Capital Consumption

A 48-hour eating and drinking marathon in Hanoi’s Old Quarter…

As an Australian-born Vietnamese who has only visited the southern parts of Vietnam, I had limited understanding of Hanoi and how different it is to Ho Chi minh City when it comes to cuisine. Southerners would claim that northern food is bland whereas those from the north would argue it’s simpler and elegant thus requiring less use of spices and sugar, allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves.

For anyone on a flying visit, deciding on where and what to eat can be daunting at the best of times. Trip advisor is usually the first port of call, but inconsistent reviews can cast a cloud of doubt over the legitimacy of the medium. Here is a list of my favorite things to eat if you’re up for a short weekend of gastronomic indulgence. Start training and make some room. You will need it by the end of a weekend here.

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Bun Cha

Bun Cha
Bun cha is arguably Hanoi’s most famous dish. This was the first dish that I was told by everyone I know to try and is now what I first introduce visitors to. It’s almost impossible not to be distracted by the sweet scent of pork grilling on the sidewalk as you go about your business.

At Dac Kim Bun Cha on 67 Duong Thanh, I was guaranteed not to mess up my first- ever order of bun cha considering it’s the only dish they serve here. At street level, the restaurant is deceptively small with few seating options both outside and inside on the ground floor, but climbing up the narrow spiral stairs reveals two additional levels that can accommodate up to 40 more locals and tourists who are seeking refuge from the infamous hanoi heat.

Within seconds of ordering, the porky contents arrive in a bowl of liquid, lightly flavored with sugar and tamarind. The stars of the dish are the plump meat patties made from pork mince, shallots, garlic, sugar and fish sauce, along with the pork belly strips resembling thick cuts of streaky bacon. The soup is delicate, perfectly balanced between sweet and sour with a hint of smokiness courtesy of the grilled pork. Slivers of carrot and kohlrabi add a contrasting texture to the broth where vermicelli noodles are loosened by dunking them into the mixture and then devoured with a mountain of accompanying herbs. I finally had my first encounter with bun cha and it’s been an intense love affair ever since.

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Pho Bo

Pho Bo
Throughout the country, pho is eaten any time of the day and is put together in every kind of way, but in Hanoi it’s made with the philosophy that less is more. Fewer spices are used in the broth and you won’t find mountains of various leaves, beansprouts or hoisin sauce anywhere on the table. I have never been served pho this way and it required a couple of attempts to appreciate how the simplicity and lack of spices and condiments allows no room for error. A plate of fried bread called gio chao quay is optional for extra volume but my approach to eating pho is “all thriller, no filler”. A dash of garlic infused vinegar provides enough zing to the dish.

Pho 10 on 10 Ly Quoc Su Street near Hoan Kiem Lake is a place where I find myself coming back to for breakfast after my morning run. It’s one of the few places that has a broader range of pho bo on the menu and I often rotate between delicate pho bo tai (rare beef) and the braised and gelatinous textures of pho tai nam (flank steak). It takes 60 seconds for my order to reach the nearby kitchen station (in full view of hungry patrons), assembled by one of the three women behind a perspex wall until it arrives in front of me. The bowl is piping hot with flecks of transparent blobs on the surface indicating the perfect balance of collagen and fat flavoring the stock. The topping is simple with only spring onions for freshness and presentation, then ready for some serious slurping action.

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Bun Rieu Cua

Bun Rieu Cua
The complex bun rieu cua contradicts everything a simple Hanoi pho stands for in a dish. It’s a noodle soup defined by the sum of its many parts: crab paste cakes, juicy ripe tomatoes to add sourness, fried tofu cubes to absorb the liquid and a healthy dash of mam ruoc (shrimp paste) on top to give the dish a boost of umami goodness. Unlike pho, a large handful of lettuce and cilantro is dropped into the bowl to add texture to the entire dish.

Bun Rieu Cua on 11 Hang Bac Street has been dishing out this colorful meal for over 50 years and has become an institution in the Old Quarter. Eating here is literally stepping into somebody’s living room because every morning the owners shift their furniture to the side, fling open the front doors and set up a couple of large pots of soup out the front to bubble away. Space is limited and taller customers may find themselves sitting in a side saddle position to the table, and once seated a no-nonsense protocol is adhered to: Walk in, sit, order, devour, pay, then leave. Next! Much like the Soup Nazi, but friendlier.

Banh Cuon

Banh Cuon
I rarely skip meals but there are moments when I’ve eaten too much and require something that will not cause the onset of a food coma. This is when I rely on banh cuon, a dish of few components that is very light. Freshly steamed sheets of fermented rice batter envelops a trio of minced pork, wood ear mushrooms and shallots into a roll, and served with a side of sweet nuoc cham and a plate of mint. It’s an incredibly easy dish to eat but if you feel like some extra meat then a side of cha lua (sausage) can be included. It’s a perfect snack or for when you’re not in the mood for a full meal.

The vendors and their unmistakable giant metal steamers can be found on most streets in Hanoi. however, with the temperatures reaching uncomfortable levels in the summer, I avoid the food sweats by eating indoors at Thanh Van Banh Cuon on 14B Bao Khan. Every inch of space is used to seat customers and you’ll find utensil holders attached to the wall, where polished white tiles run from floor to ceiling.

Cha Ca La Vong

Cha Ca La Vong
Not trying Cha Ca la Vong while visiting Hanoi is sacrilegious. The dish is so famous they even renamed a street after it. Fried in turmeric oil in a heavy skillet, the boneless fish fillets are finished off with a liberal dose of dill, an ingredient not seen on many Vietnamese dishes, but one that works perfectly as a supporting ingredient and not just as a garnish.

At Cha Ca La Vong on 14 Pho Cha Ca, the fish is cooked and assembled with robot-like precision at the table by the waiter. Once completed, the cuts of fish are served over cold vermicelli noodles and garnished with peanuts, onions, coriander for freshness and texture and finished off with nuoc mam and shrimp paste to round off the flavors. At first glance, the nuoc mam seems deceptively strong to the eye and heavy handed in the application but after it’s served, I find myself adding more, ensuring each ingredient is given a proper dousing.

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Chicken Street
KFC may dominate the Western world but in the capital you can’t beat what is referred to as Chicken Street or Ly Van Phuc Street. Every restaurant pays homage to grilled chicken and it’s difficult not to return, time and time again, to the visual spectacle of cooks barbecuing succulent chicken cuts streetside. I became a semi permanent fixture in the scene, often returning for the finger licking, perfectly grilled chicken thighs to satiate my chicken cravings.

There is nothing fancy about this street or the restaurants here. A variety of cuts are available, ranging from chicken feet and monster wings to succulent thighs that are lightly marinated in a sweet sauce with a hint of background spice on the palette. All of the cuts are skewered with giant-sized toothpicks and act as the perfect eating utensil although, inevitably, the skewers end up discarded as I wrestle each cut of chicken with my bare hands.

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Yogurt Coffee

Ca Phe Trung
Egg Coffee can be described as the cross between coffee and eggnog. As the name states, it is made of coffee and an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk. The egg yolk is ferociously whipped to lighten the protein load and served either hot or over ice depending on the weather and mood. For anybody who hasn’t tried it before I would recommend trying it chilled on their first try.

My favorite spot for ca phe trung is at Giang Cafe on 39 Nguyen Huu Huan Street where they have been perfecting this beverage since 1946. Inside this time warped, moody and windowless café with miniature bamboo stools and tables, an old television entertains customers ordering from a limited coffee menu. Overlooking the room is an old family portrait proudly displaying the original founding grandparents; now their grandson has taken over day-to-day operations.

For the more daring caffeine addicts head to a Cong Caphe chain store for a yogurt coffee (ca phe sua chua). The crushed ice, coffee and sour yogurt combination delivers a layering of textures and temperatures that require a few minutes for the brain to process. They say that the eyes never lie and I get a huge kick from first timers as their eyes, pointed upwards, search around for the appropriate adjectives for this beverage. Never has there ever been a beverage as polarizing as this because it has never failed to ignite conversations around the coffee table. Eating what the locals eat is the best way to know a country, its people and culture.

Images by Jimmy Dau

BIO: Jimmy is an Australian blogger and photographer who has been eating and photographing his way around the world since April 2013. Follow his adventures at jimmyeatsworld.com

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