Details of a Vietnamese Street Food Tour
Through our wonderful hotel, Hanoi Elegance Diamond, we booked a walking food tour of Hanoi. After 11 countries and dozens of tours, it’s hard to predict how a tour will go, so we had no expectations.
I won’t leave any suspense here—this tour was amazing. Fantastic. One of the best we have done. And, at $35 per person (with the girls half price), it was also a great value.
We met our guide, Ha, in the lobby, and before we even crossed a street, he stopped at the corner near our hotel. Sitting down was a woman with a single burner, eggs, and some greens. If we had been alone, we probably wouldn’t have noticed her with behind the rush of all the vehicles passing by her on this crazy Hanoi street corner.
While Ha chatted with us, the woman quickly cracked a few eggs, added some greens, and over the little stove cooked up what looked like an egg pancake. Called trung ngai cuu, the ingredients are simple: chicken eggs with chopped up ngai cuu leaf.
After cooking, she deftly slid it onto a plastic plate, cut it with a pair of scissors into bite-sized pieces, and served it with a sauce comprised of green kumquats and salt with a few small slices of chilis and coriander (what we called cilantro). It was simply amazing, providing the perfect zingy citrusy and salty flavor to the egg dish. Ha suggested that the sauce would be great for BBQ dishes back home as a marinade. While the sauce used green kumquats, we wonder how the orange kumquats found in abundance in Los Angeles would work.
Green Papaya Salad
And that was just our first stop. We followed Ha into the heart of the Hanoi Old Quarter and into a little nondescript restaurant, filled with locals. It was almost indistinguishable from other restaurants, making me wonder if I would ever find it again. Ha found us four plastic kid-sized chairs around a low table and arranged for two orders of nom thit bo kho, green papaya salad with dry beef. Two dishes were placed in front of us—one bowl had pieces of dried beef and the other was spaghetti-thin pieces of green papaya with various greens and topped with chopped peanuts.
Ha grabbed a pair of chopsticks from the table and advised us to mix up the bowl of papaya salad since the sauce was on the bottom. Once that was done, he took slices of the dried beef and soaked them in the sauce, before taking a large bite with bit of the beef, papaya, greens, and peanut. I tried the beef solo and it tasted like beef jerky. But, with the rest of the ingredients and with the beef softened in the sauce, it tasted fresh and very clean. You could add spices, available on the tables, to make it spicy, but I liked the freshness of the dish as is.
From there, it was back onto the streets of Hanoi. Ha took us to an alley near his office where a woman sat with a large wok filled with hot oil. She was frying up gigantic egg rolls. Ha said he often buys two egg rolls and brings it home to eat with some rice. We got two nem ran wrapped in a paper tower to share. They were hot—fresh out of the wok—and the towels successfully soaked up excess oil.
As we walked to our next destination, we traded off bites of the egg rolls. Maybe it was the fresh ingredients she used, or maybe the oil, or maybe just eating it just out of the wok, but it was flavorful and hardy. So hardy that I started to worry after only three stops that I was filling up.
Morning Glory & HAnoi Fish
I didn’t have time to think about that further since we almost immediately walked into Orchid Restaurant and up the stairs to the second floor, as I polished off the rest of my nem ram. From the outside, Orchid looks like the type of restaurant that would serve tourists, with large comfortable chairs and a beautifully decorated interior. Looks can be deceiving, though. The menu was decidedly authentic Vietnamese and Ha shared he was friends with the chef. He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared quickly, announcing our next two dishes - cha ca ha noi (grilled fish in Hanoi style) and rau muong xao toi (stir fried morning glory with garlic).
The cooked fish was served in its pan with fresh dill and was accompanied by rice paper, rice noodles, lettuce, shredded carrot sliced cucumber and a bowl of chopped peanuts. It was served with individual bowls of the sweet, sour, spicy, and salty nuoc cham sauce. The girls loved making their own rolls with the ingredients, and the end result was flavorful and light. Morning glory is not universally liked by the Fassbenders, but I enjoyed the dish served at this restaurant, with the garlic and slices of chili taking away the bitterness sometimes associated with this dish.
While we were eating, a fellow traveler who was leaving the restaurant with her family came over to our table. She must have heard us talking about food, and suggested that we don’t leave Hanoi before trying authentic egg coffee and egg chocolate. Did we tell you how much we love Hanoi? We shared this with Ha and he immediately incorporated it into our tour as our last stop.
Famous Dish from Hanoi
We left Orchid and headed into a small restaurant for bun cha. Originating from Hanoi, bun cha is often cited as one of Hanoi’s most famous dishes. We were told it is often a lunchtime-only dish, but Ha wanted us to try it. I am so thrilled we did. Grilled patties of fatty pork are served in a fish sauce broth with sides of rice noodles and herbs.
We pulled apart some rice noodles and added it to the meat and broth. The broth had a similar taste as the nuoc cham sauce. I loved picking a perfect bite with a mix of meat, rice noodles and greens. Light and full of flavor!
He selected a few bottled ice green teas, tra chanh, for us to try with the food. The teas were flavored with lime, adding to the tartness of the lime in the broth.
After this, Ha announced it was time for a break. A dessert break.
We headed down an alley and into the back of a room that could be a restaurant (due to a large menu posted on the wall) or could be a family kitchen (due to the sink and dishes and clothing in the back of the tiny room). Ha grabbed some plastic chairs around a table and did the ordering. He brought out cramen thap cam (caramel with tapioca and coconut milk with dry coconut flakes) and banh troi tau (a boiled rice ball cake with coconut, peanut and ginger, served hot like a soup). I would never have put any of these ingredients together and yet somehow they were so harmonious. I particularly liked the banh trio tau - it was a soupy, comforting mess. None of the strong flavors overwhelmed each other and I kept taking a bite to ensure I liked it as much as I thought. Yes, I did!
Dessert was not over yet. Ha walked us to a small storefront that had bowls of mixed fruit. Inside, there was an ice cream machine making fresh vanilla and coconut soft serve ice cream, hoa qua dam.
Jackie and I shared a bowl of fruit with vanilla ice cream. I only took a few bites since I thought at this point I might possibly explode. I knew I could count on Jackie to eat ice cream and fruit.
Our dessert break was over and it was time for more mains.
Southern Vietnamese Pancake
We walked past underwear alley (yes, there is an alley that just sells undergarments) and headed to a store specializing in banh xeo. This fried rice pancake is better known in the south of Vietnam, and since we were heading to Ho Chi Minh City, Ha thoughtfully wanted to prepare us for the food. Out front a chef was spooning a yellow (due to one of the ingredients, turmeric) liquid into a hot, oiled wok. He quickly moved the wok around so that the liquid formed a large circle. He added oil and worked the bottom of the pancake, ensuring it was cooking but also not clinging to the pan.
Inside the banh xeo was cooked shrimp and pork with fresh bean sprouts. It was served with rice paper, herbs, bean sprouts and the nuoc cham sauce. Ha cut up our pancake with scissors and advised us on the best way to place the items horizontally on the roll. Even with the fried pancake in the roll, it tasted fresh, but with a delightful crunch due to the banh xeo.
Jackie and I took a cooking class in Saigon and made banh xeo. We tried to replicate it a few days later and met with a complete and utter disaster. I so appreciate the skill of these chefs! At our Saigon cooking class, it was served with lettuce for the wrap, which was nice, but I prefer eating it Hanoi-style with the rice paper holding a better proportion of greens and the fried pancake for a more balanced taste.
Pho Without the Broth
As you might have noticed, we didn’t have pho. Ha’s approach was to introduce us to Vietnamese food we haven’t experienced and so he brought us to his favorite restaurant for bun bo nam bo, vermicelli with stir fried beef in southern style. The best way to describe it is pho without the broth. We mixed up our rice noodles with flavorful beef, a nuoc cham-type sauce and greens. While I do love pho, I am not always in the mood for a soup dish. This satisfied my desire for the taste of pho and drove me to do tons of research in Saigon to find a suitable replacement when we visited there.
Egg Cream Delights
Our final stop was for the egg coffee and egg chocolate recommended earlier on our tour. Ha took us down an alley into a two-level small restaurant, packed with people sitting on small chairs, littered with sunflower seeds all over the floor. Ha found us a seat in the middle of the chaos on the second floor where Tom ordered a ca phe trung (coffee with egg cream) and the gals and I each ordered a cacao trung (chocolate with egg cream). Served in tiny cups with spoons, it was a phenomenal end to a phenomenal tour. We went to Giang Café in the Old Quarter, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Hanoi.
Ha walked us back to our hotel and we sadly said our goodbyes. We didn’t know that the next day we would book him AGAIN for a food tour with our friends. He was that good, and so was the food in Hanoi.