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.