1. It’s not all about food – Do take a trip to Sapa or Halong Bay
Hanoi did not turn out to be the Bangkok of Vietnam, as I had expected. While we had some good meals, it’s difficult to come up with a fruitful list of must-try spots because there probably aren’t a lot of those… It’s not a city where you could get impressive local dishes whatever establishment or street stall you walk into. I think travelling out of Hanoi is a must for any tourist.
Sapa is a 12 hour overnight train away from Hanoi. Located 1500m above sea level, the scenery takes you to a different world, even the climate differs significantly from Hanoi – it got to 10-ish degrees Celsius on a summer night. A diverse range of ethnic minority groups inhabit the town, with Hmong peoples being the majority. The experience was absolutely unparalleled. It was unique and so worth the long journey.
Halong Bay is about 3.5 hours (bus ride) away from Hanoi and an overnight cruise trip in the area is highly recommended. The bay is overpopulated in the afternoon – a tad unpleasant – but it was beautifully serene in the evening and early morning. It’s at the deserted times that you really get to appreciate the beauty of nature here.
Honestly, these places were much more of a highlight than most of the meals I’ve had in Vietnam.
2. Expect the pho bo noodles to be much lighter
I love pho. But there are different styles of pho and the Hanoi one is much lighter in flavours. The soup broth is relatively clean and clear. I sampled a few of the top spots and noticed they love overflowing the bowl with herbs and coriander. But the beef is always kind of… forgettable. I tried Pho Thin, Pho 10 and Pho Lam Nam Ngu – a few of the repeatedly recommended spots. But I have to say I personally enjoyed these three beef phos in Hong Kong a lot more. Pictured above is the bowl of pho I had at Pho 10 – which is the only recommended spot if you are dirty-food-places-averse.
3. Dinner at Madame Hien is a must
This was my second time to Hanoi and Madame Hien was no doubt my favourite place for good local Vietnamese food. The food was generally delicious, and it was here I fell in love with bun cha, which is bbq-ed pork served with herbs & greens and rice noodles, dipped in a sauce. Not only was the food good, more importantly, we loved the ambience in the outdoor area. It’s much nicer than your usual local eatery, but still retains a casual vibe. If you’re planning a nice but local meal, then this place is a must.
4. Visit Cong Caphe for Vietnamese coffee at least twice
If Hanoi fails to immensely impress you with its food, Cong Caphe‘s coffee is one place for redemption. There may be a number of good cafes around, but from the bunch I’ve sampled over two visits, this place wins hands down in terms of hipster vibes and seriously good coffee – Vietnamese or not. Their coffee with coconut milk is their signature and is a pretty epic dessert (think affogato). Their Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk is also a winner. But if sweet coffee is a no-way for you, you won’t be disappointed by their regular iced coffee with fresh milk.
5. Quan An Ngon is reliable and authentic for a casual lunch
If you ask your hotel concierge for recommendations, I can bet they’ll recommend Quan An Ngon. It’s a chain restaurant which serves local food. That description makes it sound like a disaster, but it honestly does do really delicious Vietnamese food. I’ve returned to this restaurant a number of times! It’s very casual, yet it’s clean and they use better quality ingredients (that’s a key lacking element in street food). The banh xeo – a Vietnamese pancake – is a must order. How to best eat it? Cut the pancake up, bunch it up with herbs & greens, wrap it in a rice paper sheet (into a spring roll) and dunk it in the sauce. Most of us agreed that this was the single most impressive dish we tried in Vietnam!
P.S. You can also find a pretty good banh xeo in Hong Kong at Le Garcon Saigon.
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