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Head out on the street for sticky-spicy noodles and "salty pillow pastry," then retreat to a luxurious French colonial-style hotel for cocktails and live jazz.
Hanoi eats along the streets. The city’s best meals all take place within a stone’s throw of the curb, at food stalls and casual, open-walled restaurants. Locals congregate on low plastic stools scattered on the sidewalks. As motorbikes zoom by, you’ll see off-duty taxi drivers and multi-generational families slurping from big bowls of noodle soup and scooping up plates of fried rice. For most residents of Hanoi, Western-style restaurants are prohibitively expensive. Regardless, their food isn’t as good, having been designed for tourists.
There is a long list of local specialties, from Chả cá, river fish cooked in oil with turmeric and dill, to Bún ốc, snail noodle soup. Many restaurants specialize in, and serve, only one dish; here quality trumps variety, and makes restaurant hopping extremely fun.
To get the most from a single day, start as the locals do with a bowl of chicken pho in the Old Quarter, a dizzying warren of streets that spins off Hoan Kiem Lake, the unofficial heart of the city. Eat your way through the city, then take a cue from some of Hanoi’s most famous visitors and end with a drink at the historic Hotel Metropole before wandering home along the wide boulevards of the French Quarter.
Where to Eat
In Vietnam, pho is a breakfast staple; locals cue up at stalls and take down a bowl of noodle soup before heading off to work. Pho 10 opens at 6:00 a.m., and around that time you’ll see people ordering the lighter, chicken-based pho ga. If you come for lunch, order the beef pho. The key to this soup is the broth; the owners simmer their beef bones for fifteen to twenty hours with spices like star anise, cinnamon, and ginger. No matter which soup you choose, be sure to add plenty of the fresh herbs, lime, and chili sauce that comes to the table. The soup also comes with a plate of quẩy—deep fried wheat flour sticks not unlike a savory crueler—to dunk in the broth. 10 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Bahn Mi 25
For a quick, satisfying lunch, it’s hard to beat the now-famous Vietnamese sandwich known as bahn mi. The diminutive stall that houses Bahn Mi 25 has rightly earned its reputation as selling some of the best in the city. It starts with the baguettes. These little loaves might not fit a Frenchman’s ideal, but they’re perfectly tailored to this function. Crunchy on the outside and airy on the inside, the bread adds texture without overwhelming the filling. There are at least five sandwiches on the menu here, including a vegetarian option, but you should order the Mixed. This sandwich has all the fillings: a thin layer of the funky yet fresh homemade pâté, pieces of sweet barbecued pork, and slices of both jambon and sausage. All the bahn mi come with homemade sauce, a layer of fresh herbs, and pickled vegetables. 25 Hàng Cá, Hàng Đào, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
“Banh ran Ly Quoc Su”
This stall—really just a tiny woman and her large deep fryer—is so famous among locals that they simply call it by the street name. It’s easy to see what they love: For a less than a US dollar you can get a freshly fried, piping hot “salty pillow pastry.” When it cools off, bite in; the extra-flaky pastry shell of the banh goi is filled with an earthy mixture of chopped mushrooms, ground pork, and vermicelli rice noodles. Hot, fried, crispy, savory, and cheap; it might be the perfect snack. 52 Ly Quoc Su Street, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Quán Bún Chả Hàng Mành
Like so many of Hanoi’s best spots, this establishment serves one thing: bún chả. Take a seat—on the sidewalk, natch—and wait for the various plates to appear before you: a nest of cold, sticky vermicelli rice noodles (the ubiquitous “bún"), grilled pork meatballs in sauce, fresh herbs, fried crab spring rolls, thinly sliced pickled vegetables and a small bowl filled with chopped ginger and red chilis. The idea is to combine the ingredients at your leisure, dipping the noodles into the tangy broth made with vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce, and adding herbs, garlic and chilis to taste. Alternate bites of noodles with the lightly charred pork meatballs and the golden spring rolls, which are filled almost entirely with crab. Dac Kim, 1 Hàng Mành, Hàng Gai, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Where to Drink
Occupying a corner at the fringes of the Old Quarter, The Unicorn Pub is the brainchild of award-winning bartender Pham Tien Tiep. While there is a long list of classic cocktails, the best drinks employ local ingredients. For example, Under Bridge is a bright, tangy sip of tequila, kumquat, fish sauce, and ginger. In fact, the Pho Cocktail is the drink that first put Tiep on the map; he created it for the Hotel Metropole Hanoi and has since used it to take home prizes at international cocktail competitions. This Cointreau-based drink is made with chilis, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom and lime. While it does taste bizarrely reminiscent of its namesake soup, it works, offering a balanced mix of tart and warm flavors. The interior of the bar has the cozy feel of a Brooklyn dive with exposed brick walls, pinned up post-cards, and a wall of lights proclaiming the word FREE. 2 Hàng Than, Nguyễn Trung Trực, Ba Đình, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Hotel Metropole Hanoi
Since opening in 1901, this lovely French colonial-style hotel has hosted many celebrities and heads of state. Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard honeymooned here in 1936; fifteen years later, Graham Green checked in and penned much of The Quiet American. The Metropole has three bars: the streetside La Terrace, the poolside Bamboo Bar and the more formal Le Club. Head to the latter for an after-dinner drink. The menu includes the favorite cocktails of famous guests (though you may or may not want to order them— the Somerset Maugham is the author’s preferred mix of Red Wine and Blackcurrant Liquor). The drinks are expensive, but you can linger while listening to live nightly jazz. 15 Ngô Quyền, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 010000, Vietnam
Where to Stay
Hotel Elegance Diamond Hanoi
This boutique hotel is well-located in the Old Quarter, less than five minutes from Hoan Kiem Lake. Rooms are spacious and attractive, with large beds and dark wood. Breakfast is a vast buffet served on the roof, with views over the Old Quarter and the Red River.
The best feature is undoubtedly the staff. With no real public transportation, common taxi cab scams and a food scene that rewards insider knowledge, Hanoi can be challenging for tourists. Luckily, the front desk is extremely friendly and eager to help; take advantage and have them arrange a food tour of the city, reserve an airport shuttle or book a massage at the hotel’s in-house La Siesta Spa. 32 Lò Sũ, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam