Everything You Need to Know about Street Food in Hanoi
Aggie Mcdonagh recently visited Hanoi in Northern Vietnam and has put together a guide to street food in the city. She suggests recommended places to eat, a 24 hour itinerary and also top tips when bartering with local sellers.
What Do You Need to Know about Street Food in Vietnam?
First of all, it is important to notice that in this vast country, there is a huge difference in food culture between North, Central and South Vietnam. Cuisine in the North is quite plain in comparison to the Central and Southern regions. Due to a harsher climate, there are fewer vegetables, herbs and spices used in cooking. That makes it really delicate and balanced, but on the other hand quite flat. So if you are planning to go on a food discovery trip the best way to start is from North Vietnam making your way south. The warmer it gets the spicier the food becomes, it is a fantastic way to indulge yourself in Vietnamese food culture that gets spicier with every step you take towards Saigon. Travelling this way gives you time to adjust and slowly discover the full pallet of flavours available in this amazing country.
Hanoi has its own unique food market culture, and it all comes to life early in the morning and again in the evening. Often whole streets turn into big outdoor dining areas, where people of all age groups are enjoying themselves eating and talking. To really get to know it one needs to take it all in with its pros and cons. There are plenty of snacks, meals and drinks to choose from but before you go off familiarize yourself with this short guide to make sure you won’t miss on anything.
To start your food experience journey, try local beer Bia Hoi (freshly brewed beer) or Hanoi Beer. This can only be accompanied by Nem Chua Ran (fried fermented pork) – it is a common Vietnamese snack and once you taste it you can never have enough of it.
That should be followed by any of these traditional meals: Pho (classic noodle soup), Bún Bò Huế (beef noodle soup), Bánh Bao (steamed bun with various fillings), Bánh Cuốn (rice flour rolls with filling) and Gỏi Cuốn (freshly made rice paper wraps). These are fantastic oriental dishes that will fill you up for hours especially when you are on a budget. To finish off, an absolute must is to try Traditional Vietnamese Coffee or Vietnamese Egg Coffee- both are absolutely amazing, served hot or cold and are completely different to the ones we are used to drink in Western countries. First one is called Cà Phê Sữa Nóng - traditionally brewed thick Vietnamese coffee served with sweetened condensed milk. And the latter one Cà Phê Trứng is made of egg yolks whipped with sugar and poured over a shot of coffee.
If you deem to call yourself a real extreme culinary explorer, depending on your personal views and limits you might want to try few Vietnamese ‘delicacies’ while in Hanoi. The first one on the list is dog meat (Thit Cho), it might seem disturbing for majority of us, though in North Vietnam it is a culturally accepted practice to eat it. This product is mainly sold in Tay Hoi district, however bear in mind that many street restaurants in the Centre of Hanoi have it in their menu. Another unusual dish, not for the faint hearted though is a snake meat and snake cocktail. For this experience visit a snake village Le Mat and order your meal. For a starter you are served a cocktail made of fresh snake’s blood, strong rice alcohol and still pumping heart in it, that is followed by a set of dishes made to your liking from this very snake. If this is not enough, you can always try boiled foetal duck egg (Hot Vit Lon) and finish it off with Snake Rice Wine (Ruou thuoc).
Do you still look forward to your meal? So what are you next steps?
First obstacle you might come across when buying food from street vendors in Hanoi is the lack of a menu in English. This is not always the case, but you need to be prepared for this as it can be really hard to find out what is it that they sell. Sometimes equipped with a ‘Vietnamese Guide’ after a few frustrating minutes you might be able to establish what it is, however at the end of the day a good old glance into the pot is the best option. You are here to explore after all!
Your next step is to establish how much you have to pay for your meal. Prices are rarely displayed, mainly because they are often different for locals and for tourists. Be mindful when you barter, even though it is commonly accepted to do so. You might sometimes be in shock when you hear the first price you are being asked to pay. Also if the price you offer in return is too low the seller might get offended... Therefore it is worthwhile to do some research before you start haggling and remember when you do so that they are only trying to make their living.
Once you decided what food you want to eat and you know how much you have to pay for it, you can sit yourself down and prepare for some culinary exploration…
And here you might be in for another surprise…all street restaurants seem to use same type of tables and chairs, and it all would be perfectly fine if not for the size of them. They are tiny! This is something you would expect to see in a Crèche or on a birthday party for children. Where Vietnamese can comfortably sit on them, it is a rather funny view when you see tourists trying to fit themselves on a tiny chair and eat from a tiny table having a tiny amount of space to move their hands or legs. Add to it having to be mindful of scooters constantly passing by within few centimetres from you and you have quite of an experience.
To summarize, yes it takes time to get used to all of it. Different culture, different norms and different way of looking and things might make you feel a little bit overwhelmed at first. Some might say that eating on the streets of Hanoi is not only a rich culinary and cultural experience but also quite of a challenge in terms of menu, logistics and safety for foreigners. Undeniably though, exploring exotic dishes while sitting squashed between locals, surrounded by a city jungle with all that is has to offer bad and good, you find yourself meeting new people, having interesting conversations and exploring the depths of Vietnamese culture.
By Agatha McDonagh