At only an hour and a half flight from Hong Kong, Hanoi is easy to get to for a weekend trip and far cheaper than flying to Thailand or Bali. If time was on our side, I would have liked to have travelled to one of the beaches, but since it was a short trip, we made it all about the food!
Vietnamese food has got to be up there amongst my favourites. The flavours are so fresh and it always seems healthier than other Southeast Asian cuisines. We had less than three full days in this frenetic city, so we made the most of it, trying as much as we could. I had already picked out a few favourites from my last trip, and explored a few new places too. Here is our list of tried and tested eateries:
Quan An Ngon
Attracting both locals and visitors, Quan An Ngon is kind of like a slightly Westernised hawker centre, with glammed-up street stalls serving every type of Vietnamese speciality under the sun. I went twice the last time I was in Hanoi and made a point of returning this time. Have a good wander around all the stalls to see what catches your eye, and then order a la carte. Notable dishes are the nems (deep-fried Vietnamese spring rolls), Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with pork and shrimps, pounded shrimp on sugar cane and, our absolute favourite, Nha Trang style grilled beef served with baguette. The Vietnamese wine is a fraction of the price of the international wines and, although it was certainly not the best wine I’ve ever had in my life, neither was it the worst. If you haven’t got long in Hanoi and want to experience as much of the food as you possibly can – Quan An Ngon is a must visit.
18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
+84 4 3942 8162/3
For other locations see website for details.
Nha Hang Ngon
I think this place must be owned by the same group as the above, yet it’s a slightly less hectic equivalent. There are still a few ‘street’ stalls around the perimeter of the restaurant, but this one is housed in a beautiful restored French villa. If you can, head upstairs and try and get a romantic table for two on the balcony overlooking the hustle and bustle of the street. The menu is fairly similar to QAN and, since it was only a short walk from our hotel, we returned just before heading to the airport to get a final fix of some nems and that delicious Nha Trang style grilled beef!
26A Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
+84 4 3922 6133
Other locations in Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh
Cha Ca La Vong
You can’t visit Hanoi without going to Cha Ca La Vong – but just make sure you get the right one, as this street is filled with impostors, all bearing the same name. The original family-owned restaurant is over 100 years old, up a rickety flight of wooden stairs. It serves one dish and one dish only: grilled turmeric fish with dill and spring onions. You cook the fish yourself in a charcoal-fuelled pan on your table and enjoy it with vermicelli, peanuts and fresh herbs. This dish is about three times the price of street food, so, for Hanoi, it’s relatively expensive, but boy is it worth it!
14 Cha Ca, Hoan Hiem District, Hanoi
+84 4 3825 3929
Housed in a beautiful colonial building with high ceilings and sprawling terraces, Madame Hien is a lovely traditional Vietnamese restaurant helmed by Hanoi’s most renowned chef, Didier Corlou. He claims it is a dedication to his wife’s grandmother and all Vietnamese women of the past and present. Dishes are therefore authentically Vietnamese, yet with a more fine dining slant, so expect high prices here. We began our evening on the terrace, sat at a really funky mosaic table, but a downpour of rain led us into the elegant dining room. Favourites here were again the nems (we couldn’t get enough of these and had them at every place we went!), the banana flower salad and the braised caramelised pork. The cinnamon ice cream was also amazing, whilst we had differing opinions about the curry ice cream!
15 Chan Cam, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
+84 4 3938 1588
I was recommended this place the last time I was in Hanoi, having been told that it served the best pho in the world. I tried it, loved it and have been dreaming about this perfect bowl of pho ever since. Needless to say that on this most recent trip, I insisted, no matter how much we had already eaten on the day we visited, on returning for that formidable bowl of pho. The beef is incredibly tender, whilst the broth, which has been simmering for days, is rich, aromatic and utterly perfect. No bowl of pho served in Hong Kong could ever compare.
13 Pho Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi
+84 4 3821 2709
I had to mention this place as it came to our rescue one night when trying to find another bar down a dark and slightly scary street. This buzzing little coffee shop, with little stools spilling out onto the pavement, looked like a fun alternative. It hasn’t been open for long, so at the time we visited, there was no alcoholic drinks menu, although they still made us a decent mojito. The owner, a lovely lady called Kali (or some variation on that spelling) spoke the best English of any Vietnamese person we met and gave us excellent recommendations on what to do in Hanoi. The coffee shop itself is cute and comfortable with a lovely mezzanine dotted with comfy cushions.
8 Le Duan, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi
Bun Cha Ngo Phat Loc
We asked our new friend Kali from F-Coffee where she goes for the best bun cha, and she gave us directions to this place, down a tiny alley in the Old Quarter. We were advised to go at 11am. Thinking this was just because 12.30 was peak time, we ignored her advice and turned up at what we’d consider normal lunch time, only to find it was obviously so popular that it had already sold out! The next day we made sure to arrive bang on 11am. Down this alleyway you’ll find an old lady squatting in front of a charcoal pit, grilling pork on wooden tongs, and another lady (perhaps her daughter) sat at a low plastic table scattered with tiny child-sized stools, dividing up the vermicelli, fresh herbs and grilled pork. Take one of these tiny stools and be amazed by the fresh flavours that all work beautifully together.
Ngo Phat Loc, Old Quarter, Hanoi
I love rooftop bars and try to go to at least one in every city I visit. There’s something about being high up above everything and looking down on the world that’s just breath taking. When walking to Quan An Ngon for dinner, we spotted something that looked like a rooftop bar in the far distance and knew we had to search it out. It turned out to be just a minute’s walk from QAN, so it was an easy post-dinner drink venue. The view is lovely and the drinks weren’t bad. I’d recommend sitting outside on the balcony, however, as there’s no smoking ban inside and they pump out the sort of music you’d expect from somewhere like Solas (secretly I kind of love that, but only at the right time and place!). We didn’t try the food, but apparently they serve international and local cuisine from breakfast through to dinner.
19/F, Pacific Place, 83B Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
+84 4 3946 1901
Au Lac House
We didn’t actually have time to eat here, but since it was recommended by one of my readers, we stopped by for a drink on our last day and then seriously wished we had eaten there! A beautiful French colonial villa is the setting for this restaurant, which offers traditional Vietnamese dishes. Prices are a fair bit higher than you’d find elsewhere, but, based on the service, the gorgeous setting and the quality of our drinks, I have an inkling that the food would be worth its high price tag (and I say ‘high’ only in relation to everywhere else in Hanoi, as it would no doubt be reasonable by HK standards!).
13 Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
+84 4 3933 3533
So, if you have a weekend spare in which you’re keen to escape Hong Kong but aren’t fussed about a beach holiday, follow your nose and head to Hanoi, where I hope these recommendations will come in handy!