For us, one of the best things about living in Vietnam has to be the food. We’re always looking to try new dishes and experience the local cuisine in all it’s chicken feet and congealed pork blood glory. While some of the food, particularly the unidentifiable meat, has made us grimace, we have eaten some of the tastiest foods our taste buds have had the privilege to process. Here’s a low down of our top 6 dishes (5 was too difficult to narrow down and 10 might have put you to sleep)…
- Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup
Pho is the Vietnamese dish that most people have heard of so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s never hard to find a delicious bowl of beef noodle soup in Hanoi. A beef or chicken broth is cooked with a variety of spices, fish sauce and rice noodles. The meat is then added along with some green vegetables. Beef is the most popular meat but sometimes chicken is used. It’s cheap, nutritious and very tasty. This dish, or anything soup-based can also be enjoyed with quay, what we can only describe as a sausage shaped Yorkshire Pudding; fried dough sticks that can be dunked into your soup if you’re feeling particularly peckish!
- Bun Bo Nam Bo – Vietnamese Beef Stir Fry
In the North of Vietnam, this dish is known as Bun Bo Nam Bo (southern beef noodle), but it’s also called Bun Bo Tron elsewhere. Wherever you are, this is one of our favourites. Thin slices of meat are marinated in lemongrass, garlic and oyster sauce. It’s fried in a wok and placed on some Vietnamese herbs, noodles and sprinkled with crushed peanuts, which is just the cherry on the cake for us. Everything is mixed together with some spicy nuoc cham dressing. There are some variations to this meal, such as a similar pork version called Pho Tron (equally delicious). There are lots of soupy textures out there in Hanoi so having a stir-fried, ‘drier’ dish makes a nice change.
- Vietnamese Doughnuts/fried foods
When we say doughnuts, we aren’t talking about the jam filled variety that springs to your mind. We’re talking savoury, we’re talking sweet, we’re talking meat and vegetables, the whole shebang. Vietnamese doughnuts aren’t one-trick ponies. They almost need a top 10 list in themselves. Here are some of the options you can get your fatty fingers on…
- Banh Cam: The sweet doughnut, and the most relatable to us Westerners. This is a deep fried ball of glutinous rice dough filled with sweet mung bean. It’s crispy, yet chewy, arousing a sensation of sticky caramel when you bite into its greasy outer layer. One is more than enough to satisfy the niggling sweet tooth that haunts Naomi’s day-to-day life when access to chocolate is scarce.
- Cha Gio: You can enjoy these fried spring rolls stuffed with crab, or pork, and wrapped in lettuce, mint and dunked in a spicy sauce. The delicate rice paper makes these lighter and crispier than the oily Chinese-style spring rolls you get from your local take-away.
- Banh Goi: The crispy fried dumpling. A deep-fried pillow of mushrooms, glass noodles and ground pork. It looks a little like a Cornish pasty.
- Nem Chua Ran: This sausage roll-esque doughnut is made by covering ground pork in flour and deep-frying. It’s eaten with chili sauce and raw papaya.
As you can sense from the descriptions, these doughnut options might not be the healthiest but they’re the most satisfying meals out when you want to feel full on a budget and are craving some calories.
- Banh Mi – Vietnamese Sandwich
There are various kinds of Banh Mi’s knocking about out there. Some are stuffed with beef, others with chicken, pork or a meat pate. The meat is also cooked in a variety of ways, for example steamed in banana leaves or BBQ’d on skewers. But it’s the baguettes that we find the most delicious aspect of this dish; crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. Thank goodness for French Colonialism (please don’t read into that statement too much. Lawrence did do a history degree after all so is well aware of the negative aspects of colonial rule). Chilli sauce is added along with some coleslaw style veg. The combination of sweet, salty, sour and spicy is what Vietnamese cuisine is known for. A quick 2-minute stop at a sandwich stand on the street leaves you feeling satisfied. It makes a nice change from noodles.
- Vietnamese BBQ
The BBQ option is a little pricier as it appeals to many of the foreigners who flock to the Old Quarter to enjoy the sociable experience over a beer. But it’s a great treat on the weekend when we’re feeling like a whole lot of protein and the best part of this dish is the fun of chucking everything in to your very own BBQ to cook it yourself. Your host will bring you a plate of raw meats, vegetables and chunks of baguette. They set your BBQ alight and whack in some butter and oil. Once you’re sizzling, everything is chucked in to the mix and grilled until crispy. The baguettes soak up all of the juices and really make this dish something special. You can dip your meat and vegetables into a mix of chili, salt and lime to season; so simple but adds that extra kick of flavour.
- Banh Bao – Steamed Pork Bun
This is a steamed, doughy ball of joy. The wheat flour dough is filled with savoury meat, sealed shut and steamed until cooked. It’s usually filled with ground pork and eggs but can contain other meats and vegetables. The dough is soft and light, but also chewy and slightly sweet (similar to a brioche bun). It’s the texture that hits the spot for us. These are really cheap and make a good snack or on-the-go breakfast.
It was pretty tough to narrow down this list to only our top 6 as there are so many great options to try in Hanoi, let alone the rest of Vietnam. And we’re constantly discovering new places so if you asked us to write this again in a couple of months, our list would probably have evolved further. It will be interesting to explore the differences as we head further south. But for now, we’re greedily soaking up the Hanoi grub as much as we can.