Hanoi street food specialties you have to try range from Vietnamese street food staples such as Hanoi’s famous noodle soup, pho bo Hanoi (phở bò Hà Nội), to distinctive local dishes such as the delectable bánh cuốn. This is our guide to the best street food to sample in Hanoi.
Once you start strolling the atmospheric streets of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, it becomes immediately clear that there is so much more to Vietnamese cuisine than Vietnam’s renowned noodle soup, phở, even if it is one of the must-try Hanoi street food specialties.
Mobile vendors carrying baskets over their shoulders or pushing carts, cooks at street-side stalls and markets, modest family-ran eateries, and even restaurants serve up an array of Vietnamese street food dishes, including countless Hanoi street food specialties that are unique to or originated in the Northern Vietnam capital, along with dishes that when eaten elsewhere in the country don’t have that Hanoi touch.
Here’s our guide to the best Hanoi street food specialties to try when you visit Vietnam’s capital. As usual, this is by no means a comprehensive list, it’s just a selection of our favourite Hanoi dishes that you’ll come across on your culinary travels in Hanoi.
Hanoi Street Food Specialties You Have to Try in the Vietnamese Capital
Pho Bo Hanoi – Phở bò Hà Nội
Vietnam’s world-famous noodle soup, pho bo Hanoi (or more correctly phở bò Hà Nội) is the street food of Hanoi. A clear beef stock that has been simmering for hours is poured on to fresh rice noodles and garnished with fresh fragrant herbs. The stock typically relies on oxtail for depth of flavour, beef brisket, which is served with the dish, and thin slices of fresh sirloin steak (phở tái) which cooks in the broth. It’s a deceptively simple dish until you add your spring onion, pepper, fresh coriander, a squeeze of lime, and a little chilli. This is as far as most Hanoi locals go in terms of garnish; pho in Hanoi is far more subtle, and some would say more refined, than the heartier Saigon pho which is generally eaten with more condiments and herbs.
Pho Ga – Phở Gà
Historically, pho with chicken or phở gà was concocted much later than phở bò or pho with beef and was considered inferior. The chicken noodle soup only rose to popularity when beef became scarce and prices were considered too high. Today dedicated pho ga eateries can be as busy as any pho bo joint. While it’s hard to go past a good beef noodle soup in winter, the lighter broth of the chicken noodle soup and the addition of aromatic dill will leave you feeling more refreshed in the warmer months when Hanoi, one of the few Vietnamese cities to get cold in winter, can get surprisingly sultry. If you want to try your hand at making pho when you get home, we have a recipe for pho rice noodle sheets which we learnt at Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An, can be used for both noodles and pho cuon, below.
Bun Cha – Bún Chả
One of the Hanoi street food specialties you can’t leave without trying is bún chả, a lunch-time favourite and perhaps our favourite Hanoi street food dish if we had to choose one. You can usually detect the aromas of pork belly and pork patties being barbecued over charcoal before you spot the bun cha cook crouching over a clay brazier or portable grill out the front of their eatery. The pork is served in a bowl with fresh rice vermicelli, perfumed herbs and greens, and a sweet fish sauce-based broth that varies stall-by-stall from being little more than a dipping sauce to almost a soup. While most cooks serve both pork belly and pork patties, some just offer patties, and you might also be asked if you’d like some fried spring rolls or nem rán as well.
Nem Ran Hanoi – Nem Rán Hà Nội
These fried pork spring rolls called nem ran Hanoi – or nem rán Hà Nội – are typically served up by roving vendors that roam the city streets selling these addictive Hanoi street food snacks. They are also a speciality of bún chả stalls, where the delicious spring rolls are normally pre-cooked and chopped into pieces, reheated in a small pan, and served with your order of bún chả. You might taste what you think is water chestnut pieces, but it’s usually jicama, a root vegetable that adds a little crunch to the roll. Some fancy versions served at restaurants (and in Vietnamese cookbooks) will have the addition of crab meat, but most bún chả vendors we frequented did not.
Banh Cuon – Bánh Cuốn
One of the Hanoi street food specialties you really have to try in the Vietnamese capital is banh cuon or bánh cuốn. A runny batter made from rice and tapioca flours with salt and water is spread over a cloth covering a steaming pot of water until the sheet firms up. Placed on a greased tray (to stop them sticking), the sheets are sprinkled with a wonderful mixture of minced pork and wood ear mushrooms, and then folded into a roll. Sprinkled with deep-fried shallots and shredded prawns, they are served with a dipping sauce and assorted fresh herbs as well. One curiosity is that locals eat it with an orange coloured meatloaf that looks like a large salami, something that we never understood when we lived in Vietnam. The skill and effort to make this dish means that there aren’t a lot of banh cuon shops that do it well.
Banh Tom Ho Tay – Bánh Tôm Hồ Tây
Banh tom Ho Tay – or bánh tôm Hồ Tây – are essentially deep fried prawn cakes or prawn fritters, depending on how crispy (or not) they are. Some are done quite crunchy while others are firm and still a little soft in the centre. The most popular banh tom Ho Tay stalls in Hanoi, which typically sell them in the afternoon, are to be found around West Lake or Tay Ho. Prawns with their heads removed and sliced lengthways (with ‘poop chutes’ removed) are marinated in fish sauce for a short time. A batter of plain flour with a little rice flour, baking powder, turmeric, and egg yolk is mixed together. The vendors part-fill a ladle of batter, then add the prawns and sweet potato strips before lowering the ladle into a wok of super hot oil. As the ‘cake’ or fritter forms, the vendor removes the ladle as it continues cooking and begins to make the next cake, so they’re perfectly cooked. It’s as fun to watch them being made as it is to munch on them.
Pho Cuon – Phở Cuốn
These beef rice paper rolls called pho cuon or phở cuốn take their inspiration from fresh uncut phở rice noodle sheets, which are used to roll up the contents instead of dry rice paper. One theory as to the origin of pho cuon suggests that a phở noodle soup vendor ran out stock for the soup and yet still had noodle sheets and cooked beef left. Not wanting to lose customers, the cook placed some beef in the centre of a phở noodle sheet, added some fresh herbs, rolled the sheet into a cylinder, and dipped them into the classic Vietnamese dipping sauce. These days the beef is typically rolled with lettuce, coriander, mint, carrot strips, and cucumber. It’s so simple yet so good. If you love them so much you want to make them when you get back home, see our easy pho cuon recipe.
Mien Xao Luon – Miến Xào Lươn
Mien xao luon or miến xào lươn is one of those Hanoi street food dishes that is not for everyone, yet it is a must-try Hanoi street food specialty for the more culinary adventurous travellers. Mien xao luon is an eel salad that consists of fine pieces of crispy fried eel combined with stir-fried glass noodles, aromatic fresh mint, spring onions, crunchy peanuts, and shallots. This is a dish that is about the combination of textures as much as the flavours and many people either love it or hate it. There are variations of the dish and there are different eateries that specialise in eel where you’ll also find other Hanoi favourites such as eel porridge.
Bun Oc – Bún Ốc
Bun oc or bún ốc is a snail soup and it’s about as local as local favourites get in Hanoi. The snails are freshwater snails that are cooked (often grilled) before being placed in a vermicelli rice noodle soup with a tomato-based stock. Besides the snails, the dish usually includes some fried tofu, prawns, and the usual assortment of fresh fragrant Vietnamese herbs, as well as limes and chilli oil. Some stalls offer quite spicy versions, laden with chilli, and you will often have a choice of snail sizes, too.
Nem Chua Ran – Nem Chua Rán
Nem are found all over Southeast Asia, especially in Cambodia and Thailand, and ‘chua’ means sour, which tells you that these fermented pork sausages are what our American readers would call a little ‘funky’. We are big fans of these babies. Eaten raw and cooked, you’ll see them on the streets and in local eateries both grilled and deep fried. They are a delicious snack that are a favourite with older folks as much as young people staving off hunger after work or school and before dinner. They’re typically served on a tray with a piece of banana leaf and you usually get around 10 pieces per order. Sometimes they are served with potato fries (surprisingly to foreign visitors who forget about the French influence in Vietnam) and a dipping sauce. This is an especially great snack during Hanoi’s colder winter months.
Our Tips for Sampling Hanoi Street Food Specialties
- For the best introduction to Hanoi street food specialties we recommend doing a Vietnamese street food tour with a local foodie. A good source for local culinary guides is Withlocals, which lists tours with locals such as this Hanoi food tour offering ten tastings.
- Hanoi’s street food is some of the safest in Vietnam, if not Southeast Asia, however, it’s still worth following our tips to eating street food safely and how to avoid getting sick when you travel.
- Don’t forget to add condiments and DIY seasoning. If there are condiments on the table then you can assume that they are meant to be added to your dish. Ask staff what to do or look around and see what the locals are doing.
- Do a little reading on local customs and etiquette when eating out so you don’t offend anyone by doing something, such as poking your chopsticks out of the bowl.
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Have you been to Vietnam’s capital? What do you think are the Hanoi street food specialties to try in the northern city? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below.