Vietnam and Hanoi’s best-known dish, this well-known (and much tampered with) noodle soup is sold almost everywhere you go in the capital. But for us there are a few standouts.
Pho Gia Truyen (49 Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) has made all the guidebooks and online street food guides. You may have to queue in line to pick up your bowl on steaming pho, but hell does it taste good. Everything, from the sweet and salt balance of the broth through to the quay and even the condiments works like a dream. The only thing however, on a busy morning you may have to wait half an hour or more for a bowl of the good stuff.
Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su (10 Ly Quoc Su, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) is also rated by those in the know, and on our visits the offerings, whether the meat is tai, nam, gau or anything else, are exquisite. The place is almost always packed and the service is brusque, but then what do you expect from an eatery that has forged its way into the hearts of Hanoians?
Our final standout is Pho Thin (13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi). It’s not a traditional pho bo place — the beef is sautéed with spring onions — but why should that matter when the final bowl of beef, noodles and sauce taste so much like heaven? This is a working man’s kind of eatery with no frills, and no bells and whistles, and the recipe here has been copied again and again.
When it comes to perfecting the taste, it is not that simple to excel at this simple dish. So where can you find excellent pho ga?
Pho Ga Ba Lam (7 Nam Ngu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi). A living legend, Pho Ga Ba Lam is run by four siblings who inherited their mother’s myth of cooking pho ga. It is also famous for aloof ladies who are indifferent to their customers. But the taste of their pho ga will make you forget any downside. It is a bowl of delightful and natural sweet chicken broth, highlighted by shining chicken fat, and chopped green onion pieces, served with noodles and topped by fresh spring onion. The chicken meat is rich and sweet on the palate.
Pho Ga Hang Dieu (1 Hang Dieu, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) is also recommended by locals and expats. It’s a small streetside eatery that is always crowded. Diners sit outside on the sidewalks and parking area, and sometimes you have to wait and come back later. The chicken broth is rich and lightly salted, providing enough leeway to add condiments to get that perfect taste, but the standout ingredient here is the meat. Sensational. The flavours are subtle. Their pho bowl is also served with chicken pieces, chicken breast and thigh, interspersed with yellow chicken skin.
Pho Ha (15 Hang Hom, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) is another small pho ga outlet in the Old Quarter, which gets crowded. Many locals head for Pho Ha for dinner. Inside, there is a large counter displaying yellow cooked chicken, a glass cabin containing separate parts of chicken, a pot of hot broth and some plastic tables and chairs. The place serves delicious broth, tender and tasty chicken pieces, while the noodles come slightly more al dente than elsewhere. At good prices, it also serves chopped-chicken dishes and delicious chicken sticky rice.
Eaten for breakfast or a light dinner, banh cuon places are easy to find when riding around the streets of Hanoi. Yet it’s not easy to find ones that keep the traditional Hanoi taste. Instead of the recommendations on the travel sites, head to the small eateries. They do this dish the best.
Banh Cuon Hang Bo (72 Hang Bo, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) is a family eatery that has sold banh cuon for more than 25 years. Plump and glossy, the rice pancakes get rave reviews from locals, who say this is the best place in Hanoi for banh cuon prepared without using the food additive borax. You can get banh cuon with chicken fillings besides the normal pork, or order a portion of egg banh cuon. The flavourful meat wrapped in the thin rice flour pancake is unforgettable. Each rice roll here is made to order on the steamer, meaning you could have a little wait.
Banh Cuon Phuong (68 Hang Cot, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi). Besides traditional banh cuon with a filling of pork and dried mushroom, this eatery’s signature dish is shredded shrimp banh cuon with Vietnamese sausage and cinnamon — cha que. Dipping sauce is placed in a big pot on each table, free for diners to take as much as they want. The sauce is also distinct from other eateries, as there is sliced shiitake mushroom in it. Arrive here early and enjoy the peace and silence of the Old Quarter before it busies up for the coming day.
Local people joke that if tourists miss bun cha during their first visit to Hanoi, their trip doesn’t count. There are many good bun cha restaurants in the capital, but I recommend the following:
Bun Cha Hang Than (Bun Cha Tuyet, 34 Hang Than, Ba Dinh, Hanoi) is popular among locals, with diners occupying half the pavement outside on the street. Regardless of the crowd, you’ll find it’s rewarding to wait and enjoy their bun cha. The pork patties are well-cooked and tender, the betel leaves wrapping the pork adding extra flavour. The aromatic and flavourful fish sauce broth, which is hot enough to warm the rice noodles, even makes your craving worse. Don’t forget to spice up your bowl with some garlic and chilli. The spring rolls are of the smaller variety, but are perfect for soaking in your sauce.
Bun Cha Dong Xuan (Dong Xuan Market, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) — Food outlets pack into every possible centimetre of this alley, while customers claim any remaining space. Yet, after squeezing in between unsmiling merchants in the crowded ngo adjacent to Dong Xuan Market, you can taste pork being grilled in a way that hasn’t changed since the 1950s. Clamped between bamboo skewers and grilled in betel leaves, the strips of fatty pork have a remarkable tenderness.
If you don’t mind a cramped market lane, then try Bun Cha Ngo Si Lien (Ngo Si Lien Market, Dong Da, Hanoi). It is a rustic bun cha place with a few simple plastic stools. Preparing the grilled pork in the old-fashioned way, the chef-owner is well-known for marinating her pork with a secret recipe. As usual, the pork patties are grilled in betel leaves, creating an aromatic bite, and are served up with a bowl of fish sauce and a hefty pile of noodles. The herbs add freshness and some zing to the delicious warm dipping sauce.
Sticky rice with a wide range of meat mix-ins, which is found at the famous go-to-place Xoi Yen, is the modern version of xoi. There’s also another side to xoi — the original and rustic version. This is simple sticky rice with natural ingredients grown in the villages of Vietnam, like beans, peanuts and corn and without added meat. So where can you find both versions of this quintessential dish in Hanoi?
Xoi Hang Hom (peddlers sitting in front of 44 Hang Hom, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) — If you are in search of some of the tastiest, cheapest and most traditional xoi available in the capital, head to Hang Hom. At less than VND10,000 a portion, you can pick any among the various types; Hanoi original sticky rice with mung beans, sticky rice with peanuts, or with corn, or red sticky rice with coconut. Wrapped in lotus leaf and boasting a distinct fragrance and flavour, xoi Hang Hom is sold on the street pavement by two ladies from Phu Thuong. A warming and cheap breakfast for the Hanoi winter.
Xoi Ran De La Thanh — (various places at the beginning of De La Thanh street, Dong Da, Hanoi) is said to be where xoi ran or fried sticky rice first appeared. This is a very nice variation if you prefer something both traditional yet modern for an evening meal. White sticky rice is thinly spread out and placed into a small pan to be fried on both sides. While the yellow shining outside is crispy, the rice inside is still sticky and delicious. You can choose egg, sausage, meat, or paté to pair with your xoi ran.
Xoi Xiu (145E Yen Phu, Tay Ho) is the place to go if you love the modern version of xoi with a wide range of mix-ins. The eatery offers the normal, white version of xoi with various add-ons such as char-siu pork, Vietnamese sausage — gio and cha and slow-cooked pork — Chinese sausage paté, whole egg or omelette. The main ingredient, xoi, is always the star of the show. The sticky rice is fragrant and well-seasoned with the right amount of salt. It’s a winner for both taste and texture. Recommended toppings here are char-siu pork, which is tender, juicy and flavourful.