There’s no arguing: Hanoi is a street food mecca.
But humble bowls of pho and turmeric-tossed cha ca fish aren’t the only culinary draws in the capital of Vietnam.
An influx of international restaurants, combined with a young population hungry for a cosmopolitan lifestyle, has opened the door for a new generation of Vietnamese cuisine.
Restaurants and bars are catapulting traditional recipes into the 21st century – and at least one famous dish has been reimagined in cocktail form.
As traditional Vietnamese food goes head-to-head with fashionable foreign fare, it’s never been a more exciting time to travel to this culinary wonderland.
From pho cocktails to xoi ga (sticky rice with chicken), CNN Travel trawls the capital to find the best of Hanoi’s contemporary Vietnamese fare.
Located inside a new mixed-use complex in the ever-expanding Tay Ho (West Lake) District, MAD Society has no qualms about playing with tradition.
“Vietnamese food is amazing, but wherever you go, it’s very similar,” founder So Yeon Kim tells CNN Travel.
“I thought, let’s try to have some fun and combine it with other Asian flavors. It works so well!”
Taking its cues from tapas-style dining, there are more than a dozen small dishes which can be mixed and matched to create a meal.
“The tapas idea came from noticing that more young Vietnamese want to pair food with wine or spirits,” explains So. “Pairing Asian flavors with wine works perfectly, because both wine and many Asian ingredients are fermented.”
One such dish is the edamame dip with shrimp chips – popular in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia – with a hummus-like dip made from Japanese edamame beans.
Besides tapas, the menu also includes a few reworked street food classics. For example, pho comes in two styles.
The first is relatively authentic, served with either beef, chicken or seafood but not without theatrical flair, as the broth is poured from a floral Bat Trang-style ceramic teapot.
The second style? Hanoi’s first phoritto.
Picture beef, herbs, noodles and, yes, even a splash of broth – all rolled up in a soft tortilla.
In a similar vein, MAD Society also serves cha ca-style tacos. The crispy tortilla shells (in lieu of rice noodles) arrive loaded with traditional turmeric-marinated fish and all the tasty herbs and vegetables.
“You can’t survive these days unless you adapt,” says So. “You can keep traditions, they’re important – but you need to have new things.”
MAD Society, 4/F, Somerset West Point, 2 Tay Ho, Tay Ho, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 24 3200 6881
Marred by overpriced tourist traps and kitschy western restaurants, Hanoi’s historic Old Quarter doesn’t always showcase the best of Vietnamese food.
But the T-Art – short for The Taste of Art – opened in July and has already chiseled out a reputation as the go-to place for modern Vietnamese cuisine.
Developed by chef Duong Hai Anh – who penned a book on modern Vietnamese appetizers while working at the Hanoi Opera House’s Nineteen 11 Restaurant & Bar – the menu focuses on premium ingredients and modern presentations.
“I want to bring Vietnamese food more in line with international cuisine,” Duong tells CNN Travel.
“I love the taste of traditional Vietnamese food, but I want to create and present Vietnamese dishes in a more modern way.”
Having studied under a French chef at cooking school, Hai Anh embraced the art of presentation early in her career – and it’s evident in her dishes.
Take the xoi ga, for example: Typically eaten out of a polystyrene tray, this local dish is usually a mess of shredded chicken, crispy onions, spices and rice.
But at The T-Art, the street dish transforms into three tidy balls of rice – all imbued with a vivid purple color, courtesy of magenta leaves (a native plant used for food dye and medicine).
Presented on an Instagram-friendly slate, each manicured ball is full of marinated chicken, mushrooms and mung beans.
Hai Anh has also taken aim at one of the most quintessential Hanoian dishes: cha ca.
It’s usually served in a sizzling pan, where thin slices of turmeric-marinated fish bubble in oil alongside fresh dill and green onions.
“In the traditional style, the fish sits in oil too long,” says Duong. “I cut the fish thicker, and then marinade it longer. It’s then grilled, so it’s less oily, and much more tender.”
The T-Art, 46B Bat Dan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 24 3875 4646
Nê Cocktail Bar
Hanoi’s restaurants aren’t the only ones getting creative.
While it might sound like something out of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” you can now enjoy several Vietnamese dishes in the form of artisan cocktails, thanks to master mixologist Pham Tien Tiep.
In a career which has seen him rise from shining shoes on the street to representing his country at international bartender competitions, Pham is now the proud owner of Nê Cocktail Bar.
Named after his son – who is in turn named after Pham’s favorite drink (a negroni) – Nê is a chilled-out space.
There’s jazz instead of the usual thumping Vinahouse music, and craft cocktails instead of 50 cent bia hoi (Vietnamese draft beer).
Now emulated in bars across the city, Pham’s most famous creation is the pho cocktail.
“I worked in a pho restaurant for a year, so I knew how to cook the real dish,” Pham tells CNN Travel.
“Before the bartender competition in 2012, I thought: ‘Why not try to make a drink with the same flavor as pho?’”
To craft the drink, Pham uses a custom-built apparatus with a three-tiered filter.
He places star anise, cinnamon and cardamom into the filters, followed by a mix of gin and Cointreau. Then he sets the mixture on fire as it runs through the filters.
“The fire cooks the cocktail, just like cooking the soup,” says Pham. “Then we add coriander, and serve with chili and lime, so it’s like real pho.”
“I want people to experience my drinks with all their senses.”
Proving he’s more than a one-trick pony, Pham has since created a number of cocktails based on Vietnamese cuisine.
The Donna Donna cocktail – inspired by bo luc lac (shaking beef) – even requires a bit of cooking.
Pham first stir-fries beef with capsicum, chili and lemongrass, before de-glazing the pan with rum and sugar. Then the resulting syrup is mixed with lime juice to balance the flavor.
If you’re still standing after a few of those, we’d recommend The Pickles cocktail, which channels traditional Vietnamese sour fish soup.
Before you know it, you’ll have sipped through a three-course Vietnamese dinner.
Nê Cocktail Bar, 3B Tong Duy Tan, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 90 488 6266
Overlooking Tay Ho – the largest lake in Hanoi – Don’s Bistro has become something of a local landmark.
Since opening in 2009 as the first Western restaurant on the lake, chef-owner Donald Berger and his award-winning team have been at the forefront of Hanoi’s international food scene.
On the menu, there are more than a dozen Vietnamese classics – most of which have been altered in some creative way.
Perhaps the best example is Don’s signature pho.
Enjoyed any time of day, this rice noodle soup is traditionally always served with beef or chicken.
But at Don’s Bistro? The signature Donald Duck Pho a l’Orange comes with two forms of duck: leg and breast.
The leg is prepared confit-style, while the breast meat comes medium-rare as a nod to the raw beef found in traditional pho.
Thick slices of fresh orange add a bittersweet note and double as a colorful centerpiece.
In another unique twist on Vietnamese classics, Montreal-born Berger has imbued traditional fresh spring rolls with a taste of fresh seafood and trendy avocado from his Canadian homeland.
Instead of the usual herbs, rice noodles, prawns and pork, Berger’s spring rolls come packed with crab, avocado and mayonnaise.
Each roll is topped with colorful Masago, an Icelandic caviar, which not only enhances the fresh, salty flavor but also adds a dash of sophistication.
“Presentation is a big part of it, but you can have new flavors too.” Berger tells CNN Travel. “Sometimes being different is the same as being authentic.”
The creativity trickles down to the dessert menu, where diners will find a passionfruit crème brûlée with tropical Vietnam written all over it.
“It’s lighter and more fragrant than a traditional crème brûlée,” explains Berger. “It’s quite similar to che, a local soup-like dessert.”
Don’s Bistro, 16 Quang An, Tay Ho, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 24 3719 3719
In the center of Hanoi’s crowded Old Quarter, there’s a charming little oasis serving up unique Vietnamese fusion dishes: Green Tangerine, set in a spacious French colonial villa that dates back to 1928.
At this al fresco address, the food is unmistakably French in technique but a strong local influence pervades the flavors and ingredients.
“Vietnamese flavors and French food are an ideal marriage,” operations manager Nguyen Dung tells CNN Travel. “I wouldn’t call our food traditional – it’s modern fusion, but still retaining an authentic Vietnamese taste.”
Ca qua, or snakehead fish, is commonly used in Hanoi’s cha ca dish (turmeric-marinated fish with dill, scallions and rice noodles).
At Green Tangerine, the ubiquitous ingredient appears atop a bed of risotto, which has been wrapped in spinach leaves infused with ruou (Vietnamese rice liquor).
Then there’s the thit kho to, or Vietnamese caramelized pork – a nod to the humble dishes you’d find at canteens in schools and workplaces or at com binh dan rice buffets.
But here, tender pork comes with stewed apples, local herbs, mashed carrot and taro – layered between crispy lotus seed sheets, inspired by flaky mille-feuille French pastries.
For chef Stephane Yvin, a former biological engineer, balance is the key.
“Stephane uses the concept of yin and yang, combining Earth with the sea,” explains marketing manager Celia Tran. “It’s about balancing flavors which work best together.”
The red grouper tartare, in particular, is a colorful demonstration of this philosophy.
Yvin pairs raw ocean fish with local tropical fruits and rau tien vua, a leafy vegetable known locally as the king’s vegetable.
Green Tangerine, 48 Hang Be, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 24 3825 1286
Set inside the swish Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, Spices Garden has been serving up upscale street food for more than 20 years.
In the early days, menus were co-created by French chef and restaurateur Didier Corlou.
Today, the food is overseen by Hanoian chef Nguyen Thanh Van, who was the first Vietnamese woman to become a member of l’Académie Culinaire de France back in 2007.
Like any fine-dining restaurant worth its salt, Spices Garden offers a tasting menu to enable diners to sample the signatures.
“Our degustation menu is intended to give guests a taste of all three regions of Vietnam,” explains Nguyen.
“Abalone soup, from the south; a tasting platter of Hanoian appetizers; and Nha Trang lobster to represent the central region.”
As for the a la carte menu, diners can expect gourmet versions of traditional dishes – that means beautiful plating, high-quality ingredients and excellent service.
But the most exciting aspect of dining at Spices Garden is the professional sommeliers, who can pair wine with anything from pho to spring rolls.
For example, the black Angus beef tenderloin on the degustation menu is marinated with lemongrass and local spices – a combination that calls for a medium- to full-bodied red.
“The dish includes mushroom and chestnuts, which are quite wintery flavors, so I would say a full-bodied red like a Cotes du Rhone,” explains restaurant manager Do Hong Long.
Other well-known local dishes, such as cha ca, also benefit from a little French wine.
“Cha ca is the perfect dish to pair with wine – fish sauce is quite a strong flavor, so a light red, like a pinot noir, would be ideal,” says Do.
Pairing Vietnamese cuisine with wine is just one of the many ways that Vietnamese food is starting to emerge from its low-budget street-eats niche.
“I’m very confident in the reputation and development of our cuisine,” says Nguyen. “It can compete with the best French and Japanese food, for sure. Why not?”
Spices Garden, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, 15 Ngo Quyen, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 24 3826 6919
Edward Dalton is an English journalist based in Vietnam, who has contributed to CNN, Word Magazine and Vietnam News.