My last trip to Hanoi was in 2014, prior to Obama’s famous Bun Cha lunch with Anthony Bourdain. So, the first meal that came to mind when it comes to Hanoi food was Bun Cha.
“Is Obama Bun Cha the best in Hanoi?”, I asked Hannah, Hai Bay Hotel’s ever helpful receptionist. “Obama Bun Cha” is a term now well known because of the much publicised lunch hosted by Bourdain for the US President at that time.
“That Bun Cha is not the best” she said.
Why then did Bourdain bring him there I thought to myself. I guess the answer is locals know best. “The best one is at 74 Hang Quat, inside a narrow street, eat on low stools”, she continued.
OK, why not check it out.
It’s tucked inside a non-descript narrow street with a small red signboard hanging above the entrance. As forewarned by Hannah, seating is on low stools. Here, Bun Cha is cooked on grilled stoves on the floor lining the dark dingy alley lit by flourescent tubes in the day. The atmosphere just didn’t get our stomach juices flowing. Maybe next time when I’ve build up more courage.
Obama Bun Cha
So we hopped in a Grabcar and proceeded to Bún Chả Hương Liên (aka Obama Bun Cha). No other eatery in the world can claim a title like this. Pictures of Obama with Bourdain are all over the place, every ounce of publicity milked to the max.
Bun Cha is an Hanoian original. So don’t leave the city without having Bun Cha – a combination of grilled pork in a unique cold broth, eaten with rice noodles and fresh herbs.
Bun Cha Huong Lien is in the Old Quarters along a busy street made busier by the famous restaurant immortalised by one famous diner. The eatery is huge by Hanoi standards occupying all 4-storeys of an old building. Needless to say it was packed during lunch hour.
The menu is simple. Want to know what the President ordered? No need to ask. Just order the first item on the menu – Obama Combo (1 Bun Cha + 1 Fried Seafood Roll + 1 Hanoi Beer) for 90,000vnd (about USD4.00). If it’s good enough for the President it’s good enough for me. So that’s what I ordered. The combo also includes a bowl of rice noodles and generous portion of minty vegetables that is ubiquitous in Hanoi.
The grilled pork in the bun cha was flavourful with just the right hint of ‘charredness’. The fried seafood roll (Nem Hai San), an unusual combination of crab, pork, prawn and vegetable, had a complex and rich flavour unlike any fried roll I ever had.
How to Eat Bun Cha
The key ingredient in Bun Cha is the charcoal grilled pork soaked in clear broth made from diluted fish sauce with sugar, lemon juice, vinegar. Soaking it in broth removes the heatiness of the charred meat. However it does appear unappetising for the uninitiated. In fact, there are many reviewers on Tripadvisor saying the broth is cold. Unlike pho, this broth is a dip, not meant to be drank like soup, and not supposed to be hot.
To enjoy this meal, add some red cut chilli, garlic and pickled green papaya to the broth, dip some rice noodles in it, let it soften a little, and slurp it in. Next take a bite of the grilled pork and some minty herbal leaves. The generous portion of fresh herbs and vegetables comprises cabbage, Láng basil, rice paddy herb (ngổ), and Vietnamese balm (kinh giới). These leaves provide good balance to the meat but their assertive flavor may not be to everyone’s liking. If so you may give them a skip.
Address: 24 Lê Văn Hưu, Phan Chu Trinh, Hai Bà Trưng, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Opening Hours: 8am – 8.30pm daily
Tel: +84 24 3943 4106
Chả Cá Thăng Long
As the name suggests, this place serves only one dish – Chả Cá, another Hanoi original.
Cha ca is usually made from snakehead fish, but this restaurant uses Ca Lang, or Hemibragus, a species of catfish found in abundance in this region. It is marinated with turmeric and pan fried with copious amount of dill.
A set meal of cha ca costs 160,000vnd (about USD7.00) includes a beer/soft drink, dessert and tea. Each person must order one set meal, no exceptions.
For first timers the friendly English-speaking staff will demonstrate the way to “cha ca heaven” – cook the fish, add the dill, spring onion and herbs, put some rice noodles into your bowl, add chilli, peanuts and fish sauce to your desired taste. The result? Nothing short of heavenly.
There are not many restaurants you can honestly say “I’ll be back”.
Business is so good that they opened another shop across the road, no doubt helped in part by the internet brigade of food bloggers.
I’ll. Be. Back.
Address: 19-21-31, Dương Thành, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
Opening Hours: 11am – 9:30pm daily
Tel: +84 04 3824 5115 / 04 3828 6007
Pho, the national food of Vietnam, is everywhere. Every hotel serves hot pho at breakfast. So, to find the best pho in Hanoi you have to look hard and dig deep. Or easier, just ask.
Pho 10 was recommended by a friend who was here a week earlier. The pho here definitely hits the mark in presentation. An English menu is available so all you need to do is point. There are 10 types of beef noodles such as fillet, brisket or flank and their respective doneness. Price ranges from 60,000vnd to 120,000vnd (about USD2.50 to USD5.00), which is expensive by Hanoi standards.
To best enjoy this pho, add some fresh red cut chilli and fresh lime for extra kick in the broth. The clear broth is done just right and the beef tender and delicious. The chilli sauce for the beef was perfect.
Pho 10 has 3 branches. Here’s the main branch:
Address: 10 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
Opening hours: 6:00am – 2:00pm; 5:30pm – 10:00pm daily
Tel: +84 04 3825 7338
Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn
More popularly known as Pho Bat Dan, this small pho shop was recommended by my hotel’s concierge. It is also in the old quarter within walking distance from my hotel. We skipped hotel breakfast and came here for breakfast instead. We were surprised by the long queue and not an empty seat available.
This pho shop has been around since the 60’s and the secret has been passed from generation to generation, so I’ve been told. The broth is clear and rich with goodness of bone marrow simmered for hours, exactly how you’d describe an authentic bowl of pho. The beef is tender and soft with a glowing pink hue.
Prices range from 30,000vnd to 50,000vmd (about USD1.5 – $2.5).
Address: 49 Bát Đàn, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
Opening hours: 6:30 am- 8:30 pm.
Quán Ăn Ngon (Ngon Restaurant)
Ngon means delicious in Vietnam. Can’t go wrong with this name for someone who wants to start a restaurant.
Started in 2005, Quán Ăn Ngon has been named among the top restaurants in Asia and the top 5 in Vietnam. The concept is simple but executed to perfection – serve authentic Vietnamese cuisine in a relaxed and comfortable setting.
The main branch at 18 Phan Boi Chau occupies a large colonial villa with an open courtyard. Sounds and smells of street style food stalls line the perimeter of the courtyard joined by a cacophony of chatter from hungry tourists and working class locals catching up after a hard day’s work.
The menu is extensive and decked with well composed pictures of food from the mandatory Vietnamese spring rolls to exotic pigeon meat. Too many to name here. It beckons a repeat visit, maybe more.
With myriad of choices a quick glance around when walking to your table will give you an inkling of what to order. The distinctive Vietnamese fried pancake served on oversized plate was on almost every table. A good choice to start your feast.
We also ordered grilled cuttlefish, steamed clams, rice pancake, fresh spring rolls. Generally quality of food is above average with some exceptional ones like sautéed baby squid. Prices are a tad high, not unexpectedly given the upmarket ambience and service. A good meal for 4 people averages around US$50 to $70.
Reservation is highly recommended especially for dinner on weekends.
Quan An Ngon has 3 restaurants in Hanoi:
- Main branch: 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi (Tel: 090 212 6963)
- 25T2 Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh, Cau Giay District, Hanoi (Tel: 090 218 6963)
- B2-R6 Vincom Royal City, 72A Nguyen Trai, Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi (Tel: 093 653 3386)
PS – This Hanoi food guide is by no means complete nor exhaustive. I will add to this list if i come across more worthy Hanoi eats in future trips to this food haven.
Where I Stayed
I stayed at the Hai Bay Hotel which is in the old quarter within walking distance to the famous Hoen Kiem Lake. It is also near to the many street food and famous eateries mentioned above. Built in 2018 it is very new with clean amenities, rain shower with good pressure and speedy in-room wifi, and more importantly great service from the front desk staff. Breakfast is decent too with pho, freshly done pancakes and eggs on order and the usual buffet spread. Paid US$65 from Agoda for a deluxe double room including breakfast. Will definitely stay here again if I’m back in Hanoi.