Old street, new chic
In the shadows of every gleaming new office high-rise, there's a haphazard maze of narrow streets lined with quirky houses where balconies drip with bougainvillea. Life in Hanoi is still lived on these streets. Read a novel on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake, get a pedicure or a haircut, sip a beer cooled with ice cubes and, of course, scoff down a steaming bowl of pho bo. Village girls are peddling pineapples and bunches of herbs in every shade of green; vendors are deep-frying nem, or finely chopping chillies and garlic; and delivery boys dropping off the chickens. It is extraordinary how the city remains almost unchanged.
The past decade, however, has seen a welcome development in the dining scene, with delicatessens and wine stores and many destination restaurants. Thankfully, they haven't driven the myriad small outlets serving colourful, aromatic street food out of business. Here are some of Hanoi's finest, old and new.
Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole
This elegant, consistently high-quality property has one of the top breakfast buffets in the region. Served in the handsome French restaurant, Le Beaulieu, it strikes a clever balance between the Western eggs cooked any way or maple syrup-topped pancakes and the local culinary culture. French colonial history is celebrated with the terrific bread basket brought to each table, but pho is also a major feature, as are marvellous local products such as yogurt and seasonal fruit from Dalat. Resident guests can also visit The Bunker, a war-era air-raid shelter uncovered last year during renovations of the poolside Bamboo Bar.
15 Ngo Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem, tel: +84 (4) 3826 6919
Nha Hang Ngon
In a light and airy courtyard space with communal tables at the centre and a number of different kitchens around the edges, food lovers gather to sample a one-stop selection of some of Vietnam's best-loved street food. Dishes include xoi (in this case, sticky rice topped with mung beans and salty, textured deep-fried shallots), banh xeo (crispy pancake stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts, to be broken and eaten in rice paper disks with lettuce and herbs) and goi cuon (magnificent fresh spring rolls). The tamarind crab is out of this world. Two can feast for less than US$25.
26A-B Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem, tel: +84 (4) 3933 6133
Bun Cha Dac Kim
For the simple but addictive dish whose enticing aromas waft across the street, this is the most acclaimed 'restaurant' in Hanoi for iconic bun cha. In a nondescript three-storey building, diners are greeted with a mound of Vietnamese herbs, a pile of vermicelli (which is cut with scissors) and a dish of thinly sliced vegetables in a slightly sweet broth. Fresh from the grill, on the street outside, come a dish of grilled pork slices and grilled pork patties. Mix it all together and that's bun cha. Add chilli and garlic to taste.
1 Hang Manh, Hang Gai, tel: +84 (4) 3828 5022
Pots 'n' Pans
The premise of this restaurant, which opened six months ago, is to take fresh local produce and incorporate it with a broader base of cuisines. So, duck breast comes with a tamarind and eggplant compote, or spicy sausages are flavoured with lemon grass. Braised tofu with sticky rice balls and mushrooms is topped with a pile of pungent raw herbs. Everything is chic, down to the little cup in which a cold tomato soup is served. The management team are all graduates of Koto, a hospitality training programme set up to help street kids, and some of the profits go back to that organisation.
57 Bui Thi Xuan Street, Hai Ba Trung, tel: +84 (4) 3944 0204
DC Bistro Boutique
Hanoi culinary legend Didier Corlou added this convivial bistro-cum-wine shop to his restaurant portfolio a couple of months ago, and the place has taken off, particularly among the French expatriates. Included in a complex called La Verticale are a wine-tasting room and a small open bar. The food is classic, rustic bistro fare - dishes such as duck cassoulet, onion soup, couscous with chicken, and a wide choice of desserts.
15A Ngo Van So, Hoan Kiem, tel: +84 (4) 3944 0288