Pho became a hot food item in my hometown of Denver seven or eight years ago. The neighborhood around Federal Boulevard and Alameda had long been home to a thriving Vietnamese community, but around 2009 pho restaurants started popping up all over town. I first tried the light, refreshing soup that year after when a buddy became a server at a small pho house in north Denver, and ever since I’ve been hooked, always wanting to make it out to Hanoi to try the stuff at its source. I spent some time in Vietnam in May of this year, eating my way from Hanoi down to DaNang, Hoi An, and a quick pass through Saigon.
Images of the street food scene in Hanoi stick with me still. Never have I been anywhere where street food is so embedded in the culture, such a part of daily life, as Vietnam. While Halong Bay is strikingly beautiful and the coastline ridge of the South China Sea heading south towards Hue is unforgettable, my fondest memories of Vietnam are of trying foods I still can’t pronounce from vendors around the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
There’s just something about scurrying your way through an intersection swarmed with hundreds of motorbikes to order a bowl from a busy vendor, grab a seat on a plastic stool, and spoon a spicy bowl of pho, motorbikes whizzing by the entire time.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of your experience, because it can be intimidating at first. Hanoi is a densely populated city with nearly 8 million residents and a unique collection of architecture and culture heavily influenced by Southeast Asia, China, and French colonialism. The old quarter of the city is a haven of motorbikes passing through hectic intersections and an intensely entertaining nightlife and street scene, all of which is walkable if you don’t have your own motorbike.
Wake up early.
In Hanoi, pho is commonly served for breakfast. Each morning as I walked out of our guesthouse in the old quarter, I was greeted by the smell of simmering broth and meat cooking over an open fire, a buzz of cooks working to prepare the day’s food and fruit vendors lining the sidewalks. Even as the sun rose, a buzz of people zipped by on their motorbikes. Getting out onto the street by 7:00 provides the opportunity to check out the setup of the different vendors, get early dibs and the freshest food.
I recommend sticking with a bowl Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) for breakfast because there is literally nothing more refreshing than that light, citrusy broth first thing in the morning. Especially if you enjoyed a bit too much Bia Hoi (light draft beer brewed daily and delivered to bars and street vendors in steel or metal barrels) the previous evening.
Find a vendor with a good crowd.
With so much street food to choose from, finding the best food is really as simple as observing where the locals are eating. The first, and best, bowl of pho I had in Hanoi was from a vendor on a dimly lit, littered street corner, and my wife and I almost passed it up because it didn’t appear very inviting.
But the place had a crowd spilling out into the street, everyone perched on a tiny stool, deeply immersed in their bowl of soup. A friend had told us not to choose a vendor by appearance, but by how busy the stand is, and I’m so glad we listened, this is the best tip I can offer for finding the best street food in Hanoi.
Ask for advice, and take the meal as it comes.
To put it bluntly: if a dish is served a certain way, eat it that way. Don’t ask for modifications! You’re here to experience the food, so do it! Look at photos and talk to people at the place you’re staying at to find out where to go. We stayed at the Madam Moon Guesthouse and would not have learned about our ability to access the breakfast bar across the street had we not asked the lady who checked us in for recommendations.
Take a street food tour.
Not speaking the local language other than a few sloppily pronounced words, I found myself ordering only basic items like Pho Ga and Banh Mi from the street vendors. After a couple days, I began to feel as though we were missing out, and we definitely were. Through a day of bad weather inhibiting our Halong Bay trip, we ended up spending the evening on a street food tour and it was one of the coolest culinary experiences of my life.
We were saved from mispronouncing words and enjoyed several dishes we would not have otherwise tried (a few of them are listed below). Plus, our guide Ricky Ly explained the history behind each dish, the process of preparing it and the proper way to eat. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to experience the dishes.
Pho Ga or Pho Bo Vien– chicken noodle soup and noodle soup with meatballs.
Xoi Yen– Meat with sticky rice, deep fried boiled egg.
Vietnamese Egg Rolls– Fried rolls with meat wrapped in greens with bean sprouts and Vietnamese sauce
Bun Nem– Large, fried spring rolls.
Banh Mi: Vietnamese sandwiches with heavy French colonial influence (hence the French roll used). Filled with meat or vegetables, daikon, carrots, cilantro, and pate.
Bun Cha– Vermicelli noodle dish with grilled pork.
Ca Phe Trung– Egg Coffee, coffee with an egg and sweetened condensed milk.
And always, enjoy as much Bia Hoi as you can- it only costs about 30 cents per glass!
Photo credits: Tim Wenger and Alisha Williams