Insider's Guide: The Best Restaurants in Hanoi (2020)
As I sit here in another airport, my mind is singularly focused on the first bowl of pho I am going to consume upon my arrival to one of my favourite cities on earth—Hanoi. If I close my eyes and ignore the man snoring heavily beside me, and the child loosening its lungs in the far corner of this sterile airport, I can almost smell the streets, hear the honking and feel the frenetic energy of the city.
One image I can recall easily: me, sitting on a plastic stool, my face downward in a steaming bowl of pho as I take that first ceremonial inhale. The bouquet of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, green onion, and history inflate my tired travelling soul with joy, comfort and something akin to a strong hug from an old friend. After the passage of one more flight that image will be a reality.
As you may be catching on, I love Hanoi: I love its food, I love its dynamic busy streets, its hidden cafés, its cyclo drivers entreating me to take a ride at every corner. I love the plastic stools, and the French cafés, I love the smoke billowing up at the corner café—the remnants of some animal’s innards splayed out on a large cutting board so that patrons will know that it’s fresh and, therefore, unquestionably delicious. I love the women in strict heels and sharply-cut suits huddled together over a bowl of chicken’s feet, accompanied by plastic mugs of 333 beer at the end of their long workday; I love the kids fighting over the cubed-shaped treats smothered in sesame but tasting like bean curd; and I love the old men with their stained red teeth content to chew bettle nut all day and night in quiet contemplation as the city storms around them.
I even love the things I can’t bring myself to try (which isn’t much).
So where do I eat in Hanoi? Good question.
I should preface by saying, I am a nostalgic person with a loyalty problem, so some of these restaurants have been indulged by my favouritism. Of course, I continue to explore and curate my list, I check in with my sources as soon as my feet hit the ground (the influx of cool and trendy places for me to investigate is a constant as the pace of this city—and the country for that matter—continues to change), but I always make time (and a little space in my tum) to frequent my old haunts. I still find a certain, likely understandable, comfort in seeing an old friend behind the spine of a familiar menu.
Here are a few spots that I think are a must if you are going to explore the city. Be brave intrepid travellers! Pick up your chopsticks, dispose of your fears and let your taste buds be the judge!
The Old-School Institution
Cha Ca La Vong
Located on a narrow street in the old quarter, this restaurant takes its name from its one dish wonder: Cha Ca La Vong! With a sea green interior and a ladder disguised as a staircase to enter into the main floor, this is a place where English is rarely heard and you don’t have to bother thinking about what you want; instead you receive what they have, which has remained the same for decades.
A frying pan of fresh river fish will arrive at your table with a personal charcoal cooker. Accompanying this is a bowl of fresh rice noodles, peanuts and fresh herbs. As the fish starts to heat up and the smells of turmeric and dill start to bloom around you this is when you add the herbs into the frying pan (I personally like to add the peanuts at this time as well because I like them hot). Once you are satisfied that the herbs are cooked to your preference you take the fresh rice noodles and place them in your bowl, spoon up some of the fish, herbs and flavoured oil on top, add some fish sauce and chillies to further flavour (and a few more fresh herbs if that is your style) and enjoy!
The Social Club
After a satiating lunch at Cha Ca I make my way further into the old quarter for a cup of ginger lemongrass tea. I always walk so that I can digest a bit and let the street scene lift me out of my head and into the moment of chaos that is everyday Hanoi. Located on 6 Ngõ Hội Vũ, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, the Hanoi Social Club is an institution among expats and the in the know gen Xer’s of Vietnam.
Spread out over three floors, with the third floor being an outside terrace, the Hanoi Social club has a wonderfully rustic feel to it with beautifully distressed old wood furniture and rooms lightly decorated with Vietnamese art. This is a café that makes one feel a little lighter upon entering, as it tends to inspire the feeling—with me at least—that in this space one could quite likely compose a somewhat decent poem or, at the very least, read a book of decent poems and maybe even understand a few!
The menu is replete with fresh organic salads and light western inspired dishes, with just enough choice to satisfy your pickiest friend or family member. When I pass an afternoon here I leave feeling a bit more wistful, a bit more cultured and a bit closer to the best version of myself.
The Contemporary & Family Friendly
No matter where I travel there is always one day in a week when I am overcome with a need for good pizza. And I am not talking about throwing processed cheese onto some dough and tossing it mindlessly into a fire! No, I am talking about Pizza: traditional Italian pizza that is usually only found in Italy proper. Luckily, there are, in my opinion, more and more places throughout the world that are no longer satisfied with presenting the poorer cousin to pizza, the international imitator, as I call it. Pizza 4p’s in Hanoi would make an old man with white hair and a curled mustache in Naples proud.
Located at 24 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm Hàng Trống Hoàn Kiếm Hà Nội., Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, Pizza 4p’s makes its own cheese using dairy cows that graze in the highlands around Dalat. Focusing on the freshest local ingredients, each pizza tastes like it has been made with love and care and extreme attention to ratios. My favorite (if you’re looking for suggestions) is the Shrimp Mayo pizza on half and the four cheeses on the other. Then, I take the spicy oil and pour it onto my pizza (careful, it is quite spicy). I follow this with a sip of Chianti and this, my friends, I promise you, is a satisfying night out!
The Lake View
Situated on the sixth floor overlooking the watery oasis of Hoàn Kiem lake, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of Hanoi at Cau Go. Located in the old quarter, its interior gives off an eclectic French Colonial vibe without trying too hard to be fussy. Lunch and dinner features varied flavours and dishes from all parts of the country including Hanoi, Saigon and central Vietnam, with a contemporary twist. Drinks, snacks, and entrees are served daily from 10 a.m. If you can, request an outdoor table for a lovely patio view of Turtle Tower and Hanoi’s glittering lakeside.
When I’m in the mood for a bit of fusion and romance, I head over to the Green Tangerine. This restaurant has a French-inspired menu and one of the most beautiful hidden courtyards in the old quarter. I’ll take a glass of red outside in the early evening when the daylight is just starting to fade. This ritual is followed by a fusion meal of soba noodle seafood pasta and a mesclun salad and then, naturally, a treat of French-made crème brulee. I leave feeling that perfect “French full.”
When I want pho, I also want what comes with pho. I want the shared tables and the loud crowds, the chopsticks on the tables and the bowls of chilies and limes and the fish sauce that came from an old family recipe passed down from generation to generation. I want to hear slurping, and laughing and children, and I want my shoulders to be side by side with a local as we lean forward and savour our bowls noodle at a time. I want to make conspiratorial eye contact with the old woman across the table as I bring the bowl up to my mouth at the completion of the noodles and drink the remaining broth. Located on 13 Lo Duc, Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi 10000, Vietnam. Come here for the Pho and leave a changed person….or at least a satiated one!
Sometimes the colonial vibe of the city is so strong that I am pulled without choice towards the epicenter of it all—the Bamboo Bar at the Sofitel Metropole. This bar to me sums up colonial elegance and makes me feel like I am someone a little more important than I am, a little more attractive, a little worldlier.
Poolside, I usually order some light tapas off the bar menu which includes popcorn shrimp served with a spicy red chilli dipping sauce, some crudities and a cheese plate full of French cheeses that are just sharp enough to force me to follow my martini with a glass of rich French red wine. I like this bar. I like this bar a lot.
The Wild Card – Street style
Quan An Ngon
My last insider tip will be a bit of a wild card. Quan An Ngon is, to me, the best way to experience street food without being on the street. If you want to be in one place where you can try all sorts of delicious and wonderfully varied local cuisine then this is your spot. Whenever I choose to go here I am never disappointed.
I walk into the large courtyard-type atmosphere full of locals and the odd back-packer and I slowly take in the scene to realize that now, after all of these years of coming in and out of Vietnam—to a foreign country with a language that still beguiles me and ingredients that in my childhood would look like something out of a Doctor Seuss book and a pace that can feel frantic and elegant all at the same time—it feels like home. To get close, or at least within proximity, of all of my feelings above, head to 18 Phan Boi Chau Street, Hoan Kiem District.
This elegant restaurant offers a variety of delicious and authentic Vietnamese dishes plus an excellent selection of wines. Whether you opt for the delicious roasted duck, a noodle dish, fish, or seafood, Grandma’s interpretations of Vietnamese classics make for a truly memorable dining experience in the capital city.
Live Vietnamese musical performances on the dan bau and dan nhi accompany your meal. Whether you’re a large group or looking for an intimate dinner, embrace the warmth of Vietnamese hospitality in this welcoming atmosphere.