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As I mentioned in my First Time Travel Guide to Hanoi post, I wanted to talk about my experiences there concerning both the food tour I took as well as the cooking class I attended since there’s so much to say on the matter. Vietnam has recently been crowned one of the world’s premier culinary destinations and there’s no better place to partake in the gourmand scene first hand than in the capital city of Hanoi. So in this Food Guide to Hanoi post, I’ll talk not only about my experiences with the food tour and the cooking school, but also five foods you don’t want to miss on a trip to Hanoi.
Going on a food tour
Hanoi Street Food Tour
Like in any major city, there are countless food tour companies to choose from in Hanoi. I ended up booking with Hanoi Street Food Tour, a company that had a healthy number of positive reviews online. I also liked the fact that they had many different tour options even if I personally didn’t want to do a food tour by motorbike. (This was before my biking accident on Halong Bay, but I never once rode on a motorbike during my time in Vietnam; crossing the streets was adventurous enough and sometimes too much so for my liking.) And I also liked that their street food walking tour was offered three times a day. Normally I’m leery about booking and paying for a tour on the same day I arrive somewhere, but since I was landing in Hanoi in the early afternoon and my food tour wouldn’t be until the evening (I booked the 5PM-8PM tour) I figured I had a decent buffer to allow for any delays and I was right.
The tour met in the city’s Old Quarter ( less than a ten minute taxi ride from my hotel) at the booking office. I discovered that on most tours in Vietnam, you can book online but you’re also given an option to pay on the day of, the opposite of many tours in Europe and the United States. They took US dollars, but just be sure you have small bills.
My three hour street food walking tour cost $20 (yes, $20, unlike the $100 I paid for my Eating Europe Paris food tour last November) and featured 10 tastings at eight different spots. And seven of the eight stops were sit-down although, mind you, Vietnamese-style sit down (i.e. the teeny tiny chairs and tables that are barely off the ground and more appropriate for small children rather than adults). But still…
Of the ten tastings, seven were savory and three were sweet. For the large amount of food we were given, I thought this was a good ratio. Too often in the past I’ve been on food tours where there have been hardly any sweet tastings, which I’m not at all a fan of, or tours where you’re basically just served small tastings and you finish the tour still feeling hungry. This was not at all the case with Hanoi Street Food Tours. Also, my knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine was greatly expanded as six of the ten things we tried I had never eaten before, let alone heard of. Testament to the fact that Vietnamese cuisine in most American cities rises and falls with phở, which was not a tasting at any of the stops.
What I loved most about the tour is that all of the food research was done for me. Traveling to Hanoi for the first time can be very overwhelming, especially when visiting the Old Quarter (a chaotic mess of all senses) so while it’s certainly possible to seek out good eateries, it’s a lot easier having locals do the leg work for you. This way you won’t be wandering around aimlessly and still be assured of authentic dining.
My only critique and it’s a minor one, since I encountered this elsewhere on my own travels in Vietnam, is that the tour guide was hard to understand at times. She was a very sweet college age girl but her English was heavily accented and there were times when she just didn’t know the word for some things. Paired with the fact she was extremely soft-spoken on loud Hanoi streets…
A note for vegetarians: There were three vegetarians on my tour and although they had all specified so when booking, there weren’t always “awesome” vegetarian substitutions available. In a couple of instances, their tastings literally comprised just lettuce and vegetables. The three made do and only mildly griped after the first tasting where this was an issue. This had nothing to do with the food tour company but rather that you’re in a country whose culture doesn’t really adapt to those “special substitutions.” Vegans- you’re on your own.
Taking a cooking class
Apron Up Cooking Class
Oddly enough, Apron Up is also a restaurant and was one of the stops on my Hanoi Street Food Tour. The restaurant is downstairs and the cooking school is on the third floor of a building in the Old Quarter which also serves as the restaurant’s kitchen (it was all such a laid back environment, so not the case in the United States).
Just as there are many food tour companies to choose from, the same goes for cooking schools in Hanoi, although I think there are probably even more of these based on the research I did. I came across Apron Up on TripAdvisor and it had countless glowing reviews, the majority of which were recent, always a good sign.
The school offers the option of both group cooking classes and private ones. I hadn’t had the best experience with the one other group cooking class I had taken years ago here in Pittsburgh (many of the attendees were catty and immature) but I still opted for a group class here. I figured it might be a nice way to meet some people since I was still traveling on my own at that point. Well, due to tourism being extremely low during my time in Vietnam, the group class ended up being just me and one other girl. This was good in the sense that I truly had a hands on experience. (The girl mentioned she heard from someone she knew who had previously attended Apron Up that typically in larger settings, you’ll only get to prepare one thing, while we prepared everything.) It was bad in the sense that the cute, petite Vietnamese instructor didn’t always approve of our chatting and wanted us working whether it was chopping, grating, stirring, etc.
The group cooking class is $32USD, and is available in four different time slots daily. I ended up booking the 16:00-19:00 class as it gave me time earlier in the day to visit Hỏa Lò Prison and also pack as I was leaving for my Halong Bay cruise the next day. It included the chef, a welcome tea, a trip to the market, all ingredients to make the five dishes, a cook book of the dishes prepared, and a certificate that you passed. My Mekong River cruise also included a cooking class in Saigon but that was more like a demonstration made for large tour groups. I was truly happy to have had such an authentic culinary experience as well.
The class started with a trip to the market where the instructor purchased the bulk of the ingredients we’d be using that day (the noodles and the ground pork for starters). I’m not sure if this was somewhere I would have ventured on my own (especially seeing the wet market portions) but neat all the same. I was able to stand it a bit better than the one in Châu Đốc that I visited as part of my river cruise; the one in Hanoi did not have as many graphic scenes.
The five courses we made (and is what’s on the menu if you attend a group class- if you book a private class you select the five dishes you’ll make from a list of choices) were as follows:
Bún chả (grilled pork and noodles, a specialty in Hanoi)
Chả giò, also known as nem rán (spring rolls)
Nộm đu đủ (papaya salad)
Ca phe trúng (Hanoi egg coffee- it’s so sweet it’s like a dessert due to the inclusion of condensed milk)
It was definitely more work than fun, but for only $32, it was a great cultural and learning experience that truly allowed me to delve into the world of Vietnamese cuisine in a way I never could have from cooking at home or even just dining at restaurants in Vietnam.
Vietnamese foods you must try when in Hanoi
You can find all of the below foods throughout Vietnam; however, most of them are specialties of either Hanoi or elsewhere in the northern part of the country.
I first learned of bún chả after that famous photograph of President Obama and Anthony Bourdain emerged in 2016 of the two of them sharing a meal and cheap beer at an eatery in Hanoi, these two tall men looking ridiculously silly sitting on the ubiquitous teeny tiny Vietnamese-style plastic stools meant for toddlers. The meal they shared was bún cha, grilled pork and noodles which is thought to have originated in the Vietnamese capital. Bún chả is served with grilled fatty pork over a plate of white rice noodles and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce. I would have this on my tour and it was also what I ordered when I dined at KOTO the next day; I liked it that much.
This was another dish I had on my food tour and one I had never heard of before (it’s not really on any Vietnamese restaurant menus in the Pittsburgh area). The cool thing was we saw it being made on the street from a little cart. The three ladies making it had such rhythm and finesse. Bánh cuốn are steamed rice rolls consisting of thin sheets of steamed rice batter filled with ground pork, jicama and woodear mushrooms. I just know that I would never be able to (successfully) work with rice batter…
I knew that sticky rice is huge in Thai cuisine and to a lesser degree, Cambodian (I say lesser only because I personally am not very familiar with Cambodian cooking), but didn’t know it was a “thing” in Vietnamese cuisine (once more this is attributed to my lack of knowledge). But my last stop on the food tour was kem xôi which is sticky rice and ice cream. Although I was so full by this point, not to mention really trying to stay awake, (I was only on day three in Asia and still jet-lagged), it really was delicious, especially with the inclusion of toasted coconut. It also reminded me of a sweet treat I had on my Singapore food tour called cendol.
Ca phe trúng
While I love cocktails like pisco sours and whiskey sours, both of which feature the inclusion of a whipped egg white, I never would have imagined digging raw egg yolks in coffee (all I could think of was Rocky Balboa’s famous morning drink), especially since prior to my trip to Vietnam, I hadn’t ever really been a coffee drinker. But I loved egg coffee, a Vietnamese drink typically prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and robusta coffee. It’s a very rich drink and like I said above, it’s so sweet it can also be a dessert.
Nộm bò khô
I didn’t love this dish, dried beef salad (bò khô in Vietnamese means beef jerky), but it’s too representative of Vietnamese cuisine not to include it. I don’t really care for the taste of any beef jerky, but I could taste the superior quality of this jerky found in the salad. And the inclusion of the green papaya only added to its exotic layer.