Vietnamese cuisine varies by region. Each city, even each village has its own list of unique local specialties. Hanoi is no exception. Our quest through Vietnam started in the capital city of Hanoi, known for must eat Hanoi food. Many of the popular Vietnamese dishes originated here. The famous Vietnamese noodle soup Pho is one of the most iconic northern Vietnamese food.
Situated near the Chinese border, northern Vietnamese cuisine reflects Chinese influences. With the cooler climate in the north and wide availability of freshwater fish and seafood like prawns, shrimp, crab, clams, and more, food from the region has its own distinctive flavor.
Hanoi, we discovered, is also famous for its street food culture. Street food stalls are popular and make up for the vast majority of Hanoi food. Some of the best and surprising local food experiences in Hanoi are made on the sidewalks with locals and not in restaurants.
Bún Chả – Barbecued Pork with Rice Vermicelli
Bún chả, is one northern Vietnamese food that quickly became our favorite. It is one of the best Hanoi food specialty not to be missed.
The dish consists of grilled pork strips and balls or chả served over a bed of rice vermicelli noodles or bún. It typically comes with a plate of fresh Vietnamese herbs and a bowl of dipping sauce. Pickled vegetables, like cabbage, carrots, onion or green papaya served with additional meatballs on the side.
Nem Cua Be – Crab Spring Rolls
Nem Cua Be, or crab spring rolls are the perfect complement to bún chả. These are fried rolls filled with sea crab and vermicelli noodles. Fresh and lightly fried, these rolls melt in the mouth and are to be savored.
These crab spring rolls are sold by the roll, where one roll is cut into three smaller pieces. They are eaten as an appetizer while waiting for the bún chả meal or dipped into the savory bún chả soup.
Chả Cá – Grilled Fish with Dill and Tumeric
Chả Cá is one of the unique specialties of the Hanoi people and definitely a must eat in Hanoi. So important is this local specialty, that it even has a street named after it – Cha Ca street.
It can absolutely be said it is a Hanoi food worth flying for. World-renowned, The New York Times followed its history from Vietnam to the United State. “Hanoians even have a saying that … “someone should try this once in their life before leaving this world.”
The special ingredient in Chả Cá is grilled fish, typically mudfish or snake-head fish. According to the restaurant, the best fish to use Hemibragus, because it has fewer bones and tasty flesh.
This dish is made table side and the experience of preparing the dish is almost as much fun as eating it.
Bún Cả – Fish Noodle Soup
In northern Vietnam, fresh water fish is widely used in dishes. This Hanoi food Bún Cá, is no exception.
It is a light broth made from fish bones with golden fresh white fish lightly fried. At the bottom of the soup, is a bed of rice vermicelli noodles. On the top covering the broth, is a delicate combination of spring onions and bean sprouts mixed with dill herbs.
To taste this unique dish, there is no better place than Bún cá Sâm Cây Si, a typical street side restaurant. Tucked in a dark alley in the old quarter, this unpretentious small joint is packed with locals and tourist alike.
Bánh Cuốn – Steamed Rice Rolls
Bánh cuốn is another local specialty from Northern Vietnam that you don’t want to miss.
It is a delicate and light dish usually eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. However, you can find it all day long.
Bánh cuốn is made of a thin rice sheet rolled and filled with ground pork meat and minced mushrooms. It is served with fried shallots and cilantro herbs on top.
As with most Vietnamese dishes, Nuoc Mam of fish sauce is used in the dipping sauce. The magic comes with the additional drop of cà cuống, the essence of a giant water bug common in Southeast Asia.
This drop in the sauce adds an extra flavor which gives off a taste similar to scallops or shrimps. Today, this natural essence is becoming scarce and many restaurants are now using an imitation essence.
Lau – Hot Pot
In the cooler months, Lau is one of the most popular food you will find in Hanoi. Sitting on the sidewalks, in the evenings, you will see groups of locals huddled together over a large pot of simmering soup, cooking beef, chicken, fish, noodles, veggies and so on.
Next to the tables, you will find vendors with a display filled with different vegetables and protein to be added to the hot pot.
Pho – Vietnamese Noodle Soup
Pho is THE classic Hanoi food, and possibly one of the best food Hanoi offers. Our previous article, the best pho in Vietnam, goes into detail about the soup and where to eat it, including in Hanoi.
Let’s just say you don’t want to miss this aromatic soup, filled with slices of beef, rice noodles and a plateful of fresh herbs.
There are many places that sell this Hanoi food. One of the best place to eat Pho in Hanoi is Pho Gia Truyen. Be sure to go early, as there is usually a long line!
Bánh Mì – Vietnamese Sandwich
The bánh mì sandwich is truly the best Vietnamese sandwich to fall in love with. While its origins are French, the Vietnamese have made it distinctively their own. Generally speaking it is an airy Vietnamese baguette made with a combination of wheat and rice flours with a thin crispy crust.
It is stuffed with pork, pâté, cured ham, a mélange of Vietnamese herbs and vegetables like coriander, cucumber, carrot, slices, radish and more depending on what part of the country you are in. A wealth of textures and flavors, you will savor spicy, salty, savory, sweet, and aromatic tastes in each bite.
Chè – Vietnamese Sweet Soup
Chè is the perfect end to your meal, especially if you had a light Hanoi food like Bánh Cuốn. Chè basically means dessert in Vietnamese.
In Hanoi, you will find chè vendors on the streets. Delight in warm chè in the cooler evenings and refresh with crushed ice added to the dessert in the hot months.
Chè is a sweet soup typically made of several ingredients mixed together and served in a large beer glass.
Northern Vietnamese food has its own unique tastes and flavors. The balance of flavors, the influence of the weather and the unique ingredients make for a wonderful culinary adventure.
Many of the best Hanoi foods are found on the streets, on small plastic tables and chairs.
For a local and authentic food experience on your travels, put any hesitation aside about eating on the streets. Instead, sit with the locals and try some of the local specialties you must eat in Hanoi highlighted here.