Hanoi's local cuisine is some of the best in Vietnam, and the finest local dishes are served at small one-dish restaurants, usually just open-air joints at street side, where you might wonder why there's a line out the door. To Vietnamese, it's about the food, not the atmosphere. Some of the best meals in the capital -- or anywhere in Vietnam, for that matter -- are eaten on squat stools with disposable chopsticks. Standards of hygiene might appear poor, but do as locals do and wipe down bowls and chopsticks with a napkin before tucking in. Yes, eating on the street does mean you might have some tummy trouble, but if you stick to the few places recommended below, you should be okay.
The ubiquitous pho -- noodle soup served with slices of beef (bo) or chicken (ga), fresh bean sprouts, and condiments -- can be found anywhere. And don't miss cha ca, Hanoi's famed spicy fish fry-up.
Banh Cuon, 14 Hang Ga St. (tel. 04/3828-0108), consists of minced pork and mushrooms rolled into soft rice crepes topped with crispy fried garlic and coriander. Cut-up pieces are dipped in a tasty fish sauce. The stuffing-to-crepe ratio at this streetside eatery is a bit on the low side, but it is still great value for money, at 20,000 VND a plate.
Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu St. (tel. 04/3923-0701), serves only one main course: bun bo, a dish of fresh rice noodles topped with crisp fried garlic, bean sprouts, peanuts, basil, and beef, that costs only 30,000 VND. Sound simple? It is. It is the subtlety of the flavors of this dish and the stock that brings 'em here in droves. Just order by holding up as many fingers as you want bowls of bun bo, take a seat at the low tables in the brightly lit interior, and wait. A spartan atmosphere, but a rich and delicious dish worth hunting down. No credit cards. Daily 7am to 10:30pm.
Cha Ca La Vong, 14 Cha Ca St. (tel. 04/3825-3929), is on a street called Cha Ca, and it serves one dish . . . you guessed it . . . cha ca (starting at 100,000 VND per person). So what's the story with cha ca? Very simple: It's a delicate whitefish, fried at high heat in peanut oil with dill, turmeric, rice noodles, and peanuts -- and it's delicious. The place is pretty grungy, and to call the service "indifferent" would be to sing its praises, but that's the beauty here: It's all about the food. You order by saying how many you are and how many bottles of beer or soda you'd like. Then it's do-it-yourself, with some gruff guidance, as you stir in the ingredients on a frying pan over a charcoal hibachi right at the table. It's a rich dish and great with some hot sauce (go easy on it at first), and it makes for a fun and interesting evening. Just say "Cha Ca" and any cabdriver can take you there. Avoid copycats: There are a few copycat "Cha Ca La Vong" restaurants on the same street serving this dish on electric grills, so make sure you've got the right address before you sit down and order. No credit cards. Daily 11am to 2pm and 5 to 9pm.
Gia Thuyen Pho (Noodle Soup) , 49 Bat Dan St. (on the west side of the Old Quarter near the old citadel wall), is a very popular storefront pho noodle soup stand in Hanoi's Old Quarter. If you've seen the Japanese film Tampopo, about the making of the perfect noodle soup, or saw the Seinfeld episode about New York City's "Soup Nazi" who, because of his quality broth, chose his customers instead of vice versa, you'll have an idea what it's like. The line is around the block day and night, as Hanoians of all stripes humbly cue up for a taste of the best. The formula is simple: delicious cured beef, fresh noodles, and spices -- done the same way, over and over, for years. Just order "One please" (it is pho with beef or nothing) and pay the surly lady, who might even let a few customers go ahead of you if she doesn't like the cut of your jib. Unlike in most pho joints, no one serves you, so you have to carry your own bowl to an open slot at a crowded table (if you come with a friend, you might have to separate), and the place is as grotty as any little noodle stand, but when you pull those first noodles off the chopsticks and follow with a spoonful of broth, you'll know why you came. No phone. One bowl of beef pho is 25,000 VND. Daily 6 to 11am and 6 to 11pm.
Nguyen Sinh Restaurant Francais, 17-19 Ly Quoc St., directly north on the street that runs in front of the Nha Tho Cathedral (tel. 04/3826-5234). What is so Vietnamese about this French restaurant? Everything. Founded in 1950, these folks were the ones (among many) who kept alive the art of baking bread and cooking French foods. Vietnamese French has its own bend, say French expats, and in Hanoi it's a cuisine of its own. This little storefront offers good imported cheese and wine; it's sort of like Hanoi's de facto New York deli (it'll do in a pinch, anyway, for that late-night snack). Here you can get a delicious baguette with cheese and pâté for just 35,000 VND, or a savory steak fry-up French style. You'll find locals in berets trying out their newest licks on the saxophone, and French expats getting a little taste of home, chatting with the Francophone clientele. Très chic. Daily 7am to 10pm.
Restaurant Lau Tu Xuyen, 163 Yen Phu, with another location at 199 Duong Nghi Tam (tel. 04/3714-0289), is a fun adventure. Way out on the eastern shore of West Lake (about 30,000 VND by taxi from the city center), this big warehouse of a restaurant is the best place in town to enjoy the real lau, or Vietnamese hot pot. Go with a Vietnamese friend or be open to some creative charades with your waitress; there's no English menu, and foreign visitors are rare. The official directions for cooking hot pot? As my friend says, "You just put." Add whatever you like -- fresh seafood, beef, poultry, and vegetables -- to a shared pot of boiling broth on a hot plate in the center of the table. They also can bring out a barbecue setup for small kabobs. You order like you would order dim sum, choosing plates of raw ingredients off a tray. The place is packed in the evenings, especially in the winter (this is Vietnam's version of stew) and on weekends. The entry is just adjacent to the Thang Loi Lakeside hotel. The local draft beer flows freely and costs little. Make a night of it and end with a walk in this busy expat neighborhood. Expect to pay about $5 per person in a group. No credit cards. Daily 11am to 10pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.