang Giay (Shoe St) at the junction with Hang Buom. This is about as authentic as street food in Hanoi gets. Who knows how many cows a night they go through, but the streetside restaurants here are packed nightly. The grease and grime (on the floor, not the plates) may deter some, but the food is excellent, particularly the thin marinated steaks swimming in gravy and piled with steak fries. Don't neglect the other items on the menu. We enjoyed a delicious steaming bowl of Chinese-style veggies and noodles with beef (my xau bo) and some meaty, finger-licking chim (a small game bird). No English menu, but if you can't speak Vietnamese, just point and smile and they'll figure it out.
If you want to rub shoulders with the local Vietnamese lunch crowd and knosh on a tasty bowl of beef and noodles, head for Bun Bo Nam Bo on Hang Dieu St at midday. This place is popular with office workers and it's a frenetic scene at noon. Just squeeze into a seat on a shared bench and they'll bring you a bowl of noodles, beef and herbs topped with crispy fried onions. This place is only open for lunch.
Bun cha is the signature dish of Hanoi. At lunchtime you'll find just about all of Hanoi sitting on kid-sized stools and slurping down this combination of grilled pork, salty-sweet broth, slices of green papaya, rice noodles, and fresh herbs. Every neighbourhood in Hanoi has a bun cha place -- just follow your nose to the smoky streetside grill. One place that offers dependably good bun cha is found in an alley just off the north side of Hang Bac St between Ma May and Ngo Pha Loc. But really, you can't walk far without stumbling on bun cha anywhere in Hanoi.
Along the top of Nguyen Huu Huan St are several xoi xeo shops, and we definitely recommend giving this dish a try. It's a kind of Vietnamese sticky rice, topped traditionally with shavings of lotus root and roasted garlic, but nowadays they'll put anything you like on top: chicken, pork ribs, fish, eggs and so on. It's a quick, warm, belly-filling meal. The specific place we're steering you to, Xoi Yen, is open 24 hours, making it a perfect last stop of the evening after you've worked up an appetite dancing.
Highway 4, which specialises in traditional food, also takes pride in serving unusual dishes: think camel, crickets, crocodile. They're not on the menu, but show up as specials at random times. Otherwise the food is best described as Asian fusion, with an emphasis on the eclectic, to be washed down with a wide range of traditional Vietnamese liquors. We had stewed rabbit in wine sauce that was absolutely out of this world, and the less adventurous black pepper pork was also divine. You'll find a wide range of dishes to suit all palates and the atmosphere is top notch. The old building has a lot of floor seating at low tables, but they've opened up more dining salons two doors down that have chairs. This is a great place to come with a big group, especially if you're looking to please your Vietnamese and Western friends in equal measure. People usually order several dishes and share, and even with the wine, you can get away with paying less than 200,000 dong per head. They recently shut down their location at 5 Hang Tre (3 Hang Tre remains open though), but will be reopening at 25 Bat Su. They have two additional locations: one on Mai Hoc De in Hai Ba Trung district, and on Kim Ma in Ba Dinh.
Pho 10 is a great place to try Vietnam's signature dish, if you haven't already done so at one of the myriad places on the street. The advantage here is that the pho is just as good or better than what you might just happen across elsewhere, and the hygienic standards are decidedly better. You'll pass by the kitchen and get a look for yourself on your way to the tables, which are on four floors. It's very popular for a quick bowl of noodles, so don't plan on lingering too long after you're done, as someone will likely be waiting for your table. Service is brisk and no-nonsense. Prices range from 20 to 35,000 dong, which isn't much more than on the street.
Quan An Ngon is a popular place to experience traditional food from all corners of Vietnam. Its popularity is well-deserved. At just about any time of day, you'll find the shared tables packed with middle-class Vietnamese, expats and tourists. Just don't expect a quiet romantic dinner as this place is as noisy and raucous as Hanoi itself. Sit inside or at the shared tables outside under a web of sail-like awnings. Surrounding you on all sides are little "food stalls" dishing up specialties like green papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, clams in lemongrass and beef with chilli and salt. Just about anything you order off the huge menu will be delicious (we've not yet gathered the courage to order "the grilled swans" however). Plates are small, and in tapas style you should share dishes among friends as you nibble your way through Vietnamese cuisine. Though Quan An Ngon isn't cheap, it's very reasonably priced. Highly recommended.
Bun Cha stand Hang Bac, between Ma May and Ngo Pha Loc
Cha Ca La Vong 14 Cha Ca St. T: (04) 825 3929 Open 10:00-14:00, 17:00-22:00
Highway 4 25 Bat Su. T: (04) 3926 0639 http://www.highway4.com
Little Hanoi 21 Hang Gai. T: (04) 3828 8333, (04) 3928 5333. Open 07:30-23:00 Delivery 09:00-17:30
Little Hanoi 1 9 &14 Ta Hien. T: (04) 3926 0168, (0912) 151 375. Open 10:00-23:00
Newday Restaurant 72 Ma May. T: (04) 3828 0315, (04) 926 2436 Open 07:00-22:00
Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su 42 Hang Voi. T: (04) 3923 4455 Open 06:00-12:30
Quan An Ngon 18 Phan Boi Chau. T: (04) 3942 8162
Steak joints Hang Giay, junction Hang Buom. Open 04:00-22:00
Xoi Van Anh 35 Nguyen Huu Huan. T: (043) 825 1755, (0912) 445 369 Open 24 hours
Hanoi Cooking Centre classes are scheduled Monday to Saturday at 9am, 2.30 and 6pm. Classes begin with a tour of the local market. Upon return, you will prepare at least 4 dishes at your own station, in a purpose built, fully air-conditioned training kitchen. After class enjoy your meal, accompanied by local beer or wine.
44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh District
Tel: (04) 3715 0088