One thing we looked forward to experiencing and tasting in Vietnam was its wide variety of food. Coming to Hanoi, we knew that many considered it as one the best cities in Asia if not in the world to find street food. It’s a concept that may not be common in the US, though in bigger cities we’re now seeing the idea of food truck that’s somewhat similar in its portable nature gaining popularity.
Growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia, I’m very familiar with the concept of street food. In fact, some of the best places to eat that I look forward to visit when I come home to Jakarta are simply known as ‘the place that sells [dish / cuisine name] on [street name].’ No official street address or contact information. You just have to know where it is, or go to the area and ask the people around to point you to the place.
That presented a challenge to us as we visited Hanoi for the first time. I did my research on the Internet to find out what locals or expats had to say about their favorite places to eat. The first place we went to was a big restaurant called Quan An Ngon that was easy enough to find even on Google map. Then we did find some ‘mom and pop’ places that had been in the same location for a long time, and only selling a small variety (if not just one) dishes. Again, since there was an address, we could locate them on Google map of Hanoi as well.
The last set of places was the most challenging one, as these are places that are somewhat ‘nomadic’ or portable. The vendors typically set up their food stands and some folding/stackable tables and stools on the sidewalk of a street. They would tear down the ‘restaurant’ at closing time, so sometimes if you have a vendor that is only open at night, you could pass the same location during the day and you wouldn’t know where the restaurant was as it looks different during the day. For these kind of places, the only direction we had was to go to a particular street roughly between two street intersections, and look for the place on the side of the road.
We went to one location that had many rave reviews as one of the best places for bún chả (grilled pork with vermicelli noodles). We passed the place a couple of times during our first day in Hanoi, but decided to save that for our last night in Hanoi to visit. When we arrived at the place, unfortunately they were only open during the daytime, not for dinner. Bummer…
We continued then to find another place. This one was a street vendor that was known for selling bún (vermicelli / rice noodle soup), particularly bún ốc (with snails). The food stand was set up on the sidewalk in front of a store that’s already closed for the day. There was a lady sitting near a portable kitchen where she prepared the noodle soup to order. Around her portable kitchen, there were several small tables with little stools around them for the patrons to sit and eat, and there was an area not far from there for the patrons to park their motorcycles.
We weren’t sure if the lady understood English, but a young lady who helped her there seemed to understand English a little. With some words and hand gestures, we ordered our food. She knew we’re tourists, so she asked ‘noodles?’ When we said yes, she followed up and asked, ‘beef?’ assuming the safe choice for foreigners. We should’ve said no and ask for what seemed to be the local favorite, snails, but I already nodded. So we had to settle with the beef version.
The noodle soup was delicious, and it was a perfect warm dish to have in a cool night (about 50 F outside). The table where we were seated was very small; just enough for the two of us. We sat on small stools that were only around one foot above the ground, so I was practically squatting while eating there. It was a good experience to finally ate like locals.
I took the photo below from our table. We were seated not far from the lady who prepared our noodle soups. Here she was in her portable kitchen preparing the food.