“One Please!” (Take Two) – Bowls of Pho, Glasses of Bia Hoi, and Other Street Eats in Hanoi

One of the true pleasures of visiting Southeast Asia is the absolute abundance of amazingly appetizing street food (as well as alliteration!).  Everywhere you look, there are folks parked on plastic chairs on the sidewalk digging in, small grills being rolled out and tended to with a paper fan, the welcoming aroma of seared meat wafting through the air, friendly vendors calling out to passersby, and the ever-present sound of noodles being noisily slurped (the way they’re supposed to be eaten).  Whereas street food is present in almost any city or town in this part of the world, there are still a few locations that have upped the ante more than the rest when it comes to eating on the street.  In the past, I’ve written about the many street vendors in Bangkok, the hawker centers in Singapore, and touched briefly on those edibles which can be acquired on the sidewalk in Phnom Penh, but now it’s time to turn to another great street food destination: Hanoi, Vietnam.

Tables and chairs littering the sidewalk is a fairly typical sight along the streets in the Old Quarter

Pho:

Similar to what I experienced in Singapore and Bangkok, there is a seemingly endless array of traditional dishes and new creations to pique one’s appetite.  But this being Vietnam, however, one street food dish reigns supreme: the world-famous, often-copied, often-imitated, rarely matched king of soupy-noodle breakfast concoctions known simply as Pho (pronounced more like “feh?”).  The dish, which was born in Hanoi, consists of rice noodles drowned in either a stock made from beef (Pho Bo) or made from chicken (Pho Ga) — these two will be the bulk of what you find, but there are a few other varieties out there — and then liberally seasoned by the lucky customer with herbs, fish sauce, hot sauce, bean sprouts, chilies, and vinegar.  As mentioned above, it is typically a breakfast dish, so you’ll have to wake up before noon to snag a bowl, but finding a vendor will be the least of your worries: upon setting foot outside of your guesthouse, I’m guessing you’ll be able to see at least 3 or 4 Pho vendors within eyeshot – just look for the crowds sitting on tiny stools on the sidewalk.

Pho Bo (Beef), a big heaping bowl of deliciousness defined.  Everyone has their opinions on who serves the best, too, so be sure to make acquiantances with a few foodies friends and then leach off of their recommendations (this bowl happens to come from Pho Tin on Lo Duc)

Pho Ga, representing the slightly lighter version (at least compared to the beef)

A Long List of Other Streets Eats:

Pho isn’t the end-all-be-all dish in Hanoi, however.  I wasn’t able to try everything I found (even my stomach occasionally complains about the ill-treatment to which I subject it), but I did my best to work through as many of the more well-known dishes as I could.  Here are a few shots of some of what I found, although I will note, this uses the “loose” definition of street food — in which the food is served from a locale with no more than three walls as opposed to only the push-cart-type of dispensary (much of the street food in the city is actually served out of open-air kitchens on the ground floor):

Bun Cha – my personal favorite dish in Hanoi (and way up there on my whole trip so far). Grilled Pork Belly and Pork Patties are served in a smokey, savory soup-like liquid, in which you then dunk rice vermicelli noodles and a variety of herbs. A nice little dish of chilies is served on the side, as well. Shown here is the version served by the appropriately named “Bun Cha” on Hang Than

Banh Cuon – minced pork and mushrooms, rolled up and steamed in a rice flour pancake, topped with fried shallots and accompanied with a fish sauce in which to dip them (served here by Than Van Banh Cuon on Hang Ga, just down from my hostel!)

Xoi – a catch-all term for sticky rice that is then topped with your choice of ingredients. In this case, the folks at Xoi Yen hooked me up with pate and hunks of pork on top. It might not look like the most appealing dish, but wow was it good.  MMMmmmmmm…(drools on self)…

Cha Ca – a dish of slices of fish, tumeric, ginger, and herbs served with vermicelli noodles and your own table-side, flaming burner, so be careful! This one is easy to find, too, as there is an entire alley named after it

Banh My (or Banh Mi) – a French-style baguette stuffed with pate, pickled veggies, and hot sauce (though there are a few regional variations that add significantly more ingredients). Mobile vendors troll the streets all of the city selling these, all for about 65 cents a pop

Chao Ca – another breakfast of champions. This fish porridge is a variation of the Chinese congee, served here by Doan Xom Chao Ca on Hang Bang.

Xoi – anther catch-all name that encapsulates any stuffed ball of sticky rice that is then wrapped in a banana leaf and a sheet of newspaper. The stuffings can range from charred meat to nuts and fruit, but I opted for the stewed and spiced chicken variety

Pho Xao – Flat Pho rice noodles that are fried up with hunks of beef and served with a plethora of condiments

Yay for pork buns! Banh Bao, the Vietnamese version of the classic Chinese buns, can take on a slightly different slant with a variety of spicy stuffings (I couldn’t pick out all of the flavors, but this pork bun had tons of tumeric and cumin jammed in there

Goi Cuon – fresh spring rolls — often stuffed with shrimp, noodles, and various herbs — a dish that many folks immediately associate with Vietnamese cuisine

And of course, those not on a diet can opt for the fried version (Nem Ran)

It is pretty common for vendors to offer a “roll your own” spring roll option, too. Seen here is the fried catfish stuffing.

Nom Hoa Chuoi – similar to the Banana Blossom Salad found in neighboring countries, this differentiated itself by having a more balanced flavor (as opposed to just being spicy)

Nem Cua Be – Fried spring rolls stuffed with crab meat and folded into squares as opposed to the usual thin tubes

Sweet Treats:

It isn’t all savory, however.  There are a few sweet treats out there, too, if you’re either in the mood for dessert or just trying to pacify a sweet tooth:

A variety of sweet syrups, jellies, beans, and pastes at a Che vendor (and sorry for the fuzzy photo, but it was the best I had)

Given I don’t speak any Vietnamese, the Che vendor didn’t speak and English, and I didn’t know what half the topping were, I felt pretty good about the comprise we reached, which was the vendor just going down the line grabbing a spoonful of everything (a la a “Suicide” at the cola dispenser) and then stirring it all up. Tasty and refreshing.

Near any of the tourist attractions, you’ll inevitably bump into a few of the vendors roaming around in search of buyers for their fried sweets, or I should say, they’ll find you (and they’re pushy, too!)

Fresh Juice Vendors are also plentiful…

…but if all else fails, you can never go wrong with battered and deep-fried hunks of fruit, too

Caffeine:

Besides simply leaving behind the legacy of the baguette (for the Banh Mi), the French Colonial period also instilled in the Vietnamese people the strong desire to sit in cafes sipping on cups of coffee strong enough to power their motorbikes.  Just as you can’t turn around without bumping into a Pho vendor early in the morning, you can hardly throw a stone without hitting a coffee shop come the afternoon.  Vietnam is one of the heaviest coffee growing regions in the area, and subsequently, they have a wide selection of caffeine-induced beverages to choose from.

Vietnamese-style coffee is served with a generous dollop of sweetened, condensed milk, giving the drink a sweet, grainy texture that transforms it into something more akin to crack (at least in its addictive qualities)

Given the heat and humidity, however, many opt for the Ca Phe Sua, which is the same as the Vietnamese style pictured above, just served chilled over ice. In this case, I snapped the picture before stirring up the sweetened, condensed milk

And then there is my new favorite caffeinated beverage on the planet: Ca Phe Trung (also known as “Egg Coffee”). The recipe is quick and easy to master: simply take a cup of Vietnamese coffee, drop in a cracked egg, and whisk it up until it is a delicious, sludgy mess of goop

One of the more popular varieties in the area (similar to the famous Indonesian Kopi Luwak) is a type of coffee bean that is eaten by a weasel and then subsequently “collected” from the droppings. Supposedly, this acts as both a screening process for the beans, as the weasels only eat the beans that are at the peak of their freshness, and a processing step that adds a bit of early flavor to the coffee

I did try the Weasel Coffee, and it hardly tasted like droppings at all!

The Intoxicating Side of Things:

Before I hit Vietnam, I knew that there was one beverage that I had to seek out as soon as I arrived: that of Bia Hoi.  It is essentially a foamy, fizzy, low-alcohol beer that is brewed fresh each morning and will continue to lose its freshness and carbonation as the day goes on — or at least until that particular vendor runs out for the day and closes up shop.  This is primary a Northern Vietnamese thing (specifically Hanoi), but anywhere you see a group of people sitting on tiny plastic stools, drinking away, you’ll know you found a bia hoi vendor.  And the best part?  Each glass of beer costs only 5,000 Dong, or a little less than 25 cents!

Bia Hoi in its natural setting, pumped out by an old lady hauling a small keg around, in a marginally dirty glass, and served atop a small plastic table right on the side of the road

If you’ve had enough of the exhaust fumes and motorbike horns, you can always pop inside a bar and grab a cold Larue Beer, too

For those long, hard days when you need a stronger shot in the arm than beer can provide, there is always Vietnamese Rice Vodka as an alternative (though make sure there are no Russians around, something I neglected to do, unless you plan on finishing the bottle)

And as a final offering for this food-and-drink-only post, I’ll offer up a quartet of different rice whiskeys for your tasting pleasure. Cheers!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

14 Responses to ““One Please!” (Take Two) – Bowls of Pho, Glasses of Bia Hoi, and Other Street Eats in Hanoi”

  1. I’m droolling! But egg coffee??? I wonder how it tastes.

  2. Well, the egg coffee caught my eye but we made a guide coffee in Maine that had an egg dropped in for the grounds to stick, so that wasn’t too weird for me. The one I cracked over was your comment on the “weasal processed” coffee. Thanks for sharing all these descriptions.

  3. This is a brilliant post! I must get to Hanoi on our next trip to Vietnam! SO much great detail here. Did you happen to see my post on Saigon yesterday? 🙂

    • I’ve seen it now (honestly, it was still sitting in my over-clogged inbox), and congrats on being Freshly Pressed! I’m making my way down the coast and will be hitting Saigon in about two weeks, so you’re post comes at a perfect time for me. I’m looking forward to reading more about your trip, so enjoy the rest of your time in SE Asia!

      • This was last year my friend. If I was there now I would come and find you 🙂
        I will do another couple of Vietnam posts for sure. I love your work btw

        • It sticks out in my mind that you were heading to Cambodia soon? No? I guess I just figured you were swinging through Saigon on the way (and I should probably learn to read more closely). Oh well. If we do ever find outselves in the same part of the world, I’d love to meet up. Keep up the good work, on hoping our paths cross some day!

  4. We are going back there in November – thanks again for reminding me why! Are you going to Sapa? I’m keen to try the food there.

    • Augghhh, I really wanted to go to Sapa, but given that I only have 30 days on my visa (and wanted to check out a lot of stuff down the coast), I had to cut Sapa out of my itinerary, unfortunately. It’ll be the first place I head for next time I get a chance to visit. Thanks for reading, and enjoy your trip here in November!

  5. The Bun Cha was good eh? We tried that too!!! Loved the vibrance of Hanoi!! You headed anywhere else in Vietnam? Am going to Danang/Hoi An next 🙂 Can’t wait

    • Funny you ask, as I just arrived in Hoi An yesterdaqy (April 20th) and I’m here through the 25th. I’m not sure when you’ll be here, but if you see a big 6-foot-4 guy walking from food vendor to food vendor and generally eating everythign in sight, it’s likely me, so say hi! Enjoy your trip!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Imperial Tombs, Prayer Pagodas, and Bo Bun in Hue | Temporarily Lost - April 25, 2012

    […] Although I’ve already touched on many of the staples of Vietnamese cuisine with my last post, I’ll just show a few of the specialties of Hue itself: Bun Bo Hue – the most famous of Hue's […]

  2. Turning 30 in Saigon | Temporarily Lost - May 14, 2012

    […] although Hanoi likely edges out Saigon when is comes to the culinary side of things (thanks to Hanoi’s Street Food Scene), Saigon isn’t without its own merits.  I wasn’t originally going to post any more […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: