Food-loving globetrotters, here’s a bit of sound advice: If you’re headed to Vietnam’s northern city of Hanoi, we’d recommend you pack a pair of elastic-banded pants. The city is a wonderland of cheap eats and drinks, offering an endless variety of soups, noodles, buns, rolls and sandwiches paired with plenty of fresh herbs — and fresh beer, too.
You could spend a week eating your way through the hectic, motorbike-clogged streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and never eat the same meal twice. I know I didn’t on my recent trip. Here are 20 dishes and drinks from Hanoi that haunt my hungry dreams.
1. Bánh bao
The close cousin to the steamed Chinese baozi can be stuffed with ingredients ranging from pork to mushrooms and quail eggs. It’s a hot and fluffy treat.
2. Bánh cuốn
When dawn breaks, we suggest you seek out these rice-flour rolls wrapped around minced mushrooms and pork. It’s a warm, wonderful way to start the day.
3. Bánh mì
The baguette is one of the enduring symbols of French colonialism. It’s given a Southeast Asian twist by stuffing it with pâté, mayonnaise, pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeños and gobs of cold cuts. But the bánh mì is basically a blank slate to which cooks can add whatever they desire.
4. Bánh xèo
Made with turmeric and plenty of coconut milk, the crispy rice-flour crepe classically encases shrimp, pork, onions and perhaps sprouts too. It’s also served with a garden’s worth of herbs.
5. Bia hơi
Draft beer is sacred to Vietnam, where tipplers wile away the hours sipping on this crisp, unpasteurized and unfiltered lager—its name roughly translates to “fresh beer”—that’s usually sold for about 25 cents a mug. Go on, have four. You’d need to drink gallons to get drunk.
6. Bún bò nam bộ
Carnivores should seek out this southern-Vietnam dish: A bed of rice noodles is topped by tender grilled beef, chopped cucumbers, lettuce, papaya slivers, fresh herbs, crushed peanuts and heaps of crunchy fried onions. Mix it with fish sauce–spiked nước chấm, take a bite, moan and repeat.
7. Bún bò huế
Get your sinuses running with a bowl of this spicy beef-noodle soup that hails from Huế, Vietnam’s last imperial capital. You can cut the fire with some fresh herbs or a squirt of citrus.
8. Bún cha
When lunchtime hits in Hanoi, the air is perfumed with the scent of sizzling grilled pork, the key component to the city’s signature dish. The swine is served alongside a sweet ’n’ salty broth, slices of green papaya, rice noodles and fresh herbs as far as the eye can see.
9. Bún ốc
Slow-moving sea snails are cherished in Hanoi, where they’re served in a steaming noodle soup with a tomato-based broth.
10. Bún riêu
Consider this the love child of phở, tomato soup and the sea. The noodle soup is composed of a tomato-based broth filled with plenty of crab and bobbing chunks of tomato.
11. Cà phê sữa nóng/sữa đá
Jumpstart your nervous system with a steaming cup of cà phê sữa nóng—that is, potent coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk. It’s an electric jolt to the nervous system. (If you prefer your coffee cold, order cà phê sữa đá—with ice.)
12. Chả cá
Chunks of fish are anointed with plenty of turmeric, then sizzled with heaps of dill and served with rice noodles. It’s a fragrant delight.
13. Gỏi cuốn
The cool, fresh summer rolls are made with rice paper wrapped around herbs, vermicelli noodles, shrimp, pork or whatever vegetables and protein you have on hand.
14. Mì vįt tiềm
You’ll notice the echoes of Cantonese cuisine in this soup stuffed with squiggly yellow noodles, roasted duck and Chinese broccoli.
15. Nem cua be
Instead of a tube, these flaky, deep-fried spring rolls are shaped like a square. What’s inside is equally surprising: ground crab, pork, mushrooms and more. Eat them with fresh herbs and lettuce, which ably cut through the greasiness.
16. Nước chấm
Almost everything in Vietnam tastes better after being dunked into this salty-sweet-sour dipping sauce. It’s composed of fish sauce, citrus juice, sugar, water and, if you prefer, garlic and hot peppers.
17. Nước mía
Attention, sweet tooth; Get your fix with fresh-pressed sugarcane juice served over ice. It’s oddly invigorating. Or maybe that’s the sugar talking.
The classic Vietnamese noodle soup is sold from sunrise to last call on street corners citywide. The broth is typically made from long-boiled beef bones and spices such as star anise and cinnamon. Pho bò refers to beef, while phở gà signifies chicken.
19. Sinh tố
Take advantage of Vietnam’s fruit bounty to savor a smoothie made with sweetened condensed milk, crushed ice and your choice of, say, strawberry, mango or lychee. Just whatever you do, stay away from us if you opt for the rank, custardy durian.
Looking to get stuffed, fast? Seek out the ladies with giant baskets stuffed with warm sticky rice. The rice is topped with lotus root, roasted garlic and whatever meat or fish happens to be on hand.