Don't let the kebab stall at the start of Tran Quoc Toan's street eats section put you off, it's just another wonderful Hanoian incongruity. Perhaps its a talisman put there by the food gods to throw off track those of little faith in their search for Hanoi’s famous street food. Though more semi-industrial than atmospherically beautiful in that classic Hanoi way, Tran Quoc Toan’s food zone contains almost every Hanoian street food speciality, so it’s easy to create your own lunchtime street food tour.
Many visitors to and residents of Asia are street food obsessives. After living here for 18 months I’ve realized that the best way to find good street food in Hanoi is to find an area packed with offices, and visit during Hanoi's strictly observed lunch hour of noon to 1pm. Tran Quoc Toan’s location in the busy business area of Hai Ba Trung is the perfect place for this, providing a high enough turnover to ensure a large variety of fresh food is available. Alongside the more established cafes and restaurants, there are stalls that suddenly appear at lunchtime to feed the army of hungry workers. Stallholders frantically set up, dish up, then just as quickly pack up, clean up and disappear. By mid-afternoon you wonder if they were actually ever there.
Although Tran Quoc Toan stretches between Yet Kieu and Hang Bai, the main area for street food starts at Ba Trieu - the start of street food heaven marked by the rather greasy looking kebab stall. It finishes around Tran Binh Trong, where the fried tofu with fresh noodles and herbs (bun dau) stall resides. Starting from the Ba Trieu end, just next to the kebab stall there's snail soup, or 'women's food', a bit further up on the north side at 50b there's sticky rice (xoi), then a few doors up, a banh mi omelette stall (omelette sandwich). Com bin danh businesses: mini buffets that usually include a few vegetable dishes, a tofu variant, and a braised pork belly or chicken dish, also come and go from here.
From Truong Han Sieu street up to Quang Trung, on the south side of Tran Quoc Toan is what I call the Noodle Heaven section, established stall after stall selling different kinds of noodles, in soup, dry, fried and in Hanoi’s favourite barbecue dish, bun cha. This section is classic street food – office workers sit on tiny plastic stools, at tables covered with containers of chopsticks and spoons, dipping sauces, limes and paper napkins. The ground is everyone’s garbage bin, the refuse to be swept up afterwards by stallholders or eaten by a couple of scrawny chickens wandering among the tables. My favourite dish is a kind of everything noodle soup - fried wontons, fresh wontons, prawns and pork, all resting on a bed of egg noodles in a prawn stock. A few doors up, there’s excellent ‘bun bo nam bo’ - dry fresh rice noodles, a little sauce at the bottom to be mixed through with herbs, peanuts, fried shallots, and a great favourite with westerners.
After Noodle Heaven ends, cross Quang Trung to get to the street’s busiest restaurant, a classic one dish place that only serves duck and bamboo noodle soup (bun mang vit). An elderly lady is the stalls’ matriarch, standing behind a pile of freshly cooked ducks wielding a chopper, while her staff load noodles, bamboo and soup into bowls and push them forward to be topped with piles of her delicious duck. Eating alone in Vietnam is considering pitiful, but here it works in your favour, as solo eaters here get particularly large portions, presumably to cheer them up. Opposite the duck soup stall is La Petit Tonkinoise, not a street food place but a restored colonial villa and worth mentioning for it’s charming courtyard, a place to relax with a coffee or a cold drink after a meal, just don’t eat the very ordinary food they offer. The next street food place is a little way up the street, after some cafes, which also seem to be packed with workers at lunchtime, and some fruit sellers. The final street food stall is on the corner of Tran Binh Trong. This fried tofu (bun dau) stall is a favourite because of this dish, as it provides a variety of dipping sauces, not just the usual very pungent shrimp sauce (mam tom). Mam tom is an acquired taste that even many Vietnamese find difficult to stomach. Instead, this stall offers a light citrusy sauce made from cumquat juice and sugar that seems a strange choice with fried tofu, but is actually quite refreshing.
At two o’clock the frenetic energy of the street food vendors has gone, the pavements are bare and patrons back in their airconditioned offices. Until the dinner rush starts, Tran Quoc Toan looks like just another drab inner city street.
This article originally appeared in the July edition of Vietnam Heritage magazine.