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It was the first time I visited Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city. It’s chaotic, buzzing - and hungry - with a lot of interesting things to do. Before visiting Hanoi, my friend recommended me to try street food in Hanoi, especially in Hanoi Old Quarter which is a paradise of street food and the tastiest food place in the capital.
Honestly, all my knowledge of Vietnamese food barely stretched beyond pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and banh mi (baguette sandwich) before I visited Vietnam. Therefore with a food lover, I am so curious and excited about trying Vietnamese cuisine. So what's the best way to try as many authentic and local dishes as possible? I decided to book a private Hanoi street food tour with a tour company named Vietnam Eco Travel to make my stomach happy. I booked it online and confirmed quickly by them.
My tour started at 5 pm when Ha, my guide, picked me up from my hotel . She wasted no time is whisking us off to our first stop, a small restaurant for nom bo kho (dried beef and salad). Ha said that throughout this tour, we would ordered just a small dish so I wouldn't get full too quickly.
The very tasty nom bo kho includes papaya, peanut, dried beef, herb and an awesome sauce made from soya. It tasted different from dried beef that I tried before at home. Especially I ate on the sidewalk with a small plastic chair, from which I could see the passing street life. Ha told me that with local restaurants in Hanoi Old Quarter, they don’t need to hire much staff because their members in their family will work with their family, from grandparents to their children. They live in their restaurant, each family has from three to four generations in one small space. I was surprised that a house or apartment in here are very small and still have a lot of people can live together in a small house. After that Ha guided me to a small long lane which has about 100 apartments. They even have to share restrooms together. Ha said that in here there are an average of four people occupying each square meter. That’s crazy but I understood that it’s very expensive to buy space here, and Hanoi's Old Quarter is a good place to earn money because it’s a tourist magnet.
We continue on the tour and visited Dong Xuan market, Hanoi's biggest and oldest. Inside the market. There are numerous kinds of goods and products being sold here, such as clothes, household goods, dried foods, etc. Leaving the market, we visited the fresh market behind Dong Xuan market. Here the products were fish, frogs, eels, small birds, and even turtle, etc which that are kept in large bubbling pans. Ha said that Vietnamese people can eat almost of animals: Any animal that moves, we can eat it. Vietnamese also eat dog meat, cat meat, rat, worm, insects, etc. It sounds creepy but I know it’s been their culture for centuries. It would be a scandal if you were to eat dog meat or cat meat in Germany or the USA - and yes, dog and cat are members of my own family, so I never want to eat them anyway.
Ha showed me some special foods which are favorite foods of Vietnamese people but they’re often considered weird and creepy for many foreigners. A good example: duck-egg fetus - I even could see the baby duck within - which the locals boil and eat with ginger and vegetables; fresh pig blood pudding and fresh coconut worm. They really made me queasy. I saw the coconut worm still moved inside fish sauce which was served in a small bowl. Yeah, I couldn’t try it although locals tried to encourage me, saying they’re delicious. Oh my god!, No, thank you!. If you have a brave heart and strong stomach, though, be my guest.
Anyway it’s really interesting to chat with locals although they don’t speak much English but they’re super friendly and always smile. Vietnam seems to me one of friendliest countries in the world.
Our next stop was another small restaurant where I tried bun cha (above) - according to Ha, the best in the city. Delicately crispy spring rolls and herbs such as shiso, holy basil, lettuce accompany the main event: a bowl of warm broth containing “cha” (grilled pork) into which you add white nice noodles. Oh my god! I love the dipping sauce which is made from fish sauce, vinegar, papaya, carrot, etc. It was awesome. This dish is the best Vietnamese food I have ever tried.
Ha led me around the Hoan Kiem (Returned Sword Lake) and told me the story of the Le Loi King, the turtle god and the magical sword. It's an interesting tale, and I came to respect this holy place. She also told me more about Vietnamese religion and spiritual life. By then I was coming to love Vietnam more and more.
On the way to try the next delicacy bánh cuôn (steamed-rice pancake rolls, below). we tried bia hoi, Vietnam's fresh beer - very light, and a favorite beer of local, especially in summer. Now I know how to say “cheers” in Vietnamese: zo! Anyway, bánh cuôn is fiiled with minced pork, and vegetables, including shallots and mushrooms. The pancake sheets are incrediblly thin, so attempting to peel my our off the hot surface with a stick didn’t quite go to plan – but it’s fun all the same!. Again, the sauce of this dish made was addictive. This dish is easy to eat so I think anyone would absolutely love it.
While we ate, Ha spoke about her life, her small village before moving to Hanoi for studying. She kept talking about ancestor veneration, which can be seen across all of Vietnam. She explained the reason why people burn fake money in a small stove on the side of the road or on the street, as an offering to their ancestors in the another world where dead people live. In their religion, when they burn something for their ancestor, they can receive it and use it in their world. I think this custom is interesting but I think they shouldn’t waste too much money to buy things and burn it because Ha said that some people even buy fake iPhones, motorbikes, even cars and houses, and then burn them for their ancestors. It gave me more respect for Vietnamese culture and their spiritual life.
After that, we didn’t go too far for the next stop. Appearing in front of my eyes, this was a nondescript street cart selling small loaves of bánh mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) lathered. I tried bánh mi before at home, but when I took one first bite of this one, I thought I was in heaven - so uch better than what we have back in Germany. The bread is crunchy, Vietnamese ham, liver paste, pickled papaya and carrot, herbs were perfect combination. How could I express my feeling after trying it. I just ate and ate until the last piece. So yummy. There is only one cart in the city open from 4 to 8 pm. I think I will absolutely come back here again because I think I am addicted to authentic local bánh mi now.
Ha also told me about the difference between the regional differences in Vietnamese cuisine: Southern Vietnamese food is sweeter because they put sugar in every dishes, Central Vietnamese cuisine is spicy with lots of a lot of chili, while northern cuisine is all about balance. So I think northern cuisine is my favorite choice because I don’t eat spicy and sweet much. Otherwise, it’s not the reason for a foodie like me to stop trying Vietnamese cuisine in other parts of Vietnam.
By now I wished my stomach were bigger. But we pressed on to try bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup). I'd just had beef noodle soup so it’s my first time to try this dish. It’s my favorite savory dish of the night, served with light vermicelli and tasty freshwater crab in a clear tomatoey broth which I I really loved (maybe I’ll try to make it at home, my family will absolutely love it). Ha told me that the owner of this restaurant starts cooking at 5:30 am every day after buying fresh tomatoes and crabs from the market. All of the staff here are members of the owner's family: her daughter, her husband and her grandmother. They live in the restaurant together. I noticed that in every restaurants and hotels in here, they have a small altar in the corner of their restaurant or hotel with small statues of two men. I asked Ha and she said that they were than tai (god of fortune) and tho dia (god of the land). Everyday people will put fruits, food, burn incense sticks and pray to have more customers. They even burn cigarettes because the fortune god like cigarettes. It’s interesting to hear that.
By now especially I was sooo full. Yeah, I didn’t want to say that because I still wish to try more but my stomach will be angry with me if I eat more. LOL. I couldn’t eat any food more so last stop, Ha guided me to try egg coffee in a best place of this city. Egg coffee is a special coffee in Hanoi, it only have in Vietnam, nowhere in the world. I love coffee so was so excited to try it. We went to a secret place which is hard for tourists to find it. Go inside with a small lane, I smelt coffee flavor.