Eating in Northern Vietnam

Visiting Vietnam in the spring of 2016 was a dream come true.  We began in the north, going from Hanoi to Sa Pa on an overnight train for a two-day trek, then back to Hanoi on another (much bumpier) overnight train, then a van to Ha Long Bay for an overnight junkboat tour through the Cat Ba Bay, and finally back to Hanoi for a final meal before yet another overnight train to Hue.  Despite having limited time there, I fell in love with Hanoi and have ached to go back since.

bun cha 01

Bún Chả Đắc Kim*:  I’d had plenty of pho in Philly, but our first stop in Vietnam would be a dish we were unfamiliar with outside of other peoples’ descriptions—bun cha—and it was the perfect primer.  Pork patties grilled streetside, combined with fresh noodles, a tangy fish sauce-based dipping sauce, and a plate piled high with lettuces and herbs I hadn’t seen before welcomed us to the country, as did a few bottles of local cheap-ass lager.

Phở Kiều Chuyên Bò: For dinner, Hanoi offered us our first bowl of beef pho and a wonderful plate of spicy beef stir fry at a small, standard cubbyhole of a restaurant. In a place packed to the gills with tiny family-run restaurants, we followed the first rule of eating on the road when you don’t have a place already picked out: eat where the locals eat.  And the tiny plastic stools outside were filled with locals.  They didn’t steer us wrong.

homestay 01

Homestay in Sa Pa: The homestay mom cooked us a full meal in a kitchen that was little more than an open fire with a few pots and pans, teaching us to roll spring rolls before serving them along with tofu with tomatoes, chicken with vegetables and fruit, garlic fried cabbage, pork with onions, and rice.  It was way too much food for the five of us staying there (including the homestay mom), but I tried my damnedest to make sure there were no leftovers.  We were all rewarded with “happy water” shots for our troubles.

pho thin

Quán Phở Thìn: After Ha Long, we were dropped off at the Hanoi Hilton (sorry) in the French Quarter and walked to Pho Thin.  I’d just read Graham Holliday’s Eating Vietnam, and amidst all the names and food descriptions he threw out, this was one that stuck in my head, and damn I’m glad it did.  We took a seat at one of the communal tables, bright orange chili sauce waiting next to us, and were each brought a bowl of beef pho absolutely loaded with green onions and other vegetal goodies.  The beef, rather than simply cooking in the hot broth, was grilled and added a smoky flavor to the soup.  It was—and still is—the absolute best bowl of pho I’ve ever had.  As a fellow traveler told us as he was leaving, “After this, everything else is just water.”

After coming back to Philly and trying to search out as perfect a bowl of pho as we had at Pho Thin, I believe him.

*Be careful with this one – there are two bun cha places right next to each other, and as we learned too late, we ate at the wrong one.  Next to the famous bun cha place, an imposter popped up to target unknowing tourists, which we were. Don’t eat at the one directly on the corner—though it was delicious—eat at the one next to it with the yellow sign.

All pictures other than the Pho Thin picture were taken by LeeAnne Mullins.