I ate my heart out in Taiwan, and I had a feeling it would only continue into Vietnam. While I may not be as familiar with Vietnamese food as I am with Chinese food, that can only add to the culinary adventure. Nowhere better to start than in Hanoi!
I came to Vietnam so excited to have authentic pho as often as I could. Ironically, we kept missing the opening times for pho restaurants in the first few days – we were going in the afternoon, apparently pho is more of a breakfast thing. As it turns out, we were going at the wrong time and to the wrong places. Until we discovered Pho 10, the answer to my pho prayers.
Everyone we asked in Hanoi for the best pho in the Old Quarter said: Pho 10 at Ly Quoc Su. We went there to have pho at all times of the day (6am, 10pm) and it was always packed with locals and tourists alike. The pho comes immediately after you order (within a few minutes) and we usually went for the well-done beef (chin). My favourite part of Pho 10 pho was the broth. Everytime we went I would drink the whole thing, even though it would make me sweat like mad. So rich, yet light, and not overwhelmingly beefy. It was perfect.
A dish of rice noodle (bun) and grilled pork (cha), we did not expect how large our bun cha meal was going to be. We went to Bun Cha Hang Manh in the early evening having had a late lunch, and boy do I regret not going with a big hole in my stomach instead.
Once we sat down, bun cha was not served to us in a bowl like I expected; rather, it came in a whole bunch of bowls and plates that filled the whole table. There were rice noodles, grilled fatty pork in a sauce, a huge plate of vegetables and herbs, fried springs rolls cut into small pieces, and a bowl of sauce on the side. We could then create our own bowls made of all the ingredients on the table.
The bun cha bowl was delicious, and what made it even better was that we could personalize it to the ratio of each ingredient that we each preferred. There was so much that we couldn’t finish everything – I hate leaving the table without finishing every last bite. Bun cha brought us down!
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Bun Bo Nam Bo was a mix of a little bit of everything. As with all bun dishes, rice noodles were the main ingredient. The bottom of the bowl was lined with lettuce, like a salad. Then beef, bean sprouts, and onions cooked together were placed on top, like a stir-fry. A bit of broth was also in the dish, like a soup. Roasted peanuts, dried shallots and mint leaves topped it all off.
That may sound like a potpourri of a lot of random things, but it actually made a lot of sense once you tasted it (after a good stir). The lettuce was the vegetable with freshness. The stir-fry added meat, oil and flavour. The broth also added flavour, plus it ensured that the dish was not so dry. All the toppings simply added more texture. I quite enjoyed bun bo nam bo and I could imagine eating it regularly.
The other cool thing about eating bun bo nam bo was the atmosphere of the restaurant we went to at 67 Hang Dieu. All the customers were seated along long metals tables with small plastic seats. The room was crowded, loud, with the usual scraps around the ground. It felt like a local joint (even though there were tourists there) with a street food vibe.
For those who don’t know, banh my/banh mi is what is known in North America as a Vietnamese po-boy or Vietnamese hoagie. Even though banh my/banh mi is technically just the bread, we will refer to it meaning the whole sandwich, with meat and vegetables and all the goodies. In Hanoi, it was spelled banh my instead of banh mi.
Bahn mys were sold by absolutely everyone. Once in front of a hair salon where the lady literally went from washing someone’s hair directly to making our banh mis without washing her hands or gloves or anything (we pretended to not see that). Once at a tour office while we were asking about tours – no big deal, the lady had a toaster beside her desk. We’ve had banh my everywhere in Hanoi, not just in restaurants or at street vendors.
As much as I am a meat eater, I have to say the toasted, crispy baguette and fresh vegetables really added to the entire experience. I loved the pickled carrots and cilantro, as well as the fish sauce and spicy sauce added. Having said that, I did appreciate a good banh mi thit nguoi. It’s a “special combo” with an assortment of meats – cold cuts, sliced pork belly, pork sausage, and liver pate.
Banh my was a great snack, a pick me up in the afternoon, or even a whole meal if we ordered two for each of us… maybe with some smoothies.
Hanoi was a great start to the Vietnamese food journey, and I knew there was only more to come as we made our way down the country known for some truly unique and great food. For more pictures of food from Hanoi, please visit the gallery!