The Uber was ‘arriving shortly’, but we were still so consumed by the packet of warm, deep-fried dumplings that I wouldn’t have minded missing it again.
Standing in the daily morning drizzle, Louis and I were tucking into ‘banh goi’ – miniature rice flour pastry pillows filled with finely-chopped glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms, minced pork, steamed quail eggs and the usual mix of fish sauce, lime juice, chilli, garlic and soy – our third breakfast for the day.
Our flight back home was due in only a couple of hours, but my list of foods and stalls to try only grew longer. We still had to buy Banh mi for the road, and I had to have one last real Vietnamese coffee with it before we left!?
I had a typical foodie panic attack.
Louis sat me down for the coffee, while he quickly mapped out the most efficient way to hit all the remaining must-eat spots in one, circular route – ending at last on the highway to the airport.
“We’ll ask the Uber driver to help,” he said and whisked me off in a small Chevy Spark so I could eat my heart out. “This is why I married him,” I thought as I bit into the best banh mi I ate on our entire honeymoon.
Banh mi is a Vietnamese stuffed baguette – an ode to the French colonial period – stuffed with all kinds of Vietnamese goodies like juicy, tender pork belly, chillies, fresh Vietnamese herbs and other, delicious, local additions like pickled vegetables and boiled egg.
The next stop was for Banh Cuon, and the next Bun Cha – washed down with a local Bia Hoi beer. Slowly but surely, I was able to tick every Hanoi food dream from my list with the help of an eager Vietnamese Uber driver and a newly-wed man.
The lesson? Something Scott Westerfeld knew all along when he said that “The best way to know a city is to eat it”. And even more so when you’re strapped for time and standing with one foot practically in airport customs.
After the last day of devouring Hanoi, I boarded our flight home with the biggest food hangover I’ve ever had and slept like a baby smelling of fish sauce and garlic – a food lover’s dream.
Traveller Tip: Because we were strapped for time, we stuck to exploring the Old Quarter of Hanoi only, which was close enough to spend time at Hoan Kiem Lake and the St Joseph Cathedral, luckily. But while this old, French-inspired hub is certainly a must-see, it is by no means ALL there is to see and do in Hanoi. The entire city has incredible museums and temples to see, and then of course there’s the Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long UNESCO World Heritage Site too.
Here’s my advice on the 6 Bs to treat your taste buds to in a 48-hour visit to Hanoi –
Oh, the inspired banh mi. Pork-stuffed, heaven-sent goodness. These peasant yet gourmet sandwiches are available right throughout the country, and differ slightly in every region – truly a marker to taste the difference in ingredients and cooking styles from the south to the north.
In the south, for example, the banh mi had more processed meats and vegetables, while the ones in the centre of the country in Hoi An was loaded with steamed, gelatinous pork and fresh, mild ingredients.
In Hanoi, the pork was golden and crispy and the chillies hot – the best for us.
Where to get it: We loved the little street food cart Bahn Mi 25, situated at 25 Hang Ca street, selling the best-tasting ones in the Old Quarter.
This dish from Northern Vietnam consists of a thin, wide sheet of steamed fermented rice batter pancake filled with a mixture of cooked seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom, and minced shallots.
The rice pancake is made right in front of your eyes – it really can’t be fresher. The delicate parcels are served alongside juicy chunks of pork in a rich broth with noodles and fried shallots.
As per tradition, it’s served with a side of fish sauce, chillies and an entire bowl of fresh herbs and lime.
Where to get it: Bahn Cuon at 14 Pho Hang Ga street, as the name suggest, is a cafe dedicated to making this dish – and only that. And they’ve perfected it.
A Vietnamese staple, again, which originated in Hanoi. If you eat it, you MUST eat it here.
Rich, fatty pork on a bed of freshly made white rice noodle and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce – it’s easy to be fooled by how simple it sounds.
Upon our return from honeymoon, when I read that the Vietnamese food writer Vu Bang wrote in 1959 how the town of Hanoi was “transfixed by bun cha”, I wasn’t surprised at all… Once you tuck into this deliciousness the complexity of flavour will leave you speechless.
It also happens to be the very dish old US President Barack Obama and his chef pal Anthony Michael Bourdain tucked into on their visit to the city, expertly perched on those tiny blue chairs…
Where to get it: Hanoi’s first bun cha restaurant was on Gia Ngu street in the Hoan Kiem District of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We suggest going here, to Quan Bun Cha Nem at 25 Gia Ngu street, to try the original original. Or, you can opt for the one Obama had at Bun Cha Huong Lien at 24 Le Van Huu street.
This was our last taste of Vietnam. And oh, what a taste it was. When we ordered ours from the lady seated on the small red chair underneath a Banana Tree in the Old Quarter, we could only gesture what we were after due to the language barrier.
She knew, however, before we asked – and fried us up the fattest pillows of Hanoi flavour she had. We ate them by the St Joseph’s Cathedral in the rain before the Uber driver friend honked at us and pointed to his wrist, suggesting that we were going to be late for check-in.
Where to get it: If I go back to Vietnam and Hanoi, I’d restart my food journey at this small hole-in-the-wall street stall under the banana tree again. It’s at 52 Ly Quoc Su street. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Bia Hoi Corner
Late night street food scene is just a thing of beauty in Hanoi. There are particular restaurants that only open during the night, and when they do they transform the entire feel of the Old Quarter to a massive mix of pubs, late night curio shops and the most delicious food.
It’s then when drinks at Bia Hoi Corner is an absolute must. It might get a little touristy at times, but considering you only pay around R6 for a massive local draught at the spot makes it all the more worth it.
Where to get it: Bia Hoi Corner is situated at 20 Ta Hien street.
Another industry that comes to life at dusk is that of the traditional barbeque, as they call it. What’s a market street by day, become what the locals call ‘BBQ Alley’ or ‘BBQ chicken street’ at night.
The concept is far removed from what South Africans would call a ‘BBQ’ and is rather a small furnace stacked with an array of raw meats and veggies, served with the traditional lime, fish sauce, salt and pepper dipping sauces.
You then fry your own food, removing the good bits as they’re ready for consumption – like a grill fondue, actually.
Also available in this street is the iconic chicken kebab, deliciously flame grilled while you wait – hence the name ‘BBQ chicken street’.
Where to get it: The street you have to be in is called Cat Linh Dong Da. Don’t go anytime before 18:00, though, as the BBQ shops only open at nightfall.
Then, no trip to Vietnam or Hanoi is complete without at least three Vietnamese coffees daily. The local iced coffee is made with sweet condensed milk and the strongest brewed beans.
Where to get it: Available at any coffee café in the Old Quarter.