Vietnamese food is up there with my favourite global cuisines and so visiting Hanoi, the central hub of the Vietnamese street food scene, was a bucket list experience that I wanted to make the most of. On our first day in Hanoi we signed up for a street food tour to get a feel for it all.
Choosing and booking our tour
Vietnam unfortunately has a bit of a reputation for scams and so it’s important to research and read plenty of reviews before you book any kind of tour. It’s also important when you book to make sure it’s the company you have researched – a lot of scams use the names and even impersonate the names of guides from the established companies. Even booking through your hotel might not turn out to be what you expected as we learned from a couple we met. We chose Hanoi Street Food Tour who had great reviews on blogs and Tripadvisor. Their office was very close to our hotel and we dropped by on our first morning to book.
We chose to book a private tour as a lot of places don’t have a lot of space and tour groups can be as big as 8 or even 10 people. It was great to be able to chat properly with our guide and get to know her a bit too. For a little bit more money it was worth it in my opinion.
We arrived at the Hanoi Street Food Tour office at our prearranged meeting time and were greeted by our guide, Rosie. Rosie? Not a very Vietnamese name you might ask. What about Potato? Moon? Mango? The guides all have fun aliases and our guide named herself after model and actress Rosie Huntington-Whitely – I wonder what inspired Potato?
We hit it off immediately chatting away as we criss-crossed the narrow, busy lanes of the Old Quarter. Each time we crossed the road we would say “sticky rice” and stick together. Rosie was great at explaining all the foods we were trying, and gave us insights into Vietnamese life and culture.
And now to the most important part – the food! We tried a number of different local dishes under Rosie’s expert guidance. Some places served us a smaller portion, and sometimes we were able to share so that we didn’t get too stuffed too soon. In the end I still got so full I thought I would burst, but it was totally worth it to get to try food at places I probably would have otherwise overlooked. I haven’t included everything that we tried as there were so many things, but below are the highlights.
Aside from pho, bun cha had to be the dish I was most excited to try right at its source in Hanoi. Our first stop was a place that served bun cha and bun cha only, a common phenomenon in Vietnam and for me a sign that they play to their strengths and they perfect whatever dish they sell. From the picture below it might not look like much – and a lot of the portions we had on our tour were smaller than you’d normally get – but my goodness it was as delicious as any bun cha I’ve ever had on Kingsland Road! The smokey char of the grilled pork and sweet, fragrant broth was to die for and a great start to our tour.
It’s fascinating to watch the various street food vendors who often sit right out on the street preparing the food even when they have an inside space for customers to sit. We watched fixated as a banh cuon vendor heated rice flour batter before ladling it over a taught silk sheet over steaming water. These flat crepe-like sheets of rice noodle formed the basis of our dish filled with pork and mushroom and sprinkled with crispy fried shallots. Rosie taught us to eat them by folding them with our chopsticks into a bite-sized parcel. I still managed to spill the contents of mine everywhere!
Egg coffee is a Hanoi specialty that is actually much nicer and far less weird than it sounds. During times when milk was scarce, local establishments turned to using egg yolks whisked with sugar as an alternative. Egg coffee is a bit like a cappuccino crossed with a soft meringue and is actually pretty tasty.
A surprising favourite was a papaya salad with a sweet dressing, fresh herbs and topped with peanuts and dried beef: nom thit bo kho. The sweet-savoury-fresh combination was perfect and I could have carried on eating it all evening – I forgot I was even feeling full!
We finished off with dessert (thank goodness for separate dessert stomachs am I right?!) at a casual dessert joint just across from the Hanoi Street Food Tour office. We tried black rice with creme caramel and coconut cream, but my favourite was the pandan sticky rice topped with coconut ice cream, desiccated coconut and sweetened coconut chips.
I’m so glad we did a street food tour to kick off our time in Hanoi as we were able to eat some delicious food from places we wouldn’t have known to try. Rosie was so kind and funny, and after the tour she sent us a list of all the names of the foods we had tried as well as a list of the places we had eaten so we could find them again.