All Articles 10 dishes everyone should try in Hanoi

10 dishes everyone should try in Hanoi

From egg coffees to the best noodle soups.

Dan Q. Dao
By Dan Q. Dao9 Apr 2024 8 minutes read
A view of train street in the old quarter
Hanoi's Old Quarter
Image: Tripadvisor/ Management

With over 1,000 years of history, Hanoi is considered to be the cradle of Vietnamese civilization and its cuisine. While Vietnamese cuisine varies greatly between regions, the northern Vietnamese variety serves as a sort of blueprint from which to understand its key elements, flavors, and ingredient building blocks. Even Vietnam’s national dish—the noodle soup, phở—can trace its origins back to the ancient city.

Living a two-hour flight away in Ho Chi Minh City, I often choose Hanoi for a quick weekend adventure where the primary activity is eating. Some Hanoian dishes, like phở and bún chả—the dish that the late Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate together on TV—are now known globally. And yet, having made this sojourn to Hanoi at least a dozen times, I’m still discovering restaurants and dishes every time I visit.

Many of the city’s most iconic dishes can be found in the Old Quarter—a dense neighborhood of narrow streets that once served as the city’s commercial hub—as well as the neighboring French Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake area. Wander through these easily walkable streets and you’ll find hundreds of vendors, many of which are known for one specific dish they’ve been perfecting for generations.

From breakfast-only bites to dinnertime feasts and the city’s signature egg-yolk coffee, here are the 10 essential dishes to know in Hanoi—and where to get them.

Phở

The exact origins of phở are unknown, but most accounts suggest Hanoi was its birthplace and that the dish was shaped by the cuisines of Vietnam’s colonizers, China and France. Influenced by Chinese rice noodles and a French demand for beef, Vietnamese noodle vendors began serving a beef-based dish, later adding aromatics like star anise, cinnamon, and cardamom to the fragrant broth. While phở can also be made with chicken or vegetables, the quintessential beef version features thinly sliced rare beef, brisket, tripe, and meatballs.

Where to get it: Phở Thìn, Hai Ba Trung

Chef preparing bowls of phở
Phở bò tái lăn is what's on the menu
Image: chihof2016/Tripadvisor

It would be a futile endeavor to name the “best” bowl in town, but a surely unforgettable one can be found at the legendary Phở Thin. Opened in 1979 by the eponymous Nguyen Trong Thin, the restaurant serves only one dish: phở bò tái lăn, which uses stir-fried beef instead of the usual thinly sliced rare meat. This adds a slightly smoky taste to the phở. While it’s technically “non-traditional,” it’s a spin on the dish that has been beloved for decades.

Tip: Though the restaurant only offers one style of phở, there are a number of other accoutrements that can be added to customize your meal, including an egg cooked in broth and a type of Chinese-style fried donut called a cruller (or quẩy in Vietnamese).

Bún riêu cua

With a reddish tomato-accented broth, bún riêu cua is one of the most vibrant Vietnamese noodle soups. The hallmark of the classic Hanoian dish is the riêu, which refers to a base mixture of ground freshwater crab, minced pork, egg, and sometimes crab paste. The bún refers to thin rice vermicelli. Toppings vary from restaurant to restaurant, but may include: more crab meat, steamed pork sausage, and fried tofu, which soaks up the tangy flavor of the broth.

Where to get it: Bún Riêu Cua Hàng Tre, Hoan Kiem Lake

Bún riêu cua complete with all the toppings
Indulge in local flavors with a steaming bowl of bún riêu cua
Image: SinanBParis/Tripadvisor

This popular street stall is known for its friendly owner and its traditional take on bún riêu, which is brightened with a pop of vinegar. One slightly less traditional aspect? In place of the pork sausage, they top their bowls with fried green sticky rice patties, which offer a hearty, chewy bite.

Bún thang

Bún thang is a lighter, chicken broth–based noodle soup that originated in Hanoi and is typically enjoyed in the morning or afternoon since it’s warm, savory, and not too heavy. The dish is assembled with rice vermicelli noodles, shredded chicken, slices of Vietnamese ham, omelet strips, and delicate herbs. The chicken broth is sometimes seasoned with shrimp paste, which lends a subtle sweetness and umami funk.

Where to get it: Bún Thang 29 Hàng Hành, Hoan Kiem Lake

 Bún thang topped with chiles
 Bún thang without chiles
Bún thang at Bún Thang 29 Hàng Hành
Image: TrungL174 , Bomchickawaawaa/Tripadvisor

Tucked on a small restaurant-filled street near the bustling Hoan Kiem Lake area, this no-frills noodle shop has been serving up a perfectly balanced bowl of bún thang for over 20 years. For a more filling meal, bún thang is often paired with savory sticky rice, or xôi, topped with meats like shredded chicken or lạp xưởng, a Vietnamese cured sausage. This spot also offers a standout version of this dish.

Tip: Bún thang is considered a breakfast or lunch dish, so this restaurant is only open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s also cash only.

Bánh cuốn

While steamed rice rolls appear in several different Asian cuisines, the Vietnamese version is distinguished by its signature, savory filling of minced pork, wood ear mushrooms, and shallots. Originating in Hanoi, the rolls are typically topped with addictively crispy fried shallots, dipped in a tangy fish sauce–based condiment, and served with Vietnamese ham and a platter of fresh herbs like perilla leaves and cilantro.

Where to get it: Bánh Cuốn Bà Xuân, Ba Đình

Bánh cuốn garnished with fried shallots
Don't skip out on garnishes like fried shallots while enjoying bánh cuốn
Image: LeeLee883/Tripadvisor

This Michelin-recognized stall has been renowned for three decades for its singular menu offering: steamed rice rolls made to order on a hot plate in the front of the shop. The secret to good bánh cuốn lies in the texture of the rice sheets—firm enough to encase the filling yet delicate enough to melt in the mouth—and Bánh Cuốn Bà Xuân nails this.

Tip: For a unique, slightly non-traditional twist, Bánh Cuốn Bà Xuân offers a version of the rice roll nestling a soft-poached egg.

Chả cá

Chả cá is one of Hanoi’s most famous specialty dishes. Believed to have been invented in the 19th century, the dish involves turmeric-marinated fish filets traditionally made from a local variety of catfish. The fish is grilled on a sizzling saucepan (sometimes done tableside) and then mixed up with a variety of herbs like scallion and dill. It’s then served with rice vermicelli noodles and crushed roasted peanuts. Despite being relatively affordable, it’s considered a restaurant dish, rather than street food.

Where to get it: Chả Cá Thăng Long, Old Quarter

chả cá shown surrounded by various toppings
Chả Cá Thăng Long
Image: ieatirate/Tripadvisor

There are several acclaimed restaurants specializing solely in chả cá. Indeed, there is one street with three identically named restaurants—Chả Cá Thăng Long—all run by the same family. Set in a century-old yellow townhouse marked with old Chinese characters, the outpost at 6B Duong Thanh Street edged out the others to earn a Michelin Bib Gourmand for its rendition. The fish here is cooked at your table and served in the traditional style with abundant dill, Vietnamese coriander, and a shrimp paste sauce for dipping.

Tip: This place fills up—make a reservation ahead of time.

Nem chua rán

Nem chua is a traditional Vietnamese fermented pork sausage roll, and nem chua rán is the deep-fried version that has become a popular street food in Hanoi. The sausage is made by marinating ground pork with garlic, sugar, and fish sauce—then fermenting it for anywhere from a few days to a week to impart a sour taste. Over the years, locals began deep-frying the sausage; but, rather than use a batter, they use the fermented pork mixture as the batter itself.

Where to get it: Nem Chua Rán 36 Tạm Thương, Hoan Kiem Lake

Exterior view of Nem Chua Ran Tam Thuong
Serving of  Nem chua rán
Nem Chua Ran Tam Thuong
Image: thanhnemchua, DanJP_IUJ/Tripadvisor

For nem chua rán fresh out of the frying pan, head to this street food mainstay located in an alley near Hoan Kiem Lake. The crispy rolls are served with a sweet soy-based sauce as well as a spicier chili sauce. Other fried foods here include French fries and cheese sticks.

Bún chả

Made internationally famous by Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama in 2016, bún chả is a classic Hanoian dish of rice vermicelli noodles, marinated charcoal-grilled pork patties, fresh herbs, and a tangy dipping “broth”—made with fish sauce, garlic, and chilis. Served for either lunch or dinner, the dish is characterized by the smokiness of the meat as well as a supreme balance of sweet, savory, and sour (thanks to the requisite side of pickled daikon and carrot).

Where to get it: Bún Chả Hàng Quạt, Hoan Kiem Lake

Bún chả surrounded by vermicelli noodles, lettuce and toppings
Step down the narrow alley for a local favorite
Image: mamacita1001/Tripadvisor

Set on the first floor of a family home at the end of a narrow alleyway, Bún Chả Hàng Quạt is the Hanoian locals’ favorite for bún chả. As you walk down the alley, you’ll see cooks sitting on small plastic stools manning charcoal grill stations and deep-frying pans. To complement the bún chả, they offer a recommended side of nem cua bể—crispy golden fried spring roll filled with fresh crab meat, minced pork, mushrooms, and vermicelli noodles. Garnishes of lettuce, mint, and perilla are on offer to wrap the pork patties and nem cua into the perfect one bite.

Tip: You don’t need a menu to order—simply walk in and tell the staff how many bowls of bún chả you want, as well as whether or not you want a side of nem cua bể.

Xôi

Xôi, or sticky rice, is a beloved Vietnamese dish that can serve as a light (but filling!) breakfast or a quick midday snack. A versatile food, xôi comes in a variety of sweet and savory versions, and the latter is called xôi mặn. The rice is sometimes cooked in banana leaves and then finished off with a choice of toppings ranging from mung bean paste to shredded chicken or simply fried shallots.

Where to get it: Xôi Yến, Old Quarter

3 bowls of Xôi with sides of cucumber
Take on Hanoi's street food scene with this popular breakfast
Image: boommie/Tripadvisor

Hanoi’s top xôi experience can be found at longtime Old Quarter mainstay Xôi Yến. This iconic vendor has been hawking bowls of sticky rice—which start at less than $1 apiece—for some two decades, drawing crowds of locals and visitors alike. Here, find both the traditional plain sticky rice as well as a fragrant, turmeric-laced version. Choose from toppings like chicken, beef, mushrooms, and the standout honeyed pork belly.

Tip: During the day, be prepared to wait in line, as Xôi Yến can get crowded—it’s typically less so in the evening.

Bánh tôm Hồ Tây

Bánh tôm Hồ Tây is a crispy fried fritter made with whole shrimp and sweet potato. In contrast to many of the other dishes on this list, which come from the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake area, bánh tôm Hồ Tây originated in the West Lake area, about a 15-minute drive north. Like most fried Vietnamese street food dishes, these fritters are served with fresh herbs and a fish sauce-based dipping sauce.

Where to get it: Bánh Tôm Ngọc Thùy, Quang An

While there are roughly a dozen bánh tôm Hồ Tây specialists in Hanoi, this small family-owned shop serves a pitch-perfect rendition of the crispy shrimp cakes. Grab a seat on the waterfront and wash down the fried bites with an ice-cold Vietnamese beer.

Cà phê trứng

Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee producer, which was brought over during the French colonial era. Today, Vietnam boasts a rich and diverse café culture involving numerous different styles and preparations of coffee. Cà phê trứng, or egg coffee, is Hanoi’s essential coffee drink made with whipped egg yolks, sugar, and condensed milk. Served hot or cold, cà phê trứng has a rich and creamy texture that sets it apart from the traditional condensed milk Vietnamese coffee.

Where to get it: Café Giảng, Hoan Kiem Lake

Cà phê trứng served hot and creamy
Grab a cup of velvety smooth Vietnamese egg coffee
Image: 821johnk821/Tripadvisor

Established in 1946, Café Giảng is widely regarded as the originator of the egg coffee. Many coffee lovers have made the pilgrimage to this legendary, no-frills three-story shop, decked in old photographs and vintage memorabilia from bygone eras. The most traditional version of cà phê trứng is hot. To drink it, spoon the coffee from the bottom of the cup onto the top of the creamy egg foam.

Tip: Pair your coffee with a cup of homemade yogurt, another traditional Vietnamese sweet. They also serve a classic yogurt coffee.

Dan Q. Dao
Dan Q. Dao is a culture writer, editor, and the founder of District One, a creative consultancy focused on food & drink brands. Prior to this, he served as assistant food & drink editor at Time Out and deputy digital editor at Saveur. His work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Vice, and Paper. Learn more at danqdao.com.