This is an article in the 36 Hours In… series. To find more in the series, head here.
Welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city! It’s a chaotic, buzzing city that is a lot of fun. The Old Quarter is a rabbit warren of crooked streets selling anything and everything, and of course it is filled with hundreds of sellers of street food.
The best aspect of Hanoi, we think, is the food. It’s one of the world’s great food cities, and as lovers of Vietnamese cuisine we made a plan to visit many spots recommended by various travel guides, bloggers, chefs and other websites while we were there.
And eat we did! My goodness, we stuffed ourselves during those days in Hanoi. We hope you like this food oriented itinerary for 36 hours in Hanoi – we’ve provided a range of meals with a slant towards street restaurants. ‘Normal’ restaurants are relatively overpriced and the food isn’t as good as restaurants that specialise in one or two dishes.
Check out the map at the end which lists all the places mentioned in this post.
Start your weekend in Hanoi as the Hanoians do – by sitting on a tiny child sized stool with a draught beer (bia hoi) in hand, on famous Bia Hoi Corner in the Old Quarter (corner of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen). All the locals are there so you might find yourself the subject of an English practice conversation! The beer is very light and not cooled, but it’s lovely and refreshing, and the perfect start to a night in Hanoi.
For dinner, head to Bun Cha Ta on Nguyen Huu Huan for this grilled pork and noodle dish (bun cha) that is thought to have originated in Hanoi. At Bun Cha Ta you’ll get flavoursome pork mince patties loaded with herbs, cold vermicelli noodles, lettuce, fresh herbs like Vietnamese mint and basil, as well as some pork fried spring rolls. It’s a big meal but you’ll savour every bite!
The restaurant goes up over a few floors, and the floor we were on was very hot – they try to cool you down by turning on these massive industrial fans but it’s a bit weird to eat when you feel like you’re in a wind tunnel! We’d recommend trying to get a table on the bottom floor by the entrance.
If you feel like a sweet treat, try to find a stall selling cream rolls – we got ours on Hang Bac near the intersection with Ma May. These rolls are made on a freezing cold metal plate and can be flavoured with all sorts of different things – the stallholders have multitudes of sauces! We had chocolate and it was delicious.
Accommodation in Hanoi
There is a massive amount of hotels in Hanoi’s Old Quarter – it can get quite overwhelming when searching for a place to stay! You can easily get a decent, clean room for less than $40 USD – you really don’t need to pay more than that. Be aware that many rooms won’t be quiet though, as the buildings are packed in close together and you might wake up at 6 am with a jackhammer sounding like it’s coming through the wall!
We stayed at a hotel called La Beaute de Hanoi – a slightly weird name but a nice place to stay, with a comfy bed, a good sized room and friendly staff. The location was great, on an alley so there was no motorbike noise, and about a two minute walk from Bia Hoi Corner.
Luckily, the Old Quarter is a pretty small place – it looks big on a map but that’s only because the streets are crammed so close together! So, wherever you’re staying, you won’t be more than 15 minutes walk away from any of the food outlets in this blog post.
For your first breakfast in Hanoi, we recommend starting with ca phe sua da – Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. Yes, you read that right, condensed milk. These coffees are to die for, with the cold bitter coffee, the clink of ice cubes, and the sweet thick condensed milk offsetting each other in the most delicious way. Our favourite place for iced coffee was at Cafe Hieu on Bat Dan – try and get a chair on the footpath if you can!
Onto the main event – pho. Pho is perhaps Vietnam’s most famous food export and you can find it all over the world. But nothing compares to a steaming bowl of pho in the place where it all began – Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Head to Pho Gia Truyen, also on Bat Dan, and line up with the locals for one of the city’s best bowls of pho. This place, like many other small family run restaurants in Vietnam, specialises in one dish and they do it very well.
You’ll see the husband and wife team chopping the meat, dividing the noodles into bowls, dishing up the soup and piling on the toppings – spring onions and herbs in this case. Hanoi pho is much simpler than its southern equivalent – no great bunches of herbs to be seen here. But it’s no less delicious, in fact we think that the pho at Pho Gia Truyen was our favourite of the whole trip!
After downing your big bowl of pho, it’s time to see the sights of Hanoi. The best way to do this is by cyclo – you sit in the front and a man (usually very old and wiry, and he won’t speak much English) will pedal you around. We heard all sorts of stories about being completely ripped off by these guys, but we didn’t have that experience.
We paid 150,000 VND (about $7 USD) for an hour, which we thought was completely worth it. We were taken around the streets of the Old Quarter (you may have already had a walk around, but you see so much more when you’re not concentrating on avoiding being hit by motorbikes or looking for potholes on the road!) and also around the French Quarter, which is not as charming as the Old Quarter but contains some lovely French architecture.
You’ll probably get dropped off your cyclo in the Old Quarter, but if your driver speaks a bit of English you might be able to negotiate for him to drop you at your lunch spot.
Banh Mi 25 was probably our favourite place to eat in Hanoi. I know that’s saying a lot, but it was so damn good! Banh mi are Vietnam’s version of the sandwich, but of course it’s done Vietnamese style.
Banh mi baguettes are made with rice flour as well as wheat flour, which makes them light and fluffy, unlike their European counterparts. Then the baguettes are filled with all sorts of ingredients which changes depending on the stall you go to, and which part of the country you’re in. Usually, there’s pork pâté, other meat (may be one or more of chicken, grilled pork, pork patties, Vietnamese sausage, meatballs, and so on), as well as cheese, sliced chilli, egg, pickled carrot, cucumber, and of course the ubiquitous herb coriander.
Banh Mi 25, when we visited, was #2 on TripAdvisor out of all restaurants in Hanoi. That’s seriously impressive for a tiny sandwich stall! It seems all the tourists know about it too, because all three times we went there (I know, slight obsession, but if you go there you’ll agree!) the seven or so tables were filled with foreigners and the odd street food walking tour turned up too.
My favourite was the grilled chicken one or the BBQ pork one, and Shaun’s favourite was the ham (jambon) banh mi. The owner is super friendly and won’t force you off the tables, even if it is busy. We loved enjoying a beer with our sandwich while watching the chaos of Hanoi pass us by.
After lunch, you might want to wander around Hoan Kiem Lake, the rather dirty lake to the south of the Old Quarter. Unfortunately the sacred turtle died a few years ago so you can’t spot him any more. There’s a good ice-cream place along the lake shore that is way cheaper than the stores in the Old Quarter!
Although the lake is a bit gross, the gardens surrounding it, especially at the southern end by the French Quarter, are lovely. It’s nice to escape to the frenetic pace of the roads and sit in the shade. You won’t escape the entrepreneurs of Hanoi though – you’ll get offers of shoe shining (even if you are wearing sandals like we were), water bottles, hats, and numerous other items for sale.
Get up above the streets and beat the afternoon heat by having a cold drink at Cafe Pho Co on Hang Gai. This place is a bit hard to find, so we’ve included a photo below of the entrance. Go down the narrow dark alleyway and you’ll come out in a lovely space with loads of plants. Order your drink at the counter and they’ll show you up to the roof deck.
If you’re afraid of climbing slightly rusty spindly stairs, perhaps you should give this place a miss – but the views over Hoan Kiem Lake and the surrounding buildings are great – and you’ll get a refreshing breeze up there too! It’s impressive how the waiter carries all the drinks up the tiny staircase too. We had a yogurt coffee which was thick, kind of like ice cream. It was good but a bit random! Cafe Pho Co serves the full range of Vietnamese coffees as well as beers.
Back on the streets, it’s drinks time! Before dinner, you can check out the bars on Ta Hien – there’s a great bar called The Hill Station that serves craft beer from Ho Chi Minh City’s Pasteur Street Brewing Co.
It was refreshing to have a beer with some flavour – the beers like Hanoi and bia hoi are refreshing but they leave a lot to be desired in terms of taste! Pasteur Street’s IPA is a winner. The craft beer is expensive but if you visit during happy hour it’s two for one – definitely a good deal!
Another favourite restaurant for dinner was Bun Bo Nam Bo on Hoang Dieu. This restaurant is a one-dish restaurant, which serves (you guessed it!) a dish called bun bo nam bo. This loosely translates to beef noodle salad, and it’s so good.
The marinated beef is served on cold vermicelli noodles with lettuce, herbs, fried shallots, peanuts, sliced chilli, and nuoc cham – the sour and salty sauce made with fish sauce, chilli and lime juice. The dish is fresh, tangy, and light. We went back there twice – it was delish!
After dinner, check out the night market that runs down the road called Nguyen Thien Thuat from Dong Xuan Market towards Hoan Kiem Lake. The shopping is pretty average (every third stall sells the same thing) but it’s fun to wander around and get amongst the local kids doing their shopping. There is a food section by Dong Xuan Market too if you’re still hungry!
It’s hard to go past the amazing pho for breakfast – we couldn’t! We loved the pho at Pho Gia Truyen so much we went there a couple of times. One thing we do when we’re travelling is that if we find a place that serves really good food, then we’re likely to go back there again. Why not have a good meal again rather than risk having a bad one?
Cong Caphe has great coffees and cocktails (obviously the cocktails are for the other end of the day!), and the decor is really cool too with a military theme combined with the rustic Hanoi charm. There are a number of branches around the Old Quarter.
If you’re into seeing some different sights, head to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum before 11 am (that’s when it closes). HCM was the father of Vietnamese independence and many Vietnamese people, especially in the north, refer to him as ‘Uncle Ho’. We didn’t visit the mausoleum on this trip but I have in the past – the monument is quite imposing and there are lots of rules, including no cameras, hats, or shorts. You can also see HCM’s house in the complex near the mausoleum.
On your last afternoon in Hanoi, what else is there to do but eat some more? There are so many great places for food, so you could go back to a favourite stop or find somewhere new. You might want to try goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) or banh xeo (crispy pancake) – we didn’t find any great places to eat these in Hanoi but I’m sure there are some!
Just make sure you avoid the touristy (i.e. expensive and crap food) places. We read Jodi from Legal Nomads’ tips on how to eat street food to avoid getting sick – and aside from one episode of a sore stomach we weren’t sick, and we ate fresh vegetables and salad.
Take one last walk around the buzzing Old Quarter, and pick up some bits and pieces if you fancy shopping. There’s tons to buy – from fake North Face jackets to ‘Breitling’ watches, and also local textiles and art. Remember to get lost once or twice, and go wandering into the little skinny alleys. The Old Quarter is bursting with charm and you’ll come across more than a couple of food markets right on the footpath – photo opportunities abound!
Hopefully you leave Hanoi with a full belly and a better understanding of the city’s food and culture. We think that the best way to get to know a place is through its food, and we were so happy we made the effort to do some research and seek out the best places to eat – we certainly had some excellent meals.
Thanks to La Beaute de Hanoi for sponsoring our stay. As always, you’ll receive our honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill!
Have you been to Hanoi? Where were your favourite places to eat? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!