Hanoi, Vietnam: Taste the city's best pho and banh mi on a walking tour

I'm on a walking tour through Hanoi's "old town", the rabbit warren of narrow streets, low rise buildings and endless fascination which pre-dates the French colonial rule over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. And frankly, I'm baffled.

Huy, my guide, has promised me a culinary introduction to the cuisine of north Vietnam. So why is our first stop a stall operated by one woman with a deep fryer?

Money is exchanged, and Huy hands me a small, deep fried Vietnamese roll, encased in paper tissue.

"Be careful," he says. "This will be hot, but it will be like no other spring roll you've ever tasted. This lady sells more than 500 spring rolls every day.

"They're made of pork, bean sprouts, mushroom and egg, wrapped in rice paper, the best in Hanoi. Be sure to taste the egg."

Though dubious, once I taste the spring roll I'm a convert. It's hard to imagine how anything deep fried can be so light and crisp while still retaining the flavours inside. But Huy is already leading us on to the next stop.

Again, his choice of "restaurant" seems perverted. We enter a small bakery with those tiny plastic chairs built only for flexible Asian adults and kindergarten children. Huy shames me by saying that, being Australian, I will "of course" be familiar with a Vietnamese staple – a baguette filled with the flavours of south-east Asia.

Sadly, however, I'm about to taste my first banh mi. This one contains shredded pork, pate, coriander, cucumber, spices and the speciality house sauce. Delicious: this is fast food as it should be served.

Meandering on foot through the old city – and dodging the rickshaws, motorbikes and cars which share these streets – our next stop is a bar that serves "fresh" draught beer. As I understand it, this beer has to be drunk within a day of leaving the Hanoi brewery or as Huy explains, "it will go sour."


"Zo," exclaims Huy, raising a glass and using the equivalent of "cheers" in Vietnamese.

We're here on a Friday afternoon, the best time for Westerners to sit, watch and experience Hanoi relaxing, Huy says. This is the time when hard-working people, so focused the rest of the week, head to "Old Hanoi" to let their hair down for an hour or two.

Sure enough, four female friends enjoy a noisy noodles catch-up at our next stop. Again, it's nothing fancy. "The secret of a great pho is the broth," Huy explains about the succulent soup that is now almost as well recognised around the world as spaghetti Bolognese.

"Each family has its own secret recipe adding cinnamon, spring onion, garlic or whatever. And, of course, we have 1000 different noodles in Hanoi."

Really? A thousand noodles?

"Well, at least 100," Huy laughs. "You're eating the classic traditional chicken pho, with rice noodles cooked in a chicken broth." As we talk, the woman in charge of this noodle bar prepares the chicken bones for tomorrow's breakfast broth.

"These noodle bar staff will be up at 4 or 5am to start making the broth," Huy says. "Pho is a popular breakfast, so the broth needs to be perfect."

Our final stop on the food tour answers a question I've been dying to ask since I arrived in Hanoi. What exactly is "egg coffee"?

On "coffee street" – most streets in Hanoi's old city have a speciality, even though it means every outlet is selling the same metal birdcages, shoes or silver jewellry as the next one – Huy suddenly darts into a tiny alleyway. It leads to a cafe that should be a secret except it seems to be frequented by just about every student in Hanoi.

While Huy orders me an egg coffee, I sit again on one of those ludicrously low chairs. As my drink is delivered, a young Vietnamese woman asks if she can sit on the vacant chair opposite.

"Is this your first egg coffee?" she asks as she watches me spoon the upper layer of egg custard into my mouth before drinking the lower layer of coffee.

"You've come to the right place. This cafe serves the best egg coffee in Vietnam!"

I feel proud, even though I'd prefer my creme brulee served separately from my cafe au lait. But that's Hanoi for you.


Steve Meacham was a guest of Wendy Wu Tours.





Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Australia to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. See vietnamairlines.com


Sofitel Legend Metropole has three suites devoted to former guests, Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. See sofitel.accor.com


See wendywutours.com.au