3 Hidden Foodie Gems of Hanoi

Since I have already written about the street food in Hanoi and its coffee joints, I might as well add a third — of three miscellaneous eateries all worth a visit.

The first and my favourite is Kem Trang Tien (35 Trang Tien), the oldest ice cream shop in Hanoi, and still going strong. After a hair-raising cyclo ride, weaving a hair’s breath away from oncoming cars, Trang, our trusty guide, stopped us at this local institution for a treat.

Located near the Opera House and a short trot from the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, it has little aesthetics to speak of and plenty of empty, sometimes greasy, open space. Two counters inexplicably far apart stood in the corners of this odd looking shop, one selling ice cream lollies on a stick, and another soft serve ice cream on a cone.

Trang explained that the shop was designed so that customers could drive all the way into the shop and up to the counter on the scooters and motor bikes, and buy the ice cream without once having to get off their vehicles. Hence the weird empty spaces within. What’s surprising too is that the shop becomes especially busy in winter when people enjoy the ice cream the most.

Kem Trang Tien makes their own ice creams in local Vietnamese flavours and sells nothing but. The ice lollies were recommended over the soft serve. Forget the chocolate flavour and go for the taro or coconut, or better yet, the glutinous rice ice cream or the mung bean. The rice ice cream made use of newly harvest grains, which exuded a subtle, fresh, green flavour with a slight, pleasing stickiness to it; the mung bean was lovely too – softly nutty, subtle and aromatic. Really good.

Another local favourite is Xoi Yen (35 Nguyen Huu Huan), a perpetually busy coffee shop on a street corner that is festooned with a great tangle of overhead electric cables. There is no enticing facade to speak of; it is entirely dominated by a messy open kitchen from where xoi xeo, its famous dish of glutinous turmeric rice, mung beans and fried shallots is prepared.

You’ll find the locals eating at the low tables along the walkway, but there is seating upstairs too if you want a more leisurely meal. Little English is spoken here, so it’s best to have a local friend help you along. As for the food, simple as it sounds, it is very tasty; add on an order of chicken or pork if you are particularly hungry. Locals flock here for breakfast as well as a quick lunch, and is quite an institution.

The final recommendation on my list of three is Koto Restaurant (59 Van Mieu Street). This can be accused of being touristy, but it deserves mention for the cause it supports — it is a not-for-profit restaurant that acts as a hospitality school for disadvantaged young Vietnamese.

Located near the Temple of Literature, the four-storey restaurant was crowded with mainly expats and tourists, but enjoyed ourselves here, with good food and very decent, inexpensive cocktails. We ordered the Vietnamese set menu and had a veritable feast — the banana flower and chicken salad, spring rolls, banana leaf grilled fish, and sweet and sour clam soup with pineapples and tomatoes were memorable. We added an order of banh xeo as well (truly delightful), and a stream of decently done classic cocktails, including two glasses of most enjoyable margarita.

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Where To Drink Coffee Like The Locals In Hanoi

If there’s a city with a proud cafe culture, it is Hanoi. The locals are immensely proud of their local coffee, and sip it all day in their inimitable style. I wish Singapore was as proud of their own coffee – local coffee that is. (Yes, the one you brew in a sock, while wearing your blue striped pyjama pants.) In nooks and crannies, tucked deep inside narrow ‘tube houses’ or in the upper levels of old French colonial buildings are a hidden world of coffee joints. They are vibrant, happening places crowded with mostly young patrons, and few tourists. They aren’t easy to find, but our guide Trang of Hanoi Voyages brought us to a couple, having found out that we were ardent foodies.

The action is hidden away upstairs at Cafe Giang

Her favourite and a local institution is Cafe Giang (39 Nguyen Hu Huan) — pronounced ‘Jac’, with a soft ‘J’ — opened since 1946 and still going strong. You can easily miss its dark, distressed entrance way, dismissing it as an empty, derelict passage. But that’s because the action is deep down the narrow corridor, and up an even narrower staircase.

The kitchen of Cafe Giant. The cafe itself is up the stairs. Er…do you see the stairs?

As you reach the top landing, suddenly sunlight pours down from a skylight and you’re in a lush, plant-filled landing, crowded with customers. In typical Vietnamese style, seats and tables are low. Don’t wait to be seated – just head to the nearest available.

Typical Vietnamese coffee is served here, so potent it’ll keep you up for the next few days of touring. And it’s good, believe me. ‘Gao’ until cannot ‘gao’. But what most people come here for is its egg coffee – a supremely thick coffee with condensed milk and an egg. It doesn’t sound particularly enticing initially, but you don’t really taste the egg much; it acts more like a thickener, and the texture is rich, ‘puffy’ and somewhat custard-like. It’s really thick, sweet and delectable; rich enough to be a dessert. Definitely a must-try for the food adventurer when visiting Hanoi.

The iconic egg coffee of Hanoi

Another delightful coffee joint we visited was Cong Caphe . A very successful local coffee chain, its name makes reference to the Viet Cong who fought the Americans and South Vietnamese in the American War (Americans calls it the Vietnam War). But it’s all about coffee and a fun experience at Caphe Cong, not propaganda or politics.

Bucket, transistor radio, enamel cups and military style camouflage chairs on the terrace of Cong Caphe
The leatherbound menu; the loud hailer was commonly used to rally the people during the American War in Vietnam

We visited the outlet at Ma May Street, which occupies a narrow colonial building, with a crumbling but still beautiful European facade. Inside, the cafe is decked out in vintage wooden furniture with clever details that play up the military/retro theme — a bucket or wok for a lampshade, a green leatherbound menu, retro photos and posters on the wall. It’s rather worn out and a little dusty inside, but that’s the look. We head to the upstairs balcony, with distressed walls as a backdrop, overlooking the street and a tangled mess of electric cables. It’s a quaint and atmospheric place to wind down after a day’s exploration.

The mung bean smoothie – white fluffy one at the back – was pretty fabulous.

Drinks here are typically Vietnamese in style given a modern yet authentic spin — a delectable mung bean smoothie with coconut milk, a rice smoothie, espresso with condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee and happily, even cocktails. Sit down, relax and let the sun set, casting the terrace in weakening light. With the mess below and the worn out walls around, there is something quite charming about this. And it’s a really nice way to soak in the local youthful pop culture of Hanoi, of which this cafe is very much a part.

For more about Hanoi’s food, read about the food tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter which Trang brought us to as well.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, and nothing written in here was sponsored or paid for in any way.)

Walking Food Tour of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Despite the organised chaos that prevails on its streets and walkways, Hanoi is a charming, fascinating, delightful city. I am constantly amazed by how you can cross the scooter-laden streets at a steady pace and the wall of vehicles bearing down on you — nevermind that you’re using the zebra crossing — will fan out like a swarm of swallows, then skirt and meander past you like a well-rehearsed dance, allowing you to reach the other side of the road with limbs and life intact. What’s more dangerous to me are the great vats of boiling soup stubbornly straddling the narrow walkways, with low stools and tables scattered nearby, threatening to trip you over if you so much as take your eyes off the pavement for a moment to snap a shot.

It was to these street side food stalls in the Old Quarter that we went to taste and explore on a recent trip to Hanoi. Our private tour with Hanoi Voyages included a walking food tour on our first night, led by our guide Trang Ta. It was a dizzy, three-hour trek to a number of food stalls and small restaurants – I have lost count – to taste various dishes. A plate here, and nibble there all came together nicely to form a very filling and stimulating feast.

Banh xeo, at restaurant Mr Bay Mien Tay

First, we popped in to Mr Bay Mien Tay (79 Hang Bac), a buzzy little restaurant well known among the locals for its excellent banh xeo. Cooked at the front as you order, it was a sizzling crisp-edged egg pancake filled with prawns and beansprouts, eaten with fresh herbs and rolled in rice paper.

A dessert stall next door caught our eye, run by this cheerful young lady. We bought some of her rice mochi balls filled with peanuts. Sounds quite familiar indeed, but it also carried a sprinkling of coconut shreds which is a little different to how we eat it back home.

Then it was on to another stop for salad. This eatery (38 Bat Dan Road) could do with a bit of a clean up, and touch of aesthetics; but the beef jerky salad with fish sauce dressing — the only thing on the menu — which they sold was really delectable. With the jerky, there were green papaya, cucumbers, carrots, coriander and mint, beansprouts, and some peanuts which gave light, bright flavours, and crunchy textures. According to Trang, people would drop into this eatery early in the evening for a pre-dinner salad before heading home or moving on to their dinner venue.

Then it was on to Countryside Restaurant (29 Bat Dan Road) for two unusual dishes. First, fried snakehead fish with dill, beansprouts, crisp fried onions which you had to assemble yourself, wrapping it in rice paper with coriander, mint and peanuts. The fish was just nicely cooked and moist, lifted by the aromatics, resulting in a complex marriage of flavours in each mouthful, and a delightful mix of textures. The other was a juicy, hearty dish of fried frogs legs served with peppery betel leaf. It was certainly not among the usual suspects in Vietnamese cuisine and absolutely more-ish.

Snakehead fish with dill and rice noodles at Countryside Restaurant

We were to move on to a famous pho shop (49 Bat Dan Road) down the same street but the queues were ridiculously long, snaking down the road. So Trang decided to give it a miss and move us on to other options which Hanoi’s Old Quarter offered. As an alternative, she brought us to another pho shop but unfortunately, it wasn’t that great.

Our last stop made a fine finale — a well loved hole-in-the-wall dessert stall (95 Hang Bac) run by a cheerful aunty. It was packed, but we managed to find some plastic stools, squeezed them into the nearest empty spot we could find – nevermind that it was right in the middle of the entrance way — and ordered up her icy specialties. Without a table, we ate our desserts off a metal tray which we perched on our laps.

The hole in the wall dessert shop

They are quite similar to what we have at home in Singapore, but yet a little different — such as a creme caramel with black glutinous rice (like our pulut hitam) which was quite good, but I’m no fan of creme caramel in general. Surprisingly, as unexciting as the black bean soup with coconut milk sounded, it was excellent. The soy ice cream with glutinous rice was also most enjoyable. That brought us to the end of the food tour. By the time we meandered back to our hotel, it was close to 11pm.

At this point, I must give a shout out for Hanoi Voyages (pronounced with French flair – “voy-A-es”) who organised our entire four-day private tour, of which this evening was only one part. The company is run by a young staff who are pretty intuitive about what we were looking for. Beyond just taking us to these places to eat, Trang, who spoke fluent English, also filled us in on the background about the different foods, and told us about the individual eateries’ histories, and local food and cafe culture. She was also great fun to be with. Best of all, Hanoi Voyages specialises only in private tours and pride themselves for bringing guests off the beaten track, which means that for some part of your tour at least, you will be assured of a more unique Hanoi experience.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for, simply that we want to share the great finds.)

City Guide: 3 Days of Eat, Shop and Spa In Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Vietnam has rapidly overtaken Bangkok as a choice getaway for Singaporeans and Hong Kongers only because of the quality of the shopping (especially where homeware is concerned) and the wonderful food.

A 3 day 2 night getaway with girlfriends saw us heading to Ho Chi Minh for a gratifying 3 day catch up – the kind where girlfriends can talk about everything and anything on earth in every circumstance and location – over drinks, over pho, over massages .. you get the general idea.

Our itinerary was plain and simple – Eat (everything Vietnamese and French as Vietnam was once colonised by the French), Shop (mainly for homeware and favourite food) and Spa (wherever and whenever our tired legs said we needed a break).  The plan was to check into a hotel that was fairly central. We ended up at the Millennium, a boutique hotel that was a little bit off the beaten track but met our budget and requirements to stay in District 1 where all the general action is. The Hotel turned out no frills but with a good breakfast buffet included in the room rate and the beds were comfortable.

Day 1:

Bến Thành Market

Checked in our hotel by 10.30am. The flight from Singapore is an hour and the half but Singapore and Ho Chi Minh have an hour difference (in our favour) so think of it as one extra hour of shopping time.

Left the bags at Concierge and wandered out to explore the vicinity around the Hotel. Made our way to Bến Thành Market where we had a late breakfast of Banh Beo Hue The market is otherwise filled with vendors selling clothes from t-shirts to caps, bags and sunglasses to some selling a large variety of coffee powder and drip coffee utensils, indigenous goods, crockery and cutlery.

Judging from the number of helpers around the store packing takeaways and the number of locals and tourists seated all around on makeshift stools, it would have been a correct assumption to say that this was the market’s most popular food store.

This light and appetising dish tasted to me like the Viet version of Singaporean Bee Tie Mak (a steam rice cake) swimming in a lovely sweet and sour fish sauce garnished with coriander and shallots and bits of dried shrimp

Ice Coffee Stop

We wandered off outside the market to look for Saigon Square which was supposed to have fake t-shirts and branded bags and clothes in general – sort of like a mini Shenzhen. Found it and was duly unimpressed. Definitely if you are inclined to buy fake goods – get the A grades in Shenzhen (particularly Luo Wu) and give this a big skip!

The heat was unbearable outside Saigon Square and we would have melted on the pavement if not for the fact that we stumbled upon Cafe Vy as it is commonly known as  with a sign that says Kinh Chao Quy Khach – a wonderful local coffee place set up like a little French style side-walk cafe serving Vietnamese coffee – no food, just coffee which was oddly ok.

3A STATION 

Suitably imbibed with caffeine, we headed to a local Arts area called 3A Station not far from the Hotel. This 2000 square metre art area was formerly the site of 3 abandoned warehouses built in the 19th century when the French colonized Vietnam.

Now fully refurbished, the space has been converted into a creative space in which you can find clothing stores, home ware boutiques, art galleries, some offices and coffee shops. We stopped for a light lunch of crab meat spring rolls with cold beer at one of the restaurants there.

A FULL BODY MASSAGE 

Nearby our hotel, we found a small and cosy spa called the Temple Tree Spa which turned out fairly well-rated on Trip Advisor. So we headed there for a 60 minute long full body massage which came up to only SGD$32 (VND520,000).

EVENING STROLL 

Walking around the city at twilight was a treat as the temperature was far more bearable and the buildings were lit up beautifully.

VIETNAMESE PIZZA BREAK 

On the way to dinner, we found a lovely version of Vietnamese pizza or Bánh Tráng Nướng which we bought to try! Verdict – Delish – it was basically made from the skin used to wrap Vietnamese spring rolls but barbecued with shrimp, pork, eggs, cheese and a type of non-spicy chilli paste (at least that was what I thought it tasted like)!

DINNER AT CHI HOA 

Dinner that evening was at Chi Hoaa Vietnamese restaurant that brings the variety of street food favourites and home cooking together under one roof. 

Day 2:

BINH TAY WHOLESALE MARKET

After a hearty breakfast in the hotel, we headed out to an adventure to Binh Tay Market, a wholesale market sometimes known as Cho Lon Market in District 6.

Expect it to look just like this when you arrive – messy, crowded, dirty and chaotic and everyone pushing through the tiny avenues where goods are unloaded, vehicles parked and people are moving from one part of the market to another.

Inside the market, we stopped by the nut wholesaler where we picked up cashews and lotus nuts and a variety of other unusual snacks and chips.

Another wholesaler who sold Bird’s Nest and a variety of scallops

Along the market fringe, a lovely basket shop where my girlfriends went crazy and bought every conceivable basket and bag – in every possible shape and size

PHO FOR LUNCH 

No visit to Vietnam is complete without a big bowl of Vietnam’s most famous dish – Pho!    A lovely local recommended us to Phở Lệ – Nguyễn Trãi at 413-414 Nguyen Trai Street P.7,Q5. There is no website for this very simple eatery but rest assured the pho was nothing short of awesome with a free flow of veggie refills and sauces to go with any of the two or three types of meat that you choose. All doused in the most delicious bowl of steaming hot beef broth!

STREET SHOPPING

Obviously, our shopping quota had not been fulfilled so this was a trip to explore the street stores in District 1 where we found a few gems selling lacquer ware, clothing and quirky gifts.

Spa Time 

Another local friend recommended the Paloma Spa in District 1 which turned out to be a very reasonable but classy Spa located in a Vietnamese villa.  Well known for their facials using Sothy’s products and their body and slimming massages, this was probably one of the most exclusive spa locations that I enjoyed exploring in Vietnam.

DRINKS AT THE DECK 

We headed to pre-dinner drinks at The Deck another gorgeous restaurant and bar in the District 2 area by the river that had us watching the sunset and sipping cocktails.

DINNER AT LA VILLA

Just around the corner from The Deck was another restaurant set in an old restored Villa, aptly called La Villa, a French michelin starred fine dining restaurant.  Besides the amazing set menu (for just under S$100) that allowed you to choose a combination of appetisers alongside a main course and dessert, we were wowed by the cheese selection that ran from blocks of truffled brie to camembert alongside a generous cheese trolley selection of French favourites.

Day 3:

ANNAM GOURMET MARKET

A trip that starts with food must end with it and our last shopping stop before the airport was to the Annam Gourmet Market. The store carries a large display of gourmet groceries, cheese, organic products, gluten-free products, fruit and vegetables, gourmet deli items like foie gras and pates, wine, coffee and other beverages.

ONE LAST MEAL 

And finally before checking out, a final stop for our last taste of Ho Chi Minh.

Restaurant Review: Cơm Bánh Mì For A Great Value Vietnamese Meal In Wan Chai

It’s amazing what you can do with a small space. In Wan Chai, sandwiched between the the gourmet dining avenues at Ship Street and Lee Tung Avenue is Cơm Bánh Mì, a tiny Vietnamese restaurant along Tai Wong St East that has managed to bring Vietnamese street food with good flavour and even better prices, to Hong Kong.

I liked how the owners have turned what looks like a narrow hole in the wall space into a charming eatery with it’s inviting colours, Vietnamese decor and vivid red lanterns at the entrance, beckoning guests inside.

The menu is simple fare with Vietnamese favourites with interesting twists and the chef incorporating some Hong Kong interesting ingredients and favourites. The real winner here is the pricing! Its hard to get a meal under HK$100 in a restaurant environment (sans your local cha chan teng or local coffee place) for lunch, let alone dinner. Here the menu is $80 dollars for an all-day set meal where you can choose one meat that goes with the main dish, a combo side and a drink. The optional add ons make up the premium dishes that the restaurant offers as extra orders on top of the set.

Pho with Caramelised Braised Pork
Pho with Caramelised Braised Pork

I chose an HK$80 set comprising a Caramel braised pork belly which went very well as an extra serving of meat added on to the Pho rice noodles which were very tasty and offered a hearty flavour having been slow cooked in duck and chicken broth.

Garlic Butter Chicken Wings
Garlic Butter Chicken Wings
Condensed Milk with Caramel Viet Coffee
Condensed Milk with Caramel Viet Coffee

This came paired with my choice of Garlic buttered wings. Drink-wise, I ordered an Avocado and Coconut Milk Shake that had a mousse like texture but tasted more coconut than avocado. On hindsight, the coffee or the coconut water would have been a much better choice.

Iberico Pork Rib Satay
Iberico Pork Rib Satay
Fresh Veggie and Rice Paper Rolls with Pork and Prawns
Fresh Veggie and Rice Paper Rolls with Pork and Prawns

If I had company to share my meal with, I would have ordered the add-ons – the Iberico Pork Rib (HK$80) and the Iberico Ham (HK$95) or the Món Cuốn, also known as Vietnamese rice paper rolls with prawn and pork (HK$40). All looked good, judging from what the other table near me had ordered.

Where:

Cóm Bánh Mì is at G/F 28 Tai Wong St East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Tel: 2528 9131
Email: ComBanhMi@gmail.com. Facebook: Cóm Bánh Mì Instagram: @combanhmi