In the tasty turmoil of global gastronomy, it seems as though we’re constantly kicking ourselves for only now discovering the cuisines of places like Brazil, Peru, Senegal, South Korea, Vietnam. But there is a reason: Until recently we had never been able to eat so well, almost anywhere in the world. And perhaps nowhere more so than in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.
If you come to this city looking for an “emerging” food scene, you’ll be in for a serious shock. For the cuisine here is, by definition, completely contemporary—stimulating, simple, healthy, economical. Now is the time to go.
The streets will snap you up right away. Which is fine, as the streets are where it’s happening: haircuts, naps, funerals—lots of eating. The Vietnamese word for “street,” pho, just happens to be the name of the national soup. And it’s a perfect introduction to the city’s cuisine.
Some of the best pho in Hanoi is prepared by Nguyen Thanh Van, an executive chef at the Metropole, the storied colonial-era hotel (now run by Sofitel) in the heart of the city. One morning I tagged along while she gathered ingredients at the Hang Be market on Gia Ngu Street, and a deluge of rain suddenly descended. While we squatted under a tent for shelter, Van summed up her pho recipe. The secret, she explained, is the broth, which she makes a day ahead of time with beef bones, a piece of tenderloin, and seared shallots and ginger. The following day she adds herbs (coriander) and spices (cinnamon stick, star anise, cardamom), then a bit of the fish sauce called nuoc mam, some thin slices of beef, and thick rice noodles.
Wet to the bone, we returned to the Metropole’s Vietnamese restaurant, Spices Garden (dinner, $50; 15 Ngo Quyen St.; sofitel.com), to sample Van’s pho. She serves it very hot, with a dash of lemon juice and a few slivers of red chile pepper. This is a dish that strikes to the depth of your senses.
Pho can be had anywhere—including seated on a tiny stool on the street (see “Street Eats”)—and anytime, so the next morning I made pho my first companion of the day. It has everything: strength, health, and good humor. Once you’ve eaten your pho, you can leap into the day like a tiger, making your way across avenues teeming with motorcycles and bikes.
The streets are this city’s lifeblood. Some are even named after local specialties. There’s one avenue called Cha Ca, which is the name of a centuries-old dish consisting of wood-grilled bits of fish served on a tabletop stove with vermicelli, herbs (chives, dill, coriander, turmeric), peanuts, and a fermented fish sauce whose potency may make you feel faint. I sampled it at Cha Ca La Vong (dinner, $5; 14 Cha Ca). Be careful, as this street is full of spots with the same name. Go to number 14, where the second floor has been overflowing ever since the spot was featured in the book The 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. The food is very good, but the place is as hot as a sauna, with each customer stirring his herbs and fish on an open brazier. (To help, the empathetic management has installed tubs of ice under the tables, which also keep beers cool.) The restaurant is historic as well as unique: Founder Doan Xuan Phuc used it as a front for resistance activities against the French.
Naturally you may come across restaurants offering worms, snake hearts, even dog (which is a bit tough, distinct—a little like mutton). But I would say the most unappetizing thing I encountered was without doubt the smell of mam ruoc, a particularly pungent shrimp version of the fermented fish pastes that are used in many Hanoi dishes. Among the best things I ate, however, were the bun cha (grilled pork belly and pork meatballs with rice noodles, marinated vegetables, and herbs) and the ca kho to (typically braised fish cooked in caramel in a clay pot, with lardons and hot pepper, though there are variations).
Excellent versions of both can be found at Quan An Ngon (dinner, $8; 18 Phan Boi Chau) and Sen (dinner, $6; No. 10, Lane 431, Au Co Rd.), restaurants that are set up a bit like markets, with stalls serving traditional dishes buffet-style. These are places where local families and tourists alike come in vast numbers to indulge in seemingly endless, joyful, and boisterous banquets. The food—so explosive, so crackling with health—and the intense and colorful life on display conspire to make Hanoi’s more formal restaurants seem less appealing.
One exception is La Verticale (dinner, $45; 19 Ngo Van So; verticale-hanoi.com), near the French embassy. In this four-story house, the famed Hanoi chef Didier Corlou—who previously plied his trade at the Metropole—puts on display his passion for Vietnamese cuisine and his knowledge of spices. (A small boutique here even offers fabulous products like fresh coriander seed and marinated salts.) Corlou’s creative dishes involve sometimes risky combinations—tuna and passion fruit sauce, shrimp with strawberry—while showcasing his vibrant feeling for Hanoi’s food traditions. With Corlou’s inventive cooking and unexpected seasonal menus, the place is an experience.
So, too, is the historic Metropole itself, with the various atmospheres of its bars and restaurants. In addition to Spices Garden, there’s a new Italian steakhouse, Angelina (dinner, $50), and the nostalgic French restaurant Le Beaulieu (brunch,$60), which notably comes to life during Sunday brunch, when Hanoi’s old families mix with those whose fortunes have been more newly acquired. The sprawling buffet is even staffed with a shucker who busily opens oysters freshly arrived from Brittany. It is fascinating to observe, as is life at the hotel’s Le Club Bar, where everyone is trying to star in his or her own movie. Graham Greene used to come here, as did Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, and Somerset Maugham. (Greene favored a concoction—later named after him—of vermouth, gin, and cassis, and stayed in room 228.) Here, Hanoi seems to be one of the most obvious culinary destinations in the world. But no need to kick yourself for only now discovering it—just ask for another cassis martini.
François Simon is the food critic for the Paris newspaper Le Figaro.