The narrow, dimly lit passageway led us from the chaos of Hanoi’s Old Quarter deep into the interior of a nondescript colonial building. We emerged out the other side to a small courtyard where a team of four women sat on plastic stools inches off the ground busily working their fingers around handfuls of mung bean and black sesame paste. When wrapped in glutinous rice and cooked in boiling water these become tasty floating dessert dumplings which we later got to sample along with fermented sticky rice and caramel flan. This was the last stop of the day on our Vietnam street food exploration with Hanoi Street Food Motorbike Tour. And boy had it been a day of total flavor overload. But this tour isn’t all about gluttony. Our city exploration, led by a crew of four charming motorbike ladies, gave us the chance to check out some of Hanoi’s top attractions as well.
Our morning had started with an instruction from our guide Nga (nicknamed Money) on the art of balanced flavors in Northern Vietnam. “Everything in the North is more balanced,” Nga said as she passed around our first course to try. Bun cha, an everyday breakfast dish and soon to be personal favorite of mine, tops cold rice noodles with fatty grilled pork pieces and pickled veggies. (What’s not to love?) This is soaked in a smooth broth of vinegar, sugar, fish sauce and water. An assortment of herby leaves is typically available for flavoring but Nga was right – the taste was perfectly balanced already. Northern Vietnamese cuisine, more so than other regions of the country, subscribes to principle of yin and yang with its food expertly balancing sweetness, sourness, saltiness, hotness and bitterness.
First meal down and we were already speeding off in search of our next delectable treat. Though half my size and driving a motorbike twice her weight (with me in tow), Nga weaved us confidently through a sea of other motorcycles. Despite the heavy traffic, our pack of mottos managed to stay close most of the time, having a laugh and flashing a wave when someone new sped to the front of the gang.
It was clear that Nga, Sam and the other guides had a game plan for the day but they kept us guessing as to what our next treat would be. Next up was green sticky rice popsicles at Hoan Kiem Lake as we learned about the turtle legends. The popsicles were a clear favorite among the younger crowd. Then we snacked on a heaping plate of deep fried snacks – an eclectic assortment of sour pork rolls, savory mung bean dumplings and shrimp-fried pancakes – from one of the oldest family-run shops in town.
“We are in luck today,” Nga told us. “This food vendor walks around all day so we never know if we will find her.”
We gathered a set of tiny plastic stools and plopped ourselves down on the street next to a small seafood market of live crabs and freshly caught squid. Then we were each passed a bowl of rieu cua, crab soup with wide rice noodles, tofu and fish cakes, which we flavored with a sprinkling of green onions, bean sprouts, peanuts and a dash of spicy sauce. While I won’t be racing back out to grab another rieu cua anytime soon (I found the taste to be a little too fishy for my liking), crab is a key ingredient here in the North so we were glad to have tried one of the city’s specialties.
With our stomachs happily (if not a little uncomfortably) satiated, Nga and the team navigated us out of the Old Quarter to the great Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Uncle Ho, as he is lovingly referred, remains a highly revered figurehead in Vietnam since he lead the country to independence in 1945.
“It doesn’t matter who you are in Vietnam,” Nga explained. “Everyone respects Uncle Ho like he is family.”
It was fitting then, we thought, to be learning about the modern day history of socialist Vietnam at the very place of the nation’s greatest leader.
From the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we enjoyed a 30-minute driving tour of Hanoi from the One Pillar Pagoda past West Lake and over the dam to ceramic street. Our sightseeing ended with a ride over the Red River on the 110-year old Long Bien Bridge, a cultural and historic monument of significance for Hanoi.
Of course no Hanoi street food tour is complete without a stop for traditional egg coffee – or ca phe trung. I was unsure what to expect as egg whites sounded like a rather odd ingredient to blend with coffee then fold into sugar. However the rich and frothy consistency of the egg mixture was divine and made this more like another dessert than a casual drink.
And as if we needed more food to stuff ourselves with, we enjoyed our ca phe trung with a classic grilled banh mi sandwich. The secret to this Vietnamese street food snack – the baguettes are made from a combination of rice flour and wheat flour which gives it a chewier consistency. The baguette is stuffed full of pate, cucumber, onions, herbs and chilis, among other things I’m sure which I prefer not to know about because it just tastes so good.
Experiencing the strong food culture of Hanoi is a must when you are in Vietnam’s bustling capital. We found guided motorcycles the perfect way to explore both Hanoi’s foodie scene as well as its top attractions. It took the stress out of having to get around, let us explore way further outside of the Old Quarter and allowed us to experience Hanoi the way locals do, on mottos. The team of female drivers/guides were safe and friendly.
What: The street food culture of Hanoi is really one that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. Sure you could wander around and find tasty treats on your own, but the insider knowledge of our local guide Nga helped us to find flavors and understand Northern Vietnamese cuisine way more than we otherwise would have on our own. Our team of motorbike guides made our street food tour of Hanoi experience fun and easy and we really felt like we were getting a glimpse of local life in the big city.
Where: The Hanoi Sightseeing and Street Food Tour centers its food exploits around the Old Quarter but you venture further afield to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda, West Lake and Long Bein Bridge.
When: All year round! But we did find the weather a bit chilly in February, especially on the backs of mottos with the wind blowing, so come prepared with jackets and scarves if you are visiting between December and February.
How: Travel like the locals do – on motorbikes. The team of motorbike guides made our street food tour of Hanoi experience fun and easy and we really felt like we were getting a glimpse of local life in the big city.
Cost: US$59 for the four-hour tour of major attractions plus street food on motorbike
Our Hanoi street food tour on motorbike was provided by Hanoi Motorbike Street Foods (+84 04 3926 0804, [email protected], www.hanoistreetfoods.com). If you are considering this tour be sure to ask for Nga! As always no matter who is footing the bill, the opinions on Bold Travel remain our own!