Any first-time diner in Hanoi will be fascinated by its wide array of cuisine options. The city's two seemingly incompatible states – traditional and modern – always coexist.
Here’s a list of the 10 dishes the capital city’s most known for.
Cha ca La Vong, also known as just cha ca is frequently prepared with snakehead fish, a freshwater fish that is found throughout Vietnam. The fish is cooked in front of diners with a large amount of fresh dill and scallions.
Cha ca's origins can be traced back to the early Vietnamese wars against the colonial French.
The Doan family, at 14 Hang Son Street, made this dish using fresh-caught fish for patriots hiding in homes throughout the capital conducting secret meetings. Over time, the family turned their home into a restaurant, serving only this dish. Diners started calling the dish Cha ca La Vong because La Vong is the name of a statue at the family’s doorstep.
To make the dish, small chunks of fish are marinated for at least an hour with a mix of turmeric, garlic, shallots, galangal, and other seasonings. The fish is typically grilled in advance and then fried in a searing hot pan just before customers are served. Cha ca is eaten with vermicelli, fresh herbs, roasted peanuts, and mam tom - shrimp paste.
It is not hard to notice the aroma of dill and scallions enveloping the entire restaurant when you sit down. This fish dish is best enjoyed with some vermicelli, peanuts, and spices. Many believe that the meal experience is incomplete without mam tom, however first timers not used to the pungent sauce may want to just try a tiny bit in the beginning.
And even if you do not want to try the shrimp paste, you can always request a cup of fish sauce instead. Both sauces contribute to the rich taste of the hearty, fatty fish chunks. The boneless fish is not stinky at all, which makes it a great dish for everyone to enjoy.
Price is about VND135,000 ($5.72) per serving.
- Cha Ca La Vong, 14 Cha Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Cha Ca Phan, 14 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, Hai Ba Trung District
- Cha Ka Restaurant, 15 Ngo Thi Nham Street, Hai Ba Trung District
One of the most famous dishes in Vietnamese cuisine is pho.
This noodle soup was listed as the 34th most popular dish around the globe in 2022 by the international food publication TasteAtlas. Slices of beef or chicken are added to a bowl of broth and ice noodles. The broth is made by simmering one of the two meats for several hours.
Despite the fact that there are numerous theories about the real origin of pho, it is thought to have first arisen in northern Vietnam during the French colonial era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The pho dishes from the north and the south are distinct from one another. The broth in northern pho is clearer, the noodles are flat, and neither herbs nor bean sprouts are offered with it.
Pho bo (beef noodle soup) is perhaps more popular among diners and is well-known to food enthusiasts worldwide. You might be startled to learn that meatballs, a typical topping for southern pho, are absent from the northern version.
Traditional northern beef noodle soup includes a variety of meats, such as gau (thinly sliced fatty brisket) and tai nam (cooked and raw beef). After receiving an order, the cook will arrange the toppings on top of the noodles, then add the boiling broth and scallions to complete the dish.
While pho bo generally takes center stage when talking about Vietnamese food, pho ga (chicken noodle soup) has not drawn as much attention. A bowl of pho ga is prepared similarly to pho bo, just with different ingredients. The best portions of the chicken, the juicy meat and crunchy skin of the wing or the thigh, are used. If you come early in the morning, do not forget to ask for soft poached eggs or soft boiled ovaries to accompany your soup.
Savoring some deep-fried dough by dipping it in the broth is a nice way to enjoy pho. Green chiles, lime, or garlic vinegar are also recommended to add to the broth. Pho bo and pho ga in the north both have flavorful, well-seasoned broth that is not as sweet as pho in the south. Although there is no dipping sauce, the taste of fresh meat will make up for it.
Price ranges from VND35,000-90,000 ($1.48-3.82) per bowl.
- Pho bo: Pho Thin, 13 Lo Duc Street, Hai Ba Trung District; Pho Nho, 27A Huynh Thuc Khang Street, Dong Da District; Pho Khoi Hoi, 50 Hang Vai Street, Hoan kiem District
- Pho ga: Pho Ban, 172 Ton Duc Thang Street, Dong Da District; Pho Cham, 64 + 68 Yen Ninh Street, Ba Dinh District; Pho ga Nguyet, 5b Phu Doan Street, Hoan Kiem District
One of the most intriguing foods to come out of Hanoi is definitely bun dau mam tom. Nobody is certain of its exact origin. This recipe reportedly used to be a staple meal eaten at homes only in rural areas, but it quickly became a favorite of city diners as well thanks to its special flavors.
Early versions of bun dau were served with a cup of shrimp paste and consisted just of fried tofu, vermicelli, and herbs. You may now customize your dish with a wide selection of toppings due to growing demand from customers. Cha com - young green rice and pork cake, boiled pork, and pig tripe are some of the most popular toppings.
A tiny flat bamboo tray containing all the toppings will be delivered to your table once you have placed your order. The herbs and bun la (firm noodles that have been flattened into patches and chopped into chunks), as well as deep-fried tofu are arranged in a circle. Mam tom - the fermented shrimp paste that serves as this dish's dipping sauce - is what gives it its personality. The sauce's flavors can be improved by adding sugar and kumquat juice.
The unusual scent of mam tom sauce deters many foreign diners from trying bun dau. Even though it is the dish's main attraction, not everyone can stand the strong flavor and you can still order fish sauce to enjoy the dish with instead. Tofu's mildly sweet and nutty flavors, along with the herb's strong scent, make for a very well-balanced combination. Despite not being a fan of mam tom, I can never say no to this wonderful and crispy tofu.
Price starts at VND35,000 ($1.48) per serving.
- Bun dau Trung Huong, 49 Phat Loc Alley, Hang Buom Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Bun dau Co Tuyen, at the end of Alley 29, Hang Khay Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Bun dau Cay Bang, 129 Dai La Street, Hai Ba Trung District
The Australian magazine Traveller recently named banh cuon one of the top 10 dishes in the world. Steamed rice rolls made in Thanh Tri Ward in Hanoi's Hoang Mai District are considered to be the purest form of banh cuon in Hanoi. Thanh Tri steamed rice rolls are typically served with sweet and sour fish sauce and cha que (cinnamon-fried pork rolls). In some eateries, a unique spice dubbed tinh dau ca cuong (belostomatid's aromatic essence) is added to the fish sauce to give it a more appealing flavor.
The thin, chewy coat of the roll is what makes the rice rolls so recognizable. The original banh cuon Thanh Tri is often served cold, has no fillings, and is topped with fried shallots. Generations of Hanoi people have learned to love this version as a breakfast food. But more recently, this dish has gradually lost favor as a result of the introduction of newer, more complex dishes that appeal more to modern preferences.
Thanh Tri rice rolls have a solid texture, and are thin and transparent. The batter is made by soaking rice for many hours and then grinding it with water. The batter is then poured by the cook onto a cloth and cooked in a large steamer. After they are done cooking, the rolls receive a super thin coating of scallion oil, which gives them a glossy appearance.
What distinguishes Thanh Tri steamed rice rolls from other varieties is their simplicity. Traditional banh cuon Thanh Tri gets diners to focus more on the softness of the rolls and the predominant flavor of the dipping sauce (which is accompanied by crispy fried shallots), because the rolls have no filling. While it is getting harder to find an authentic banh cuon Thanh Tri eatery, steamed rice rolls with ground pork and wood ear mushroom fillings are readily available across Hanoi.
Price starts at VND20,000 (85 cents) per serving.
- Banh cuon Ba Hoanh, 66 To Hien Thanh Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Banh cuon Ba Hanh, 16B Tho Xuong Street, Hoan Kiem District
Both bun rieu and bun oc, or crab and snail noodle soups, are thought to have their roots in the northern delta. Previously a popular breakfast item for many restaurants, these noodles are now available any time of day as a Hanoi staple specialty.
In a bowl of bun oc, you will find toppings such as freshwater snails, slices of tomato, slices of tofu and some chopped scallions.
In some places, you can find additional toppings like beef shank, cha lua (pork rolls) or even fertilized duck egg. The tomato-based broth has a light and sour taste, which comes from wine vinegar. Aside from the herbs, this noodle soup is also served with sliced banana stems.
A bowl of bun rieu – which is almost identical to bun oc but replaces snail with crab – can be found with comparable toppings like tomatoes and deep-fried tofu.
What sets this noodle meal apart from others is the crab paste, which has the rich flavor of freshwater crab and a delicate, spongy texture. It’s light and will dissolve in the broth as you eat this meal, unlike the dense and solid crab paste used in bun rieu in the south.
Both cuisines can grab your attention with their distinctive aromas. You can taste a unique but delightful sourness that you have not experienced before from the wine vinegar. After that, you will experience the tomatoes' well-known sweet and sour flavor, along with a hint of umami flavor from the bone broth.
It would be a shame to not mention the chilli oil that is served alongside these dishes. Despite the incredibly spicy flavor, first-timers are recommended to add some chilli oil to the bowl as it gives the food a lovely hue. Even the sweetness in a bowl of either bun oc or bun rieu can be elevated by its unique spicy flavor. To fully appreciate a bowl of bun oc, you might not want to order beef shank as a topping on your first visit because it can modify the broth's original flavor by adding a more savory note.
Price starts from VND30,000 ($1.27) per bowl.
- Snail noodle soup: Bun oc Co Hue, 26 Dang Dung Street, Ba Dinh District; Bun oc Gia Truyen, 19 Kim Ma Thuong Street, Ba Dinh District; Bun oc Ba Ngoai, 17 Alley 11 – To Ngoc Van Street, Tay Ho District
- Crab noodle soup: Bun rieu Hong Phuc, 22 Hong Phuc Street, Ba Dinh District; Bun rieu cua Cau Go, 42 Cau Go Street, Hoan Kiem District; Bun rieu Co Huong Beo, 57 Tran Xuan Soan Street, Hai Ba Trung District
Bun thang is a dish that originates from leftovers during Tet holiday. Some people believe that the word thang is derived from thang thuoc - prescription. Cooking this dish requires the cook to be patient and meticulous, just like a doctor when they prepare a traditional prescription.
The bones from chicken, pork, and shiitake mushrooms are used to make the broth for the noodles. The broth used to contain sa sung (sea worms) and ca cuong, but due to the increase in prices, most places have replaced these items with other condiments. A bowl is topped with a variety of ingredients, such as thinly sliced omelette and cha gio (pork rolls), ground pork, shrimp floss, salted egg, and dried radish.
Bun thang has a pleasant savory taste that is rarely found in other noodle dishes. Each topping pairs perfectly with the others so your palate is completely satisfied after finishing a bowl. It should be noted that if mam tom is not desired, you should request to have it removed before ordering a bowl of bun thang. However, if you can, this shrimp paste can give your bowl a delicious umami flavor.
Price starts at VND35,000 ($1.48) per bowl.
- 29 Hang Hanh Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Pho ga - Bun thang Lan Ong, 16 Lan Ong Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Bun thang Ba Duc, 48 Cau Go Street, Hoan Kiem District
Bun cha is similar to bun thit nuong, another grilled pork and vermicelli noodle dish popular in southern Vietnam. Both dishes have made names for themselves not only in Vietnam, but worldwide as well. Last year, this iconic dish was featured in the British Platinum Jubilee Cookbook.
Grilled pork, vermicelli noodles, dipping sauce, and other herbs are all included in a serving of bun cha. There are two types of grilled pork: grilled meatballs and pork belly. The meat is marinated for hours, before grilling on a red charcoal stove. The dipping sauce for bun cha is a crucial component of the cuisine. Fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar, are the main ingredients in the sauce. Thin slices of carrots and green papaya are also added to the sauce. Since each restaurant uses its own marinade and sauce recipes, flavors vary from one place to the next.
Diners dip the vermicelli into the dipping sauce, and eat it with a bite of grilled pork and herbs. The marinated grilled meat wrapped in the aroma of charcoal combined with the sweet and sour dipping sauce creates a harmonious blend of delicious flavors.
And do not be afraid to ask for extra dipping sauce, carrots, or green papaya. You can customize your dipping sauce by adding more chillies, garlic, and kumquat juice. My preferred method of eating bun cha is to get a side dish of deep-fried spring rolls to go along with it.
Price starts at VND35,000 ($1.48) per serving.
- Bun cha Cua Dong, 41 Cua Dong Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Bun cha Dac Kim, 1 Hang Manh Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Bun cha Ba Tuyet, 34 Hang Than, Ba Dinh District
A highlight of the northern region, particularly in the Hanoi area, is com (green rice flakes). This meal is a speciality that is frequently associated with autumn. But northerners have developed dishes that use these green rice flakes as a primary ingredient, allowing them to enjoy this delicacy all year round. Such dishes include banh com (green rice cake) and cha com (green rice patties).
Legend has it that a thousand years ago, unusually heavy storms crashed through the rice fields of Vietnam, destroying nearly all the crops. A man from Vong Village threw himself into the flood water to collect the grains. To feed his old mother, he roasted and pounded them to remove the husk. What he unintentionally made back then is known as com today. Com is recognized by its signature green color and light fragrant scent. The green rice flakes have a special soft texture, with a slightly sweet taste.
Cha com (green rice patties) is made using lean pork and pork paste, combined with com to form mini patties. The patties are deep fried until golden brown on both sides. Cha com is crispy on the outside, and moist and soft on the inside with an aroma of savory pork and fragrance of new rice. You can enjoy these patties with rice, or noodle dishes like bun dau mam tom.
Banh com (green rice cake) was created by a member of the Nguyen Duy family on Hang Than Street in 1865. The main ingredients to make this cake are glutinous rice, green rice flakes and mung beans. The green rice flakes are gently heated while cooking with sugar and pandan leaves until they melt and become stretchy. The mung beans are soaked for hours before being cooked with sugar until they become a viscous filling. The filling is wrapped in the rice mixture, formed into a square, and left for cooling. Banh com is a sweet treat loved by people of all ages, and is often bought as gifts by both local and international tourists.
Eating the green rice flakes with banana is a fantastic method to enjoy com, and is well-known among the residents in Hanoi. This particular combination offers a great mix of the light sweet aroma of com accompanied by the vanilla and candy flavor notes of the banana.
Com prices start at VND200,000 ($8.46) per kilogram.
- Com lang vong Ba Can, No. 19, Alley 85, Xuan Thuy street, Cau Giay district
- Com vong Co Man, No. 10, alley 86, lane 44 Tran Thai Tong Street, Cau Giay district
- Banh com Nguyen Ninh, 11 Hang Than Street, Ba Dinh District
Ngan, known as mule duck, is a type of poultry mostly consumed in the northern region of Vietnam. You can hardly find any places selling dishes using mule duck in the south or central region. Ngan is typically bigger and meatier than duck or chicken, with fatty skin and lean, firm meat packed with flavor. Bun ngan (noodle soup with mule duck) and ngan chay toi (mule duck fried with garlic) are the two of the most popular mule duck dishes in the capital city.
Bun ngan is the combination of a delicious mule duck broth simmered with sauteed bamboo shoots, both fresh and dry. The broth is poured into a bowl of vermicelli noodles, then topped with bamboo shoots, ngan meat, spring onions and cilantro. A sweet and sour dipping sauce with a lot of minced garlic is served with each bowl of bun ngan. This meal, which may be eaten for breakfast or lunch, is well-known for the naturally sweet flavor of the ngan, and its light, savory broth.
Ngan chay toi, a more recent Hanoian specialty that has only been there since 2016, has quickly gained popularity among young people in the city. It is first claimed that a mule duck restaurant created the recipe specifically to use up leftover meat. After hearing a lot of compliments from both family and customers, the restaurant's owner decided to add the dish to the menu. Prior to being deep-fried in heated oil, the mule duck is first boiled, then cut into smaller pieces and marinated with seasonings. The dish's star ingredient, the garlic, is fried till golden and crispy, yet also retaining its soft texture and distinctive flavor. The cook will then mix the meat with the garlic before serving to customers.
A portion of ngan chay toi is meant for two people, and there is a 15 to 20-minute wait since the food is made to order. If you have never tried mule duck before, I suggest you try out ngan chay toi first. You should order half a mule duck fried with garlic, half a boiled mule duck, and a bowl of bamboo soup for a complete experience.
Bun ngan starts at VND35,000 ($1.48) per bowl.
Ngan chay toi starts at VND140,000 ($5.93) per serving.
- Noodle soup with mule duck: Bun ngan Nhan, 11 Trung Yen Alley, Hoan Kiem District; Bun ngan Minh Thu, 31 Ly Quoc Su Street, Hoan Kiem District; Bun ngan Huyen Anh, 39 Nguyen Du Street, Hai Ba Trung District
- Mule duck fried with garlic: Ngan chay toi Thuy Luong, 51 Hang Luoc Street, Hoan Kiem District; Ngan Dung Huyen, 16 Hang Thiec Street, Hoan Kiem District; Ngan Thanh Huong, 38 Hang Non Street, Hoan Kiem District
Xoi xeo (sticky rice with mung bean) is a traditional breakfast that is very familiar to anyone born and raised in Hanoi. In the early morning, you can find a long queue of people waiting to buy xoi xeo for breakfast. For only a few thousand dong, you can have yourself a serving of yellow sticky rice, fragrant with the smell of scallion oil and fried shallots.
Xoi xeo consists of sticky rice, mung beans, fried shallots and scallion oil. Many people believe that the origin of the dish’s special name comes from the fact that people often xeo – hand cut – a block of mung bean on the sticky rice.
Xoi xeo is a dish with many flavors but simple ingredients. The mung beans have a mildly sweet and nutty flavor that has absorbed the scallion oil's vibrant scent. The fried shallots are crunchy and savory, and when you eat them with the soft and fragrant sticky rice, it is a burst of flavors in your mouth.
Today, xoi xeo vendors have added other toppings to eat with the dish, such as pork rolls, braised pork, pork floss, or chicken stir-fried with mushrooms. Pork rolls is my favorite topping to go with xoi xeo as it helps add protein to the meal without overpowering the natural flavors of the sticky rice and the mung bean.
Price starts at VND15,000 (63 cents) per serving.
- Xoi May, 31 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Hoan Kiem District
- Xoi xeo Co Tuyet, Cu Loc Alley, Thanh Xuan District
- Xoi Nguyet, 90 Dao Tan, Ba Dinh District