24 Hours In Hanoi

February 28, 2016


Hanoi is beautiful, shocking, grimy, chaotic and exhilarating. I fell in love with the place and then had to rip myself away after a mere 24 hours but – surprise surprise – I managed to do a whole lot of eating during that time.

The Old Quarter is the place to be, defined by street food and mopeds. If a space is large enough for a human, then it’s fair game for a bike. Everything is strapped onto two wheels, including live animals and furniture. Crossing the road is something to build up to, mentally, for one must start walking and never stop. If you panic or hesitate, you’ll get a look that says “urgh, pathetic tourist”, but keep moving and they’ll part like water flowing around a rock.

The best way to explore is on foot, so embrace the mayhem, and don’t be afraid to head down dingy alleyways because that’s where some of the best meals are. Fears about street food are usually unfounded – these people are trying to make money, why risk making people sick and losing their livelihood? Use your eyes and nose, if the food looks bad, don’t eat there. If a stall is busy, it’s usually a safe bet. Another way to ensure a good time is to take a tour, as I did. Hanoi Street Food Tours is excellent and the guides will work to your requirements. They packed loads in, gave me tips to seek out later on and even a lift back to my hotel by bike which was brilliant fun even if I did sprout a few more greys.

Noodle Stall

Rice noodles are everywhere, and one of the best ways to enjoy them is bun cha. Straight off the red eye from London and with little sleep, I was in need of a minor miracle – that food you see in the opening photo turned out to be it. As I manoeuvred my arse towards a tiny plastic stool I was shaking with weariness, and that hot broth ran through me like blood through veins, energising and sluicing the residue of the flight. We’d asked for a small portion of noodles and those great tangles arrived, ready for a bath in hot, sweet fish sauce and sliced green papaya.

The pork comes two ways: grilled patties fragrant with lemon grass, and strips of belly cooked over the fire, a great fan strategically propped behind to blow enticing smells onto the street. Who needs PR when you’ve got marketing like that? The mark of a good bun cha is a black ring of charred bits that settle around the rim of the bowl and needless to say, these had plenty. You add chilli and herbs and it’s like all your birthdays have come at once. I would travel the 12 hour flight to Hanoi just to eat that again.

The other major rice noodle dish in Vietnam is of course pho, and I ate it for breakfast at Pho Suong, amazed at the clarity of the broth which was soothing, light, cleansing. I squished in amongst the locals and they seemed amused, passing over bottles of rice vinegar infused with garlic, plus chilli paste and fried shallots. Iced tea is available for a pittance from an independent person operating in the same space; I wonder how those guys selling drinks can make enough to survive. I also recommend seeking out fresh lime juice made with teensy calamansi limes. There’s no need to worry about drinking iced drinks in Vietnam since all ice is factory made.




Shrimp fritters (báhn tom) are also well worth trying. Made by pressing whole shrimp into a sweet potato batter, they’re fried twice in hot woks of bubbling oil set perilously close to tables. Served with more sweetened fish sauce and slivered papaya, they’re a crunchy, spiky mess of prawn heads and legs. Don’t be afraid of eating the prawns whole though, you get more flavour that way.

Prawn Fritters


The market is also in the Old Quarter, full of the magical fruit and vegetable displays one sees in SE Asia – gnarly citrus, tropical fruit at peak ripeness, vegetables like creepers from a comic strip. The wet market is both revolting and enchanting; people squat on the roadside with buckets of squirming sea life, bags of toads and fish hacked into sellable pieces. There are turtles in bowls, birds in cages, snails in crates.  Spices look fresher than ever, sacks of star anise a cochineal red.


Star Anise

Hanoi is hot and humid, and I made many pit stops to cool off, often at a bia hoi hole-in-the-wall. Bia hoi is an unregulated, freshly brewed beer which is light, refreshing and costs around 10p a glass. You just plonk yourself on a stool and they keep filling you up from a tank. The dregs are thrown away at the end of each day and they await another delivery. Make sure to find one that serves it nice and cold. The other option, if you’re not into the idea of drinking that, is shaved ice desserts. I can’t remember the name of this one (below) but it was basically condensed milk with sliced banana and sago pearls, into which you chuck a load of shaved ice. A great mixture of slippery textures and a life saver on a sticky afternoon.

Cha Chanh

Hanoi is currently the place I’d most like to return to – I feel like we have unfinished business. I knew it was going to be good, tingling with excitement as we flew in over the mountains, down through the fug hanging over the paddy fields – I just had no idea it would be that good. There is such a vibrancy to Vietnamese food with the salt, sour, sweet balance and if there’s anything that can power a person through after three hours sleep on a plane, it is pounding those chaotic streets in search of an excellent feed. You won’t have to look far to find one.

Bún Chả, 34 Hàng Than (bun cha)

Pho Suong, No. 24 Trung Yen Alley, Dinh Liet Street (pho) 

Ngo Dong Xuan alleyway (prawn fritters)

Tra Chanh – 31 Dao Duy Tu (shaved ice desserts)

Cafe Nang, 6 Hang Bacn (good for iced coffee) 

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  • Reply Alicia (foodycat) February 28, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    Looks amazing. We have a flourishing calamansi, but the juice is always much more sour than the stuff I’ve had in Singapore.

    • Helen Graves
      Reply Helen Graves February 28, 2016 at 6:54 pm

      OMG really?! Whereabouts do you live? I guess the sun brings the sweetness. I brought a load back in a bag from Borneo and put them in the freezer but they went a bit weird (predictable I suppose).

      • Reply Alicia (foodycat) February 28, 2016 at 8:40 pm

        Deepest darkest Rickmansworth. You can get them at any garden centre in the UK as an indoor plant, with the alternative name Calamondin. The heat changes the colour too – in Asia they stay green but the juice sweetens. Here they turn orange but stay sour. We have ours as a bonsai.

        • Helen Graves
          Reply Helen Graves February 29, 2016 at 7:15 am

          Oh! Well, I had no idea they were available, thanks for letting me know. I grew a lemon tree once but without a greenhouse it was a bit of a disaster. Duh.

  • Reply Torie from ChilliandMint February 29, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Great post and I am in total agreement about Hanoi – love the place, mainly due to the food. Am keen to return also. Apparently BA do, or going to do, direct flights to Hanoi from London – now there’s a thought ;o)

    • Helen Graves
      Reply Helen Graves February 29, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      Oh do they? I went with Vietnam Airlines which very good. The new Dreamliners are rather swish.

  • Reply Mabs February 29, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    I, like you, left my heart in Vietnam and I didn’t even go north, which was a chilly 9 degrees C in January. Desperate to do the north side of the country, now that I’ve dipped my toe in the south. Lovely pics x

    • Helen Graves
      Reply Helen Graves February 29, 2016 at 5:11 pm

      I am desperate to go to the south! 9 degrees eh, it’s so hard to imagine that now. SO HOT. Let’s run away and eat noodles x

  • Reply MattB March 1, 2016 at 1:57 am

    I just got back from there! Amazing place. If you go to Hoi An make sure you eat at the Mermaid. It’s amazing. The woman that owns it has a little empire there but that’s her oldest place. We avoided the big queues at Morning Glory (the most popular one) and ate at Cargo Club instead which was fantastic. Cheap as chips: but some of the food was so delicate and would surely get Michelin stars were it in Europe.

    • Helen Graves
      Reply Helen Graves March 1, 2016 at 7:24 am

      I wish I’d had time to go to Hoi An too. I am now a little obsessed with the idea of touring Vietnam. Thanks for the tip!

  • Reply caroline March 2, 2016 at 11:42 am

    Well this is just perfect timing…. as we are off on a 3 week trip to Vietnam over Easter – winding our way from Hanoi down to HCM by train stopping off at Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An & Nha Trang en route…. Now Helen, before you get too upset, you should note that we are taking 2 small kids with us, so it’s probably not quite the trip you’re planning, but I am still MEGA excited about it!

    Our 2.5 and 4.5 year olds are *fairly* good eaters, so we are hoping they’ll be able to enjoy the food as much as we will (really hoping that Banh Banh opens on Peckham Rye before we go, so they can try it out there first, rather than just my dodgy attempts at chicken satay and sticky rice at home (have heard that if all else fails you can just feed them on that for 3 weeks, lets hope so!).

    Do you think the kids could handle doing one of those street food tours as I would love to try that out? Any other tips would be great (Mermaid in Hoi An duly noted)..

    Glad to hear Vietnam Airlines are okay too, as that is who we are going with… Thanks again for this, great timing!

    • Helen Graves
      Reply Helen Graves March 2, 2016 at 11:48 am

      Excellent! So pleased to hear this is helpful for you. I can’t imagine what it’s like travelling with kids but I guess you just get on with it. Vietnam Airlines are indeed good, or were at least when I went. Hope you have a fab time! Let me know if you try any of these places. The bun cha is a MUST.

  • Reply azarine March 3, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    To see pictures and read this article, I can already imagine the atmosphere in Hanoi . Thank you , If you have any chance please come to Bandung west java . Here is more cool , you will see our city with the air is cool and comfortable . Full of variety and culinary delights

  • Reply Gaurav March 30, 2016 at 6:30 am

    Looks awesome. We have a flourishing calamansi, but the juice is always much more sour than the stuff I’ve had in Singapore. I love this all awesome stuff.

    Digital Marketing Executive

    • Helen Graves
      Reply Helen Graves March 30, 2016 at 6:40 am

      Yeah I guess it’s the sun that brings the sweetness. Still cool though!

  • Reply Barry Stephen July 3, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    Thanks for your mouthwatering suggestions. I’ll be travelling to Hanoi in November and I’m already looking forward to trying the street food.

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