Ditch your map and guidebook, grab your appetite and allow yourself to get lost in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. The hustle and bustle of the shopping district will keep you visually stimulated, but the local restaurant owners and street food vendors will welcome you with open arms and treat you like family as you indulge in sampling the local cuisine.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter wakes up around 5:30am. Shop owners and their families begin their day with a hot, savory breakfast on the sidewalk outside of their homes, which also doubles as their storefront. These traditional long and narrow homes, or “tube homes” as they’re called, have limited frontage, so seating is usually pretty restricted.
Due to the limited space, you’ll quickly notice the use of child-sized plastic stools and tables. This miniature, inexpensive furniture is perfect given the limited space. More importantly, it’s easy to quickly move the furniture inside, especially when the police decide to enforce the local laws that prohibit restaurant patrons from eating on the sidewalk.
The Old Quarter, comprised of about 40 narrow streets, is teeming with over 300 traditional Vietnamese restaurants. The majority is run by individual families, and while many have expanded their menus over the years, each family, or restaurant, is known for a specific specialty.
We had a chance to partake in a lunchtime food tour with Vietnam Awesome Travel. Here are a few must-try dishes from Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Enjoy!
Green mango salad is ubiquitous in the Old Quarter. This particular salad calls for an unripe mango that has a green exterior and is firm to the touch. At this stage in its ripening, it has a mild, neutral flavor along with a fresh crunch, similar to the crunch of fresh jicama. The salad below incorporated finely shredded carrots as well as fresh mint, cilantro, basil and chopped roasted peanuts.
Fresh herbs play an especially important role in both cooked and raw Vietnamese cuisine. They’re aesthetically pleasing and add a nice burst of bright color to a dish, but their significance extends beyond their role as a basic garnish. There are multiple varieties of mint, basil and cilantro (or coriander), each offering a slightly different sweet, sour, bitter or salty flavor profile. The freshness of these herbs is essential to achieving a well-rounded, balanced Vietnamese raw vegetable salad, phở (soup), bún (rice noodle dish) or fresh rolls.
Rice: Most traditional Vietnamese meals, including breakfast, will incorporate rice in some form. Soup, or phở, always contains rice noodles (pictured below). Rice paper is used in both fresh and hot rolls. Cold rice noodles, also known as vermicelli, make frequent appearances in both hot and cold dishes as well. And of course, steamed white rice is always served alongside hot stews.
Bún bò nam Bộ, or Vietnamese vermicelli with grilled beef, is a popular dish for a quick, casual meal. We opted for the vegetarian version below that omits the beef but still retains the fresh herbs, sprouts and fried shallot. This dish is usually tossed in a traditional Vietnamese dressing made from fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and water in a 1:1:1:3 ratio, respectively. Fish sauce is a fundamental ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine and is found in almost all savory dishes. If it’s not incorporated into the actual dish, you’re bound to find it in the dipping sauce or dressing on the side.
Bánh cuốn, or rolled rice paper, is a popular dish in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Traditionally, the fermented rice batter is steamed into thin pancakes and then rolled with sautéed pork and mushrooms. The bánh cuốn is then topped with fresh cilantro, basil and fried shallots and is served alongside a dipping sauce made from fish sauce. This particular version below does not contain sautéed pork.
Our local tour guide introduced us to coconut-infused rice wine. This “happy water,” as she called it, is the result of rice wine left to ferment inside a coconut with only the coconut flesh left behind. Think coconut flavored sake. Some like to sip it, but it’s usually consumed in the form of a shot following an energetic, “một hai ba, yo!” or “one, two, three, cheers!”
Banana flowers: The flowers from the banana plant are consumed in Vietnam in the same way that spinach or arugula is consumed in the U.S. The banana flowers in the salad below were finely shredded and tossed once again with fresh mint, cilantro, basil, sprouts and crushed peanuts along with the traditional Vietnamese dressing (fish sauce, sugar, vinegar and water). The red-purplish flowers are hearty and fibrous but mild in flavor. They do not dominate this dish but instead sit in the backdrop, offering a unique texture to complement the other ingredients.
Chè is a Vietnamese term referring to any sweet beverage, soup or pudding. One might think chè is a type of dessert that is consumed following a meal, but Vietnamese locals tend to enjoy chè as an afternoon snack. As for a typical dessert, they’ll often go for fresh fruit. Chè, which can be served hot or cold, usually contains some kind of bean (mung, black, red or kidney) and tapioca along with fruit and a drizzle of coconut cream.
We had a chance to sample a variety of chè in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, you’ll find a red bean and lotus seed soup with a drizzle of coconut milk, black sesame dumplings in a ginger and coconut broth, and finally, cold lychees stuffed with lotus seeds.
These chilled rice-based dumplings were filled with sweet, crunchy lotus seeds and topped with shredded coconut and sesame seeds.
The hot mung bean dumplings below were served in a light, yet flavorful ginger and coconut broth and topped with roasted peanuts.