The food, available in the Hanoi’s tree-lined boulevards and narrow alleys, is just as much a part of the city as its green squares and French colonial architecture. Hanoi’s Old Quarter, home to inwardly coffee outlets and decrepit colonial villas, is an explosion of local flavors. A guided Hanoi Street Food Tour will steer you through the tangle of lanes, and motorbikes, to uncover local eateries and sample favorite dishes.
Over the past twelve years, Buffalo Joe (author of the Incense Travel’s travel blog) has been taking world travelers on incredible journeys throughout Vietnam, traveling to other regions of Indochina and beyond, as well as traversing the streets of Vietnam’s capital, his home city.
Graduated from Hanoi University where he studied hospitality, Joe has been a licensed tour guide with more than 12 years’ experience in the tourism industry. Having grown up in the countryside of Hanoi and frequent visits to the central coast and Ho Chi Minh City give him a broader picture of his country’s food diversity, he is an expert on the travel and Vietnamese cuisine. But Hanoi, his home city, is where he lives with his passion for street food, its chaotic web of alleys and lanes are where he eats most. Joe knows the market vendors, and they like him.
After founding Incense Travel offering custom trips to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with superlative guides, detailed, unusual itineraries, discriminating hotel and restaurant suggestions and seamless ground service. Joe holds tight to his love for street food.
He specializes in Hanoi street food and wet markets, and has recently designed a series of culinary itineraries for travelers and food enthusiasts. These long trips have been carefully planned to give travelers an authentic taste of Vietnam, attuning to the rhythms of food through the day and through the seasons. His tours range from three hours, morning or afternoon, to a full day eat-a-thon.
Twice every day, Joe guides a three-hour Hanoi Street Food Tour (9h00 - 12h00, 16h00 - 19h00) to share his passion for the Vietnamese food. On these food tours, you walk to visit the food stands and markets, sampling the produce with ongoing explanations of local ingredients and food practices, as well as strange food items. It’s really a day-in-the-life experience in Hanoi, as you walk and eat like a local and also get to know about their daily life in the capital of a communist country.
His full day tour (9h00 – 16h00) includes more market visits and more street snacks and drinks, it is ideal for those in the food industry, food writers, whether they be chefs or in the eating or the cooking, indeed anyone with an enthusiasm for food!
All tours are inclusive of food or drinks along the way, and are conducted entirely on foot after Joe meets and greets at a hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
Hanoi’s Street Food Vendors
Visitors to Hanoi, especially those in the food business, often notice the constant presence of edible stuffs on makeshift tables, heavy baskets on shoulder pole and moving vehicles along the busy streets in the Old Quarter. Bicycles laden with fruit and vegetables, sidewalk meat barbecue on burning charcoal, butcher chopping pork, simmering pots of broth on doorsteps, and woman cutting the white rice noodles… the lively streets are where all the food shown, not kept indoors in cool places nor protected in glass window fridges or freezers. Food is found on any Hanoi sidewalk; made convenient so one can easily reach out and touch while still sitting on their own scooter.
But, where there is food there are people. Fish vendors here constantly cast tending eyes over their cuts, shooing the odd fly, keeping up their appeal with fresh red blood, always ready to poise with a sharp blade at hand. Fruit vendors spend their days carrying pole and re-arranging their green orange into perfectly conical shape, meticulously examining one for flaw. The sticky rice cake vendor, with different kinds of cakes wrapped in banana leafs, sluggishly pushing her bike – all over the city!
The pork barbecue fanner needs recognition, too. Every day he squats low on his knees, crouching at the burning coals with one hand turning the fat-spitting wire grills filled with pork while the other is keeping the wind up to the fire. Even with the high humidity on a 37°C/ 99°F day, he concentrates on the fire as his wife needs the pork to be ready when her clients stop by for bun cha.
Keeping the image of Hanoi as an immense diverse food scene relies on the physical toil of thousands of street vendors, mostly women from the countryside, all underpaid and under-appreciated.
Smile when you catch their eyes!
When it’s hot, we drink…
The summer 2019 is coming with its killing temperature; it has already reached 42C/ 108F at the beginning of May. The sudden change in weather is blamed for the early blooming of Hoa Sua, the milk flower, which is an autumn symbol in Hanoi. Combining with high humidity, the first heat wave of May has continued now for a few weeks, sapping the energy out of the whole city.
Regardless of the warm weather, I still soldier on through it in admiration the adventurous spirits and can-do attitudes of my clients. I keep them well hydrated as we amble slowly – in the shade – from one table to the next on our Hanoi street food tour. When appetites for food are dropping, we will shoot up more drinks.
No – I recommend it with some ice. The tropical monsoon climate of Vietnam has been the reason for the locals, almost without exception, are taking their coffee with ice, lots of ice if in Ho Chi Minh City. After the coffee shops brewing their coffee, it’s cooled to room temperature, and when you do want it hot, they use a little saucepan to heat a portion to a simmer.
On the subject of ice, many of my travelers expressed their concerns about consuming ice in Vietnam, afraid it may make them sick. I always say it’s OK to use the ice, it’s safe. Because even street food eateries are ordering packaged ice manufactured from factory rather than bothering with the process of boiling water and freezing it themselves. From time to time, ice may be handled in a dubious manner, but in general, when you want a cold drink on the street, ice it must be.
Even when drinking beer on streets in Vietnam, ice is required. A very recent research of why Vietnamese put ice on beer showed that, about 79 percent of Vietnamese put ice cubes in their beer glasses on most occasions, while just 5 percent said they never do it. Though this may go against the grain for many beer lovers, the practice has the added benefit of providing hydration to an alcoholic drink that typically dehydrates.
One of beer culture in Hanoi is bia hoi, or fresh draught beer, which is pulled from lengths of hose attached to kegs packed in layers of insulation and dry ice or stored in refrigerated metal cabinets. On most of my Hanoi street food tours, particularly on late afternoon tours, I and my clients often take a couple of tumblers of the bia hoi which you wouldn’t be able to try this kind of beer elsewhere later.
Of course, there are so many other soft drink options. We can always grab a bottle of water along the way, even though sometime it may not be cold when we pick one from a quiet deserted vendor, it is wet. Whenever we can, we eschew manufactured soft drinks in preference to those made by the local’s tea and coffee outlets. Would you prefer a Fanta or a freshly made long glass of passion fruit juice? A Sprite or green tea, soured with lime, sweetened with sugar, cooled with ice?
Quenching my travelers’ thirst and keeping them hydrated is just as much a priority in my Hanoi street food tours as showing them the food.
So you said you don’t drink coffee?
As it’s for the ambience and cultural immersion, I inevitably stop by one of Hanoi’s local coffee shops during my food tours. It’s a mandatory part of my Hanoi street food tour’s itineraries, morning or afternoon. Because, a Hanoi coffee can be sipped against a century old French ochre wall, on streetscape over-parked with motorbikes, or up on the second floor next to someone’s bed room. And with lots of eating, socializing, cooking and washing dishes taking place on the sidewalk in the city, even a standard Hanoi cafe is perfectly good for watching the lively outdoor culture.
Even though, sometimes I tolerate a client who self identifies as a “non-caffeine drinker”. Of course I try not to openly show a pity, but such admissions can be disheartening, as the whole coffee experience in the capital Hanoi is absolutely fascinating. So, to those travelers, I don’t mention the word coffee at all. Instead, I would say “try this liquid tiramisu” or “take a sip of this homemade sweetened condensed milk” when I am giving them this:
… and this.
Consequently, I’ve received feedback emails from certain travelers saying their Hanoi street food tour was transformative. It made them not only like the aroma of coffee but also its taste, and they are now drinking coffee back home.
A couple of them said what I am doing is evil.
What Do You See on Hanoi Street Food Tours?
The streets of Hanoi seem to be very strange places for most of my food tour clients, as there are so much for them to take in. If Hanoi is one’s first ever destination in Asia, it will most likely be bewildering and overwhelming, and there is no doubt that a street food tour can accentuate those feelings. Beside all, a lot may be said, so one can be also sensory overloaded.
On my food adventure, I want to maximize our experiences so we don’t just see and eat, but also we touch, smell and listen. We use our 5 senses. I always look for opportunities to have hands-on experiences, interact with the vendors, and discuss what face the locals and define the country.
That would expose you to the good, the bad, the ugly and even the smelly, but they are the real deals of this developing Hanoi. Therefore, Hanoi street food tour is the right tour for food lovers like you! Let’s get out of our comfort zone and go for the gusto.
Of cause, I don’t want them to have a stressful or confusing experience, I do want my clients to have an enjoyable and wonderful experience. So together we walk, we see things, we eat and drink things. At some points, I explain things. Much of the Hanoi street food experience is about allowing time for the brain to process the message from the eyes… or the ears… or the nose. And if I yack too much, I interfere with that process.
Sure, I do get a lot of questions, which I love answering.
Such as, do you really eat that? Uh… so what is it?
Or what is that bright green things in that big bow?
And then at the end of the day, when my clients are relaxing back at their hotel, I send them some more information so that they can have a glance through at their leisure.
They thanked me for my “after sales service”.