It is safe to say that my stomach naturally craves Vietnamese cuisine thanks to my Vietnamese background and growing up with my mother’s cooking, so spending 2 weeks in Vietnam was akin to entering foodie heaven. Although familiar with Southern and Central Vietnamese cooking, I wanted to acquaint myself with Northern Vietnamese food—enter the Urban Adventures Hanoi Street Food by Night Tour.
It was a wet and humid evening in Hanoi when we met Uoc, aka Lucky, on the corner of the Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter for our Urban Adventures Hanoi Street Food by Night tour.
Lucky is animated and has a charismatic personality that defies his small stature. He begins by explaining the difference between the regional differences in Vietnamese cuisine: Central Vietnamese food is spicy, Southern Vietnamese food is sweet and Northern Vietnamese is all about balance. I do notice a difference in the taste of Northern Vietnamese food compared to its Central and Southern counterparts: less use of spices and chillies, and more subtle flavours.
We don’t have to go far for our first stop of the street food tour. We literally walk a couple of metres to a nondescript street cart selling small loaves of bánh mì lathered with a secret sauce – ‘happy sauce’ – which Lucky guesses is a combination of salt, sugar, vinegar, chilli and fried onions. I take one bite of the bánh mì and I am in heaven; the bread is perfectly toasted and the ‘happy sauce’ adds a spicy tang. There is only one cart in the city open from 4 to 8 pm, and I make a mental note to return for a second serve.
We continue on the tour and wander past the street hawkers outside of the Dong Xuan Market selling fish, frogs and eels that are kept in large bubbling pans. One fish attempts to make a final dash for freedom and manages to temporarily escape its prison.
As we approach the centre of the Old Quarter, Lucky tells us to keep close to him as we cross the famous sea of motorbikes and cars. To cross the streets in Vietnam, you walk and hope for the best, although Lucky saunters across the streets as though he’s going for a casual stroll in the park.
The second stop on the food trail is to try the famous bánh cuốn at an eatery which has been in operation since 1930. We watch the women make the thin rice paper to which pork, mushroom, coriander and onion are added. The bánh cuốn is delicious and different to the Southern version that I am familiar with.
After letting the bánh cuốn settle in our stomachs, we carry on and pass the famous Hanoi train street. Lucky tells us that the dilapidated shanties that line the track are available for rent on Airbnb, but I’m not sure whether he’s being 100 per cent serious or not. We finally arrive at a busy BBQ restaurant, where we sit on short stools on small tables for two with a burner in the middle. Trays of pork, beef and vegetables are piled onto the burner to keep them warm. Beers are a good accompaniment in this instance. Lucky asks if we want to try the chicken feet or frog, but we all politely decline.
We keep moving through the streets of the Old Quarter, each street named after the product that is predominately sold on that particularly street. There is Silk Street, Shoes Street, Hat Street and Leather Street. We arrive at the St Joseph’s Cathedral, the Vietnamese version of the Notre Dame, and Lucky leaves us momentarily before coming back yielding satay pork sticks which we chomp down quickly.
It’s now time for dessert and we are led to an obscure street corner where we sit down on plastic stools and polish off our meals with fresh bowls of fruit drizzled with condensed milk. Growing up, my dessert was often a plate of fruit rather than something sweet, so this is a tradition I am familiar with.
However, the night is not yet over. Lucky leads us to an inconspicuous shopfront and we walk up some stairs to a hidden cafe which has a gorgeous view of Hoàn Kiếm Lake from the rooftop.
We are here to try a Hanoi speciality: egg coffee. Vietnam is one of the biggest coffee exporters in the world and drinking coffee is a daily ritual, although Lucky tells us that tea is more popular than coffee in Hanoi. A local invented egg coffee when milk was scarce in Vietnam, replacing the milk with egg yolk to create a similar texture. The thought of egg in my coffee didn’t sound appetising but it tastes better than I thought it would. Egg coffee is very rich, thick and sweet, almost like a runny meringue. Lucky tells us that only a few cafes in Hanoi still make egg coffees, and you need to know where to go to get a good one.
It is here that we depart ways with our bellies full and minds bursting with new-found culinary knowledge. Of course, my mind is still on the bánh mì that I had at the beginning of the tour – foodie heaven, indeed!
Urban Adventures is a division of Intrepid Travel and focuses on a new style of travel experience for those who want to get off the beaten path and really connect with a destination. You can book the Hanoi Street Food by Night Tour through the Urban Adventures website.
Disclosure: Curated by Cammi was a guest of Urban Adventures and received the tour free of charge; however, all opinions and photos are my own.
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