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. The Old Quarter, home to inwardly coffee outlets and decrepit colonial villas, is an explosion of authentic flavors. Hence, a guided street food tour with food blogger Joe will steer you through its tangle of lanes, and motorbikes, to uncover local eateries and sample unique dishes.
Over the past twelve years, Buffalo Joe (author of the Incense Travel’s travel blog) has been traversing the streets of Hanoi capital, taking world travelers on incredible journeys throughout Vietnam, and traveling to other regions of Indochina and beyond.
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 traveling to cities as a guide for years give him a broader picture of his country’s food diversity, Buffalo Joe is an expert on Vietnam 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. Joe’s tours range from three hours, morning or afternoon, to a full day eat-a-thon.
Twice every day, Joe guides a three-hour private food tour (suggested times: 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 the daily life of the people in the capital of a communist country.
His full day tour (suggested 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 your hotel in the city center.
When Do His Daily Food Tours Start?
His Hanoi street food tours are suggested to begin at 9h00 and 16h00 with your empty stomach, but you can request to begin at your preferred times.
The foodscape in Hanoi is built up from dawn when fresh ingredients are brought to the city on motorbikes, or paddling bicycles, from the countryside farms. Local street venders are opening with fresh produce and closing when they’re gone, all over the city. Actually, it’s an ongoing strive for their family living of predominantly women, feeding the city out of chaotic surroundings – on loud busy streets choked with motorbikes, on doorstep in the crowded alleys, or in the storefront of a shop house.
In summer, the temperatures and humidity often induce sweat even at the simplest body movement during the day, he encourages his travelers to avoid the heat and eat the city in the evenings by beginning the tour an hour later. Of cause, sweat is still inevitable, but the dark at least gives you an illusion of cool. Moreover, the city changes its character in the evening; all the decorating street lights are on, the people come out of their hibernation from the sun, there’s promenading around Hoan Kiem Lake, groups of locals practice tai chi on squares, kids everywhere, and it looks like every motorbike owner in Hanoi is out catching a breeze!
What Street Food May You Try During the Tours?
There are more than 45 delicious street foods and Vietnamese coffee, including Vietnam weasel coffee as well as bia hoi you can possibly try along the way. Here are some of his suggestions based on his previous clients’ positive feedbacks:
Nom Bo Kho (dried beef with green papaya salad)
Banh Khuc (sticky rice with mung bean and cubweed cake)
Caphe Trung (egg coffee)
Bun Cha (grilled pork with noodle and dipping sauce)
Banh Mi (Vietnamese barguette)
Pho Bo (beef noodle soup)
Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup)
Bia Hoi (Hanoi draught beer)
Banh Cuon (stuffed steaming pancake)
Bun Bo Nam Bo (beef noodle salad)
What Do You See on a Hanoi Food Tour?
The streets of Hanoi seem to be very strange places for most of his food tours’ 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 his food adventures, he wants to maximize your experiences so you don’t just see and eat, but also you touch, smell and listen. You will use your 5 senses. He always looks for opportunities to have hands-on experiences, interact with the vendors, and discuss what face their lives as vendors and what define the Old Quarter where you are exploring!
That would expose you to the good, the bad, the ugly and even the smelly, but they are the real deals of this authentic Hanoi. Therefore, the 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, he doesn’t want his travelers to have a stressful or confusing experience, he wants his clients to have an enjoyable and wonderful food experiences in Hanoi. So together you walk, you see things, you eat and drink things. At some points, he explains things. He said, 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. Therefore, if he yacks too much, he interferes with that process.
So, he gets a lot of questions along the way, which he loves answering. Such as, do you really eat that? Uh… so what is that bright green things in that big bow?
Or what is that?
And then at the end of the day, when his clients are relaxing back at their hotel, he sends them some more information so that they can have a glance through at their leisure. They thanked him for his “after sales service”.
What to Do when It’s Hot?
When it’s hot, you can drink…
The summer 2019 is coming with its killing temperature; it has already reached 42°C/ 108°F 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, he still soldiers on through it in admiration the adventurous spirits and can-do attitudes of his clients. He keeps them well hydrated as they amble slowly – in the shade – from one table to the next on his food tours. When appetites for food are dropping, they will shoot up more drinks.
No – he would 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 his travelers expressed their concerns about consuming ice in Vietnam, afraid it may make them sick. He always says 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 the beer culture in Hanoi is drinking bia hoi on the sidewalks, 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 his Hanoi street food tours, particularly on late afternoon tours, Joe and his clients often take a couple of tumblers of the bia hoi which you wouldn’t be able to try elsewhere later.
Of course, there are so many other soft drink options. You can always grab a bottle of water along the way, even though sometime it may not be cold when you pick one from a quiet deserted vendor, it is wet. Whenever he can, he eschews 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?
Joe said that quenching his travelers’ thirst and keeping them hydrated is just as much a priority on his 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, he inevitably stops by one of many Hanoi’s local coffee shops during his food tours. It’s almost like a mandatory part of his Hanoi street food tours’ itineraries, morning or afternoon. Because, Joe shows his clients that 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 every direction, any standard Hanoi cafe is perfectly good for watching the lively outdoor culture.
Even though, he said, sometimes he tolerates a client who self identifies as a “non-caffeine drinker”. Of course he tries 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, he doesn’t mention the word coffee at all. Instead, he would say “try this liquid tiramisu” or “take a sip of this homemade sweetened condensed milk” when he’s giving them this:
… and this.
Consequently, he has 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 he’s doing is evil.
Street Food Vendors in Hanoi
Visitors to Hanoi, especially those in the food business, often notice the constant presence of edible stuffs on makeshift tables, heavy baskets on shoulder poles and moving vehicles along the busy streets.
Bicycles laden with fruit and vegetables, sidewalk meat barbecue on burning charcoals, 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!
MAKE AN ENQUIRY or reach Joe on WhatsApp: +84 967 25 8586 to book your Hanoi food tour with Buffalo Joe.