Travel Log: Tour the Vietnamese street food scene

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Ever think of visiting Vietnam for the perfect bowl of pho? This March, writer Tristan Eden of our sister magazine, Columbus Monthly, traveled to Hanoi, where he toured the city's bustling street food scene. Here, he shares tips and tricks for navigating wet markets and finding authentic banh cuon, bun cha and more.

Earlier this year I spent almost two weeks in Hanoi, a massive city in northern Vietnam-and a shock to the system in just about every way. At first, the traffic and the speed and the movements of everything seem dangerous and impossibly out of control. But very quickly-after as little as one cab ride-you start to see the method to the madness. Of the 7 million residents of Hanoi, 4 million own scooters. These millions of scooters fill every imaginable crack in the traffic. Everywhere you look, there is a scooter. If there isn't one, you still can't turn because in less than a second there will be one.

But it all makes sense. No one drives aggressively; no one is, believe it or not, really in a rush. The traffic moves like a river: never stopping, but never going too fast either. Quickly, I learned almost everything in Hanoi works like this-especially the food.

Here on a family trip, we scheduled a street food tour the morning of our first full day in Hanoi, which turned out to be one of our best ideas of the trip. It provided us with a basic knowledge of both Hanoi's food but also its layout, walkability and general feeling.

We arrived at the Hanoi Cooking Centre (HCC), a small storefront on a narrow, wet street in the Old Quarter. The owner of HCC, an Australian woman named Tracey Lister, who has written several cookbooks on Vietnamese cuisine, introduced herself. She and head chef, Duyen-pronounced "dzwin"-a small Vietnamese woman wearing black pants and a black T-shirt, would be our guides. In addition to leading us around some of the best street food spots in Hanoi's Old Quarter, they also shared the customs, histories, cultures and jokes of Hanoi and Vietnam. It was a thorough introduction to the city and its people and its food-one that I would highly recommend to Western travelers.

Navigating Street Food

On the sidewalk, Lister explained the basic rule of street food: It's all safer than you think. The key is to look for busy places with clean workstations. Use your head and trust your instincts, of course, but chances are the little cart on the street is serving cleaner and fresher food than the pseudo-Western looking restaurants with 10-page menus that dot Hanoi. This is because of freshness, Lister said. The carts (or sometimes storefronts) have no room for storage; they buy what they need that morning from the market, sell out by noon and then buy more. Nothing sits. The meat purchased at the market comes from animals that were, without exception, slaughtered that morning. It is chewier than meat we're used to in the States because it doesn't age.

Stop 1: Pho

Our first stop was Pho Huyên, a pho restaurant across the street from HCC. Pho, a brothy soup with meat, noodles and herbs, is the most famous northern Vietnamese dish. Its history is debated, but it's generally believed to date to Vietnam's French Colonial days. Pho is also a common breakfast dish. Pho Huyên had a cart on the sidewalk and a small seating area indoors. My soup was delicious: thin-cut rump pieces of beef, flat vermicelli noodles, slices of onion and lots of cilantro. The broth was complex and layered, but the flavors were pure and clean. A variety of condiments and add-ons sat in the center of the table: a jar of rice vinegar with sliced garlic and hot chilis floating in it, fish sauce, lime quarters and a dish of sliced hot chilis, which, I learned, you are supposed to help yourself to using the opposite ends of your chopsticks.

Stop 2: Wet Market

Sweating more from the hot soup than the humidity, we walked a few blocks to our next stop, a wet market, a marketplace that sells mostly meat, fish and vegetables, not dry ingredients. It took up maybe a city block and was accessed via countless garage-door sized openings. Walking into the market was a sensory overload. Everything smells like fresh cilantro, colors are bright and stalls are overloaded with massive bunches of herbs, picked that morning. Meat is everywhere. Women butcher cuts of beef and pork on thick pieces of wood and club and descale 2-foot-long carp. There are alligators under tarps and enormous piles of sweetbreads and baskets of mussels for sale. A man drove his scooter right into the market, bought a plastic baggie full of rice noodles, hooked it to his handlebars and drove out.

This wet market, and dozens like it, are where Hanoians get their food. They shop at these markets every day, often two or three times. Nothing sits. Everything sells out. These markets will never smell of rotten meat because everything is fresh. Lister told me there are maybe only one or two Western-style supermarkets in all of Hanoi.

Stop 3: Banh Cuon

We wandered deeper into the Old Quarter, a twisting mass of beautiful, colorful narrow streets, for more than 30 minutes, finally coming to our next stop: a small storefront specializing in banh cuon, or "rolled dough." The technique looks as difficult as it is: very thin rice flour dough, the color and consistency of milk, is ladled onto fabric stretched tight over large vats of boiling water. It looks like a crepe maker. The razor-thin pancakes are cooked for seconds before they're scooped up and filled with either a crunchy shrimp or pork mixture and rolled. The long rolls are then cut with scissors and served with pork broth to dip, as well as limes and hot chilis. The rolls are amazing. I expected the pancake to have a rubbery or slimy texture, but it was more like that of a thin al dente noodle. The combination was spectacular: the pancake wrapped around the sweet, grilled crunch of the pork or shrimp filling (we tried and enjoyed both) and dipped into the cup of salty-hot citrus sauce.

Stop 4: Bun Cha

Our last stop was much farther away-a dim and cramped alleyway roughly 8 feet wide that never in a million years would I have stopped in to eat on my own. Crouched along long, low tables were dozens of Hanoians, mostly older, eating bowls of noodles and broth, the tables covered in jars of utensils and baskets of herbs and crates of dusty bottles of Coke. This was where we're going to eat bun cha, the famous Vietnamese dish comprised of grilled pork, cold rice vermicelli, broth-as-dipping-sauce and every kind of herb you can imagine.

Bun cha originated in Hanoi's Old Quarter and is simply outstanding. Each of the above components is served in its own bowl, and you combine them as you wish. Take some pork and put it on your noodles, and grab a mound of herbs-mint, chervil, cilantro, basil, more-and add that, and then take a chopstick-grab of the whole thing and dip it in the broth. The bun cha was (and is typically) served with a plate of lightly pan-fried pork spring rolls-easily the best I've ever had.

Photos courtesy of Chris Eden