After a half dozen trips to Vietnam, and as many or more visits to Hanoi, I thought I had a good understanding of what to eat in the city. We had spent countless days and evenings exploring Hanoi street food prior to this trip.
The problem was we found ourselves going back to the same places, the same street corners, and eating the same foods that top every top 10 list of foods to eat in Hanoi. We’ve eaten our share of pho and bun cha, and I love them both dearly. I just wanted to know a little more.
I posed the challenge to Buffalo Tours in Vietnam when we signed up for their Hanoi street food tour in the Old Quarter. I figured the challenge would be exceedingly difficult for them as the Old Quarter is certainly one of the more touristy area of town.
Our guide, Tuan, took us to a small bia hoi, or fresh beer stand on the edge of the Old Quarter. We have drank our share of bia hoi before, but did not mind sitting down to chat with Tuan. It was just before Tet, the lunar new year, and the city was energetic. We were able to ask Tuan all sorts of questions about Hanoi, and about celebrating Tet. It was then and there that I decided the tour would be worth our time.
Tuan then ordered a plate of nem chua ran, or fried fermented pork. It was our first dish of the night and one that we had never had before. Eric wondered aloud, how have we never known about this simple dish of fried pork? I had no response. It was a great accompaniment to the draft beers. Already, we were off to a good start.
We wandered the Old Quarter for a bit before stopping at our next street stall, this time for the popular Hanoi street food of papaya salad. I love papaya salad, and have had it numerous times before, but this one was different. We watched the plate of nom thit bo kho being made fresh, with a beef jerky on top.
This stall was also famous because it had stood in the same spot, selling papaya salad, for decades. I could almost feel the history in the stall, as I was munching on deep fried garlic cloves, which were an instant hit with me. And, we rounded off the stop with a plate of fresh spring rolls.
Our Hanoi street food tour was off to a good start with the selection of unique foods we had not tried before. But, one of the things I enjoyed the most was the interaction with Tuan. He spoke very good English, was very knowledgeable, and spoke liberally, teaching us a lot along the way. Tuan took us to Hoan Kiem Lake to see the famous red bridge lit up at night, and shared the story behind the bridge. We stopped for ice cream in a famous stall on the north side of the lake.
The introduction of ice cream luckily was just a convenient stop. I was nervous that dessert marked the end of our Hanoi street food tour, and I was far from full. Tuan had one more thing up his sleeve, though, and it left me stunned.
I am not sure how we have walked through the streets of Hanoi as many times as we had, but had never seen street side bbq, almost like a Korean BBQ. Tuan deposited us on a couple of tiny plastic stools, with two beers, on a street corner on the western edge of the Old Quarter, and disappeared.
He came back later after having ordered up a ton of beef, pork, squid, and vegetables. Although the food was cooked by the restaurant before depositing it on the grill, it continued to heat and stay warm as we chatted away, like old friends.
By the end of the night, I was indeed stuffed. And, I was thrilled that Buffalo Tours had risen to the challenge of introducing some unique Hanoi street food to two people who consider themselves well versed in Vietnamese food.
We were supported by Buffalo Tours on their Hanoi Street Eats tour through the Old Quarter, but all yummy sounds are my own. Tour packages start at around $29, excluding transfer.
For more tips about eating in Vietnam, check out our Southeast Asia Food Guide.