To the Vietnamese palate, the differences between northern and southern cuisines are pronounced. For travellers, those differences are far more subtle. One thing you can be sure, is that food will be a highlight of your Hanoi travels as it will be throughout Vietnam.
Hanoi’s French legacy is most visible in the city’s adoption of café culture. The best vantage point is one of the cafés along Hang Hanh, a lively street near Hoan Kiem Lake where young Vietnamese come to hang out. Here are some of the best:
57 Ly Thai, Hanoi (00 84 4 825 7807). A popular upmarket café that claims to brew Hanoi’s best coffee. Live jazz on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5.30pm to 7.30pm, and Sundays, 9pm to 10pm.
FANNY’S ICE CREAM
48 Le Thai To, Hanoi (00 84 4 828 5689). An arty French-owned ice cream parlour serving upmarket ice-cream (in the most original flavours in Hanoi), sorbets and desserts beside Hoan Kiem Lake.
KINH DO CAFE
252 Hang Bong, Hanoi. This café achieved legendary status when Catherine Deneuve famously complimented the owner on his yoghurts and fresh pastries, which are still very good. It is popular with locals and visitors alike.
Although Hanoi cannot yet compare with the sophistication of Ho Chi Minh City, it boasts an increasing amount of top-quality restaurants, mostly found around Hoan Kiem Lake and in the French Quarter.
3b Cha Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi (00 84 4 8288 588). Excellent food makes up for the uninspiring décor in this restaurant which caters to Hanoi’s Thai community. Try the fish in coconut and chilli or the Thai noodles.
1 Ba Trieu Street, Hanoi (00 84 4 934 8577; www.bobbychinn.com). At the high end of Ho Chi Minh City’s restaurant world, owned by the eponymous celebrity chef, Bobby Chinn’s is packed with expats and visitors. Sit by the windows for great views over Hoan Kiem Lake, and sample the organic Vietnamese dishes. Light-hearted and thoroughly researched, the menu reflects the owner’s personality: if you’re lucky, he will sit at your table and offer an irreverent commentary on local goings-on.
CHA CA LA VONG
14 Cha Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi. Cha Ca, or fried fish, is the only dish that you will find on the menu in this historic restaurant. The food is tasty and well presented, and cheap.
59 Ly Thai To, Hanoi (00 84 4 824 6950). It is worth splashing out for a more refined dining experience without breaking the bank at this upscale Vietnamese eatery. Try the grilled fish with dill.
COM CHAY NANG TAM
79a Tran Hung Dao, Hanoi (00 84 4 942 4140). Small, elegant vegetarian restaurant down a quiet alleyway off Tran Hung Dao and named after a character in a Vietnamese fairy tale. Goi bo, a main-course salad of banana flower, starfruit and pineapple is good.
18b Le Thanh Tong, Hanoi (00 84 4 826 8801). If you don’t get a chance to make it to the imperial city of Hué (some 500 km away), Hanoi’s most beautiful restaurant, Emperor is a shrine to Hué’s specialities.
28 Ha Hoi Street, Hanoi (00 84 4 942 4448; www.hoasuaschool.com). A restaurant school run by an NGO for disadvantage children, Hoa Sua serves excellently presented food with a heavy French influence served on a delightful garden patio or in an airy dining room. Reserve to sit outside at lunch-time. Try the superb desserts.
59 Van Mieu Street, Hanoi (00 84 4 747 0338; www.streetvoices.com.au). This non-profit-making restaurant, opened by a Vietnamese-Australian, is run on a rotating 18-month programme that trains street kids to be bilingual chefs and waiters.
QUAN COM PHO
27-29 Le van Huu, Hanoi (00 84 4 943 2356). Quan com Pho might tempt the culinary maverick (the menu features sautéed pig’s kidney, chicken testicles and snake head with green pepper), but the cautious may prefer to opt for tiger prawns in tamarind, beef with green chilli or tofu with black pepper and spring rolls.
6 Ngo Thi Nham, Hanoi (00 84 4 943 8896). The city’s current hot spot: take a seat in the glass-walled area at the back and order the fish stew with coconut milk and morning glory sautéed with garlic.
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