Cuisine, Culture, and Chaos on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam

There are only a few places in the world that can compare to the level of chaos found on a Vietnamese road. To an outsider it may look like a blur of motorbikes, horns, and near death street crossings. However, if you look closer, you can see what a brilliant symphony it really is. To truly understand it, you need to dive in and immerse yourself in the street culture of Vietnam.

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The first key to enlightenment is realizing that Vietnamese street culture revolves around one thing: the motorbike. With nearly 5 million motorbikes registered in the city of Hanoi alone, needless to say, they are the main means of transport. Roadside eateries, cafés, and Bai Hoi bars understand and cater to it.

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One of the quintessential Vietnamese street dishes the Bahn Mi, is the perfect on the go meal or snack for a hungry motor-biker. You might be surprised to find a sandwich on the menu in Asia, but up until the 1950’s Vietnam was under French control, and the influences can be seen it the city’s architecture, language, and cuisine. Arguably one of the best things left here from the French is the light and fluffy baguette, with a perfect crust. The bread serves as a base for the ingredients that make the Bahn Mi truly Vietnamese.

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The best way to get a real feel and taste for a city is to head to the local market and see how people shop, eat and interact. Our guide on this culinary adventure was Quan, he gave us a level of understanding that you just can’t get as an outsider. Sampling exotic fruits, local snacks, and explaining it all along the way. As we ate, talked, and walked, it all started to make sense.

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It wasn’t until the hot plate was lit, and we were seated on plastic chairs a few feet from the busy road that I truly understood. It felt good to sit street-side and enjoy a meal together, it felt very warm. It was more than the warmth of the grill, more than the warmth from the Bia Hanoi local beer, it was deeper than that. Talking, grilling, drinking, and laughing with friends new and old, everything around us melted away and the noise from the street faded as we enjoyed our meal and conversation. I thought to myself, this is it, this is what it’s all about on the streets of Vietnam.

After eating more delicious grilled meats than we probably should have, we weren’t done just yet. Desert and coffee, Vietnamese style, still awaited. Thankfully the post-dinner treat was on the lighter side, a local tradition consisting of exotic fruits topped with condensed milk, alongside shaved ice. The milk helped to sweeten the fruit and mixed with the ice; it was a kind of like ice cream if you had a bite altogether.

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The perfect nightcap overlooking the lake in the center of the town, sipping a Vietnamese specialty coffee. After spending nearly a month in the country, I have realized that the Vietnamese are slightly obsessed with condensed milk. Most coffee is served at nearly even parts coffee to condensed milk. However, to finish my night I ordered an ‘egg coffee’. Where coffee, condensed milk, and an egg are whipped together to create a foamy masterpiece. The egg suspends the coffee and milk into a full cup of foam. If you are a fan of the foam on your cappuccino you need to try one while visiting Vietnam.

Thanks for taking this ride of understanding through Vietnamese street food and culture.

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We would like to thank Viator for bringing us on Hanoi Street Food Walking Tour.

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18 thoughts on “Cuisine, Culture, and Chaos on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam”

  1. Interesting post! It seems that you tasted almost specialities of Hanoi street food. Have you tried Banh Cuon (the steamed roll rice pancake with pork and mushroom) – the dish served in breakfast?

  2. Wow, what an informative post with colorful pictures! It seems to me their food habit is bit different from SAARC countries, though the dishes look so delicious. It would be highly appreciating to have few recommended places there you really liked. And Hannah, have you ever been to Srimangal, Bangladesh? I guess you must like their 7 layers tea and hiking through tea gardens.

    • I like the sweet Vietnamese coffee, Adam on the other hand is a black coffee drinker. We find food tours are one of the best things you can do in a big city, you get to learn you way around town, learn what you like/don’t like, how much things should cost, etc. It’s a great introduction!

  3. Did you try Bia Hoi (fresh beer)? It’s crazy cheap and it allows for some great people watching as you sip it on the street!

  4. Traffic in the Old Quarter was ridiculous. And since I was going out for lunch and dinner while working from my hotel room, I just wanted to get where I wanted without having my walk impeded. Definitely would be easier to live in other parts of Hanoi. Also found the food there to be mediocre unless I spent a lot more money. I ate better in Saigon away from the backpacker areas.

    • For some reason we didn’t find the traffic that bad in Hanoi. We were staying in the Old Quarter as well, and we had prepared ourselves for complete chaos. We both agreed Ho Chi Minh was much more intense. We too found our money to go further down south, and the food was more to our liking as well.

    • Overall our time in Vietnam was really good, liked a few spots better than the other but that happens in every country we visit. We now know where we would like to return. Hanoi wasn’t nearly as crazy as other’s made it out to be. I liked the sweet coffees, but Adam likes his black no sugar no milk…

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