Do you like Vietnamese food? Have you got a favorite dish? I was never a big fan, even after I arrived in Vietnam. Then I did the old quarter street food tour in Hanoi and now I’m hooked.
I booked the Hanoi Old Quarter Street Food Walking Tour with Trazy. The tour guide Lan met my travel companion and me at our hostel and the next four hours were complete bliss. Gluttonous, decadent bliss that left me in a food coma that night, and begging for more right up to the moment I flew back to Thailand a couple days later. The only thing I can’t figure out is why I waited until my second to last day in Vietnam to take the tour, when my advice is always to take a walking or food tour (or both) as soon as you arrive in a new city.
- Trazy Tours
- The Epic Tour Guide, Lan
- Seeing the French Influence Upon Hanoi and its Cuisine
- What the Pho?
- Falling in Love with Egg Coffee
- Local Beer, Bánh Cuốn, Pork Sticks and Coconut Ice Cream on Sticky Rice
- Going Back for More
- Booking the Old Quarter Street Food Tour in Hanoi
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- Further Reading
Trazy.com is an online booking agency primarily focusing on Thailand and South Korea, but now moving into Vietnam with a handful of tours between Hanoi and Hoi An. During my week in Vietnam, I booked two tours with them, one a food tour and the other a tour to Halong Bay – one of the seven new wonders of the world.
Booking with Trazy.com is a great way to avoid the more questionable tours offered on the streets of Hanoi. The booking process with them is very simple. It takes just a few minutes on their website, and you’re ready to go. It was nice not to have any paper tickets or confusions with the tour group. However, even though they have a full description of their tours on the website, I had no idea just how much of a treat they would be.
The Epic Tour Guide, Lan
Our tour was scheduled to start at 6 p.m. I got back to the hostel a few minutes before 6, and the tour guide was already there and ready. We had seven stops as part of the tour, but her knowledge extended way beyond food. She’s Vietnamese and grew up not far from Hanoi. She’s lived in the city for eight years and has a fantastic knowledge of architecture, history and other fun facts. I’d built up quite a few questions while I’d been in the country, and she was able to answer them all.
Photo credit: Donna Cooper
Lan is a private tour guide with her own company – Tours with Lan. She works every day and is very passionate about delivering the best service possible. I’m so glad Trazy works with her for their food tour. By her choice of restaurants, I got the idea that she had sampled every option in the city during her years living there and only brings the tour to the best ones. Verily, several locations she brought us to had a line out front, and sometimes we had a bit of difficulty getting a seat. Those are always my favorite places to visit, and I certainly couldn’t complain. Then again, the Vietnamese are really friendly and were happy to make room for us each time.
Seeing the French Influence Upon Hanoi and its Cuisine
France controlled Vietnam for over six decades up until the 1940s when Japan took control. Remnants of their occupation can definitely be seen in the Vietnamese cuisine. This is most evident in banh mi – the Vietnamese baguette. The quality of these vary wildly in Hanoi, but Lan brought us right to the best ones in town. We had the special…with a twist. You’ll have to take the tour to find out all the ingredients and experience just how delicious it is, but I really liked how the Vietnamese put several twists on the common French dish.
What the Pho?
First of all, it’s not pho. It’s phở, pronounced fah. The second thing I learned was that the phở I’ve had previously, which I didn’t really like, didn’t come anywhere near to how good it was on the tour. Certainly not all phở in Vietnam is wonderful, but Lan went into detail on exactly how to find the best phở restaurants. The one she took us to just blew my mind.
Vietnamese food prides itself on creating the perfect balance of flavors. Our beef phở (phở go) was an amazing example of this. The spices in the dish included cinnamon, cardamom and anise. I’ll spoil one fact which is that the best phở restaurants serve either chicken or beef phở, but not both. But you’ll have to take the tour to find the best restaurant in town. It was so good that I was more than happy to go back the next night for seconds.
Falling in Love with Egg Coffee
Did you know that, after Brazil, Vietnam is the second-top country in the world for coffee production? In fact, they produce twice as much as Colombia! In addition to their staggering output, they also have some specialty coffee drinks which are simply divine.
Vietnamese coffee is generally served very strong. I had an iced Vietnamese coffee with nearly as much condensed milk in the cup as coffee, and it was still almost too strong. It’s not uncommon for the coffee to be served black, although that’s on par with Turkish sludge…I mean kahvesi. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a cup of Turkish coffee now and then…when I’m in Turkey. But it’s certainly not for everyone.
On the other hand, Vietnamese’s gift to the coffee culture is egg coffee. Yeah, that probably sounds a little odd…perhaps more than a little. But if you like tiramisu, you’ll love egg coffee. The ingredients are similar, sans ladyfinger biscuits in the egg coffee. Both use coffee, eggs and sugar. Tiramisu has mascarpone cheese and optional marsala wine, while egg coffee has condensed milk and optional rum. You could also imagine it as an espresso with a custard topping.
Lan took us to a hidden gem of a cafe, just a few feet from the center of the Hanoi Old Town, which was run by the daughter of the man who invented egg coffee! They have a secret recipe that they’ve been using since its inception and, while the drink has been copied all around the country and hence the world, Lan guaranteed this place served the best. I had no reason to argue.
Local Beer, Bánh Cuốn, Pork Sticks and Coconut Ice Cream on Sticky Rice
The tour isn’t always the same and depends on the number of participants, the time of the day, dietary restrictions, etc. In addition to the food mentioned above, we had four other stops, each one just as good as the last. All were located in the old quarter, and we didn’t walk more than a mile or so throughout the whole tour…which was a blessing considering how distended our stomachs became by the end.
The local Hanoi beer, called Bia Hoi, is a true specialty. It’s brewed all over town over several weeks, but then only lasts 24 hours once the keg is opened. Some places are much better than others. Obviously, Lan took us to one of the best. The percentage is only about 2-3%. It’s no secret that I’m not a big beer fan, but this was actually surprisingly good.
As to the bánh cuốn, even now I’m not really sure how to describe it. The proper description is Vietnamese steamed rice rolls, but that hardly conveys their true nature. The flimsy rice wrappings are made in a few seconds and then filled by hand with pork bits, vegetables and different spices. At the table, we made our own dip of broth, rice vinegar, garlic, cilantro, pepper and other flavors. How did they taste? Don’t laugh, but the only word I can think of is yummy!
Even the pork sticks in Hanoi were better than the hundreds I’d eaten in Thailand. They were bigger, better flavored and had a line of sweet chili sauce. I could have taken half a dozen if I hadn’t been on the tour.
Finally there was dessert. The hole in the wall Lan took us to had 60 options to choose from. We got the kem xôi, or coconut ice cream on green sticky rice. The rice is green because it’s young and thus still has its green color. The coconut ice cream was fresh and filled with chunks of coconut. On top were raw and toasted coconut flakes. Now that was a challenge not to have several more servings.
Going Back for More
The next day, I went out for a tour with Trazy to Hanoi Bay, but we got back into town in time to return to the phở restaurant before they ran out of food. This time, I met up with Cez from ETramping and his partner Lydia from Lydiascapes, who we had actually run into the previous night on the street just before we made it to the cafe for egg coffee! Talk about a small world. They were just as impressed as I had been at the quality of the phở.
Afterwards, we went to the original cafe where egg coffee was invented. It’s now been passed on to the inventor’s son, but the coffee is as good as ever. We actually went for the egg hot chocolate this time. They had several other items on the menu. Both floors of the place were absolutely packed., but there was one thing very noticeable about their clientele. We were the only foreigners in the cafe.
Booking the Old Quarter Street Food Tour in Hanoi
The Old Quarter Street Food Tour in Hanoi is available every day and must be booked at least 3 days in advance. The cost is $22 per person, and there a minimum of two people when booking with Trazy. The tour lasts roughly three hours, but plan for four just in case. Make sure to let them know of any dietary restrictions, but at the same time be willing to try new foods. And don’t worry about the quality of Vietnamese food. It’s exceptionally good and Lan won’t be taking you to any street food restaurants where you’re likely to get sick.
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Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.