Food Guide to Northern Vietnam: Top Local Dishes to Try!

Food Guide to Northern Vietnam: Top Local Dishes to Try!

It’s a whole new gastronomic world compared to the South!

Vietnam’s capital has been largely touted as a foodie destination by many greats, including the late Anthony Bourdain. Nothing fulfils the perfect Vietnamese experience like sitting on a tiny plastic stool in a narrow alleyway, slurping a bowl of hot Hanoi-an Pho as endless streams of motorcycles zip past you.

So, what makes Northern Vietnamese cuisine different from its Southern sibling? To simply put it, the Southerners favour bolder and spicier flavours, while in the colder North, the locals prefer their food milder.

1. Pho Bac

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When Vietnam comes to mind, most travellers think of pho, banh mi and spring rolls. And where better to taste pho than in its place of origin? Many pho purists insist that the dish is done best here in the North as it stays true to its concept of a clear but flavourful broth.

Image credit: Nukelar Burrito

As for pho in the South, it’s said to be more “lavish” thanks to its liberal addition of extra ingredients and seasonings which are added with a heavy hand. And while both versions are worth a try, no traveller leaves Hanoi without getting a taste of the city’s oldest dish.

2. Cha Ca

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Perhaps Hanoi’s most iconic dish aside from Bun Cha (see #4!), Cha Ca is grilled fish dish that’s paired with a heap of greens and herbs, which includes interestingly enough, dill! It’s usually cooked till doneness at the table.

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Apart from greens, cha ca is also served with cold vermicelli, chopped peanuts and a very crucial ingredient – a deliciously pungent fermented fish sauce called mắm nêm. And if there’s one place you have to try it, it’s at the legendary Cha Ca La Vong, which though slightly touristy, has been proven to be the benchmark for Cha Ca in Hanoi.  

3. Banh Cuon

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A distinctly Northern Vietnamese dish, Banh Cuon is a simple but spectacular dish that’s a little lighter on the tummy and perfect if you’re food-hopping. Thin, delicate sheets of steamed rice flour pancakes are filled with a mixture of minced pork and wood ear fungus, then served with a fishy, spicy dipping sauce and cha lua, a steamed pork roll ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine – sort of Vietnamese spam, if you will!

Image credit: Kars Alfrink

Banh Cuon varies from region to region too! Some stalls serve theirs with minced shrimp in place of pork. And in the south, you can expect to see a different style where all the ingredients are separated and placed together into a bowl instead of rolled up.

4. Bun Cha

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Now this is one dish to go gaga over when in Hanoi! Think bite-sized pieces of pork belly and rustic meatballs, grilled over a charcoal fire and swimming in a tangy broth of among other ingredients, vinegar and fish sauce. It’s served with rice vermicelli and more of those fresh herbs. Devour everything together and repeat again and again until the day before your flight home!

Image credit: Chris Goldberg

Bun Cha shot to fame when Barack Obama and the late Anthony Bourdain dined together at Bún chả Hương Liên. The restaurant has since risen to godlike standards and is constantly packed full of patrons. Perhaps you’ve even read news of the restaurant immortalizing the table where they sat by encasing it in glass!

5. Xoi Xeo

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Travelling to Hanoi on a budget? For something filling, frugal yet delicious, Xoi Xeo is your best bet. Sticky glutinous rice is steamed to perfection and combined with turmeric, resulting in a slight yellow  . Topped with mashed mung beans and crunchy deep-fried shallots, xoi xeo is an unassuming yet delicious dish.

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Xoi” translates to sticky – essentially sticky rice, so you’ll actually find all kinds of xoi throughout Vietnam. The textural contrast of the glutinous rice, melt-in-the-mouth mung beans and crispy shallots of xoi xeo however, make for a unique Hanoi-an take on xoi.

6. Bun Rieu

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As you can probably tell by now, Vietnam is basically soup capital. And why not when you’ve got such an intensely savoury dish like Bun Rieu! There are a couple different types, with crab, fish or snails as its main ingredient, but bun rieu made with crab is the most popular.

where to eat in vietnam

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If you’re Singaporean or Malaysian, imagine Har Mee (prawn noodles) but with crabs instead! The broth explodes with the sweet, seafoody essence of local paddy crabs, while ripe tomatoes add a refreshing tang to the soup.

7. Nem Cua Be

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While we’re on the topic of crabs, sample some of these deep-fried crab spring rolls! The epitome of Hanoi street food and great as a side dish, nem cua be are filled with crab meat and typically folded into square-ish shapes instead of rolls.

Image credit: Guilhem Vellut

Though you can find them all over Hanoi, nem cua be are actually a speciality of the nearby coastal city Hai Phong! So instead of reaching out for your usual tried-and-true deep-fried spring rolls, try this version instead!

8. Bun Thang

where to eat in vietnam

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Don’t be fooled by its demure appearance, for Bun Thang is a noodle soup that consists of many ingredients and an elaborate cooking process. See those colourful strips on top? They are impossibly thin strips of egg, chicken shreds, dried shrimp, spring onions and cha lua (Vietnamese ham) which are neatly laid out on the surface of the soup.

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But the true gem lies below, amongst the rice noodles. The broth consists of dried shrimps, chicken bones and charred aromatics like ginger and onions, but somehow is always crystal clear!

9. Ca Phe Trung

where to eat in vietnam

Image credit: Anthony Tong Lee

To finish off the list, how about some egg coffee? You heard that right! Atop a cup of rich robusta mixed with sweet condensed milk lies a thick layer of whipped egg yolks. Half dessert. Half coffee, you’re probably going to need the help of a teaspoon!

So while you’re probably familiar with the strong and darkly roasted Vietnamese drip coffee, try cà phê trứng instead for your morning brew when in Hanoi.

About Author

Shen Lee Ng
Shen Lee Ng

A world record holding powerlifter and wannabe patissiere, Shen currently spends her days as a social media manager, English teacher and content (the fun stuff) and copywriter (the drab stuff). Her only goal before she starts the treacherous journey that is college is to inspire those around her and to eat as many as opera cakes as possible.

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