If you, like us at SBS Food HQ, live by the motto “make every meal count”, you’ll be deeply empathetic at how the mere mention of a trip to a food city such as Hanoi will send us Googling and scrolling through Instagram hashtags for hours with mastermind-dedication to pull together the ‘perfect’ what-and-where-to-eat itinerary.
As soon as this writer landed in the tropic monsoon haze of Hanoi, with only 48 hours to eat all the noodle soups in the canon of Vietnamese cooking, I realised that such a list does little more than set oneself up for FOMO anxiety. (I can eat a lot, but I’m no ultra-marathoner like chef Dan Hong, say.) The list I had was only good for checking off places where others before me had eaten and sending me home one dress size bigger.
Now, Hanoi is a city that knows how to eat. It is possibly the greatest city to eat in. However, like crossing any five-pronged intersection in Hanoi, alive with the whir of zipping mopeds, choosing where to eat on the street takes daring.
Vietnam’s street food has a history of big moments – notably when Anthony Bourdain shouted then US President Barack Obama to a bowl of bún chả in Hanoi in 2016; before that in 2000, during his visit as the first US President to tour Vietnam since the war, Bill Clinton slurped a bowl of a phở gà (chicken noodle soup) in Ho Chi Minh City (both dishes are now affectionately referred to by locals as Obama Noodle and Clinton Noodle); while phở bò (beef) – arguably Vietnam’s most famous noodle soup – made its debut on the country’s national carrier Vietnam Airlines’ in-flight menu and in airport lounges in 2016 and 2015 respectively.
Just walking around in a city of 7.7 million people, hoping the food gods will smile down on you may be daunting, especially if eating on the street is a brow-furrowing concern, so hold tight this excellent advice from veteran street food tour operator, Mark Lowerson. Having lived in Melbourne before transplanting himself to Hanoi in 2002, Lowerson has been running Hanoi Street Food Tours with local guide Van Cong Tu for the past 12 years.
The traveller’s adage “if there’s a queue, join it” rings true in Hanoi when it comes to choosing which place to eat at as locals are fiercely loyal to particular street food vendors.
“A crowded environment is the number one thing you look for,” enthuses Lowerson. “You want to seek out places where there are a lot of local people eating and drinking. I've been eating at the same vendors for as long as 17 years. They're all well established, and it's actually quite difficult for someone to get traction as a new vendor because people don't really give them a chance, if it's not as good as their regular vendor.”
And keep in mind that a busy stall equals a messy stall – beware the spruced and sanitised establishment.
“The vendors are so busy and their first priority is to feed people; cleaning up is a secondary concern,” Lowerson tells me matter-of-factly. “You’ll notice there is a lot of refuse underfoot, like napkins and discarded bits of lime and bones and whatever else. That all gets cleaned up at the end, but its no reflection on the hygiene of the vendor,” reassures Lowerson.
“What you’re looking for is an environment that's messy underfoot, because that's a sign that the ingredients are turning over quickly, it’s a popular place, there’s plenty of traffic and they’re serving something really good. You’ve got to set aside any prejudices about the environment in which you're eating.
“Kitchens – if you can call it a kitchen – are generally very visible, so you can see how the dish is assembled and what the ingredients are. If you like the look of it, you just have to use a bit of bravado, smile, and say, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ kind of thing.”
So, with Lowerson’s wise words echoing in my head, I mindfully put my list aside, set out on foot from my hotel at 6am to the famed Hoan Kian Lake to do qigong with locals and let the day’s eating unfold around the Old Quarter.
The best chance of finding the crowds is to eat at the same time as locals. Breakfast rush hour is from 7am to 8.30am. The meal is typically eaten when people are on their way to work or school – it’s very rarely taken in the home – and it’s usually a noodle soup of some kind. Although in Australia we take to eating noodle soups at all times of the day, here in Hanoi (and the rest of the country), noodle soups are the first meal of the day; vendors will make a cyclo-sized vat of soupy goodness and once it’s sold out, they close up shop.
“If you like the look of it, you just have to use a bit of bravado, smile, and say, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ kind of thing.”
Although phở bò (beef) is found all over the country, Hanoians believe their version to be the best, naturally. The soup we’ve come to know (and love) as phở in Australia, with its plate of piled-high, pick-your-own herbs and flourish of bean sprouts, and a broth fragrant with star anise, cinnamon and spices, is the distinctive Ho Chi Minh City style. Here in the north, phở is much simpler: there are no herbs on the side, no bean sprout pyramid and fewer condiments on the table, and that’s because Hanoians believe that “the broth should speak to you rather than what you're adding to it,” says Lowerson. On the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, phở bò might come with delicate spring onion tops and baby coriander leaves bobbing in a see-to-the-bottom-of-your-bowl clear broth, perhaps some pickled red chillies on the side, or the garnish of choice for phở gà (chicken) may be nothing more than needle-thin shreds of makrut lime leaves.
With phở bò and phở gà in my belly already, I’m on the hunt for my third bowl of noodles for the morning. I settle on a skinny bolthole, with a rotund lady sitting on a tiny red stool, sipping tea from a chipped thimble of a cup, her face enveloped in a cloud of wispy steam from the battered pot she’s tending. She raises her eyebrows briefly, which seem to say: “Sit here. I will feed you.”
Her broth is transportive. But I don’t know what I’m eating. I have never tasted it before. There is nothing like this in Sydney. Her shingle says “bún riêu cua”. A quick Google reveals I’m eating ‘pork, crab and tomato noodle soup’. (Later I learn the riêu is pronounced with a ‘zi’ in the north, whereas in the south, it’s with a ‘ri’.) The owner points to a basket full of sprightly herbs and motions me to add some to the soup. With no guide or translator to ask, “how long do you cook this for?”, “how do you get all that crab flavour in there?”, “where can I buy these spongy fried tofu puffs bobbing in my soup?”, “what’s this bitter green herb coiled up like a shell?”, it’s actually bliss to just enjoy every slurp without over-analysing it.
I once overheard someone say “a city becomes your world when you fall in love with one of its inhabitants” but, for me, that point of engulfment comes when you fall in love with its food. And this bowl of bún riêu cua was my tipping point.
Later I caught up with Nguyễn Văn Tú, Iron Chef Vietnam and Chairman of the Hanoi Chefs Association, and found out his favourite noodle soup is my new bae, bún riêu cua. He nods to me, "I know the best place", and generously offers to take me the next morning. I am immediately filled with FOMO anxiety all over again as I’m due to fly out of Hanoi. Regretfully, I politely decline.
What I’ve learnt (read: keep telling myself now that I’m back here in Sydney) from my first, second and third breakfasts noodle-soup tour of duty is that a must-eat vetted list is a security blanket; experiences are richer and all the more treasured because you found it and you loved it. It will be the best*. That is how I discovered the best noodle soup worth travelling to Vietnam for.
Vietnam Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Hanoi and 22 other destinations in Vietnam. Business Class passengers flying from March 2019 will experience a new menu with two new signature dishes created by Vietnamese-Australian chef and SBS Food television host Luke Nguyen.
The writer travelled as a guest of Vietnam Airlines to eat all the noodle soups she could.