It's hard to have a bad meal in Hanoi. Almost every ethnic food variation is well represented in the city -- from Italian, to Indian, to vegetarian options, to familiar Western fare. Years of brutal colonial rule by the French left many resentments, but no amount of anti-foreign revolutionary zeal could overcome Vietnamese culinary traditions borrowed from their one-time oppressors. The baguette lives on, and the legacy of fine French cuisine can be found in every quarter (and the French chefs are coming back to train this next generation as well). In Hanoi, look out for both classical French and Vietnamese fusion fare, all priced for varying budgets. The city now hosts a number of fine high-end Vietnamese restaurants where you can try local specialties without worrying about getting dysentery. But for authentic Vietnamese fare, try the squat stool places at streetside. Check the special sidebar below for good no-frills local dining options. Hanoi is a great place to eat adventurously and belly-up to good local cuisine.
Restaurant Tip -- Note that many upscale restaurants in Hanoi levy a 5% service charge on top of the 10% government tax.
A Scoop -- Check out the local ice-cream shops along Trang Tien Street between the lake and the Dan Chu Hotel. For 3,000 VND, enjoy a cone and be part of the local scene.
Snacks & Cafes -- Life moves fast in the busy city, but Hanoians are fond of their coffee and taking time to sit back and watch it go by. We list a few of the many cafes in town. Hanoi's cafes open early for breakfast (about 7am) and close around 9pm. Bring cash; only larger restaurants accept credit cards.
Have You Tried the Snake?
Six kilometers (3 3/4 miles) to the east of Hanoi, across the Red River, is the town of Le Mat, also known as the "Snake Village." Among shanty houses and winding alleyways, you'll find Chinese-style roofs sheltering elegant dining areas, all strangely tucked away. What's the big secret? This town is the hub of the very taboo snake industry, and it's the place to try fresh Tit Ran, or snake meat. The Vietnamese taboo is not much different than that in the West -- something like "Eat snake? Ooooh, yuck!" Snake is also considered a male aphrodisiac, a kind of fried Viagra, so at night it's not uncommon to see groups of businessmen drunk as skunks piling into these places for a bit of medicine.
Here's the drill: Finding it is half the battle (or adventure). Any taxi driver will be happy to take you to his friend's place in anticipation of a commission. Feel free to ask to see another restaurant (some of them are pretty grotty), but expect to pay about $5 to get there. There are lots of restaurants in Le Mat, but one to try is O Sin (tel. 04/3827-2984).
You'll be greeted by a friendly owner who'll usher you back to the cages and put on quite a show of stirring up the snakes before selecting one he thinks will feed your party. He'll then quote you a ridiculous price, but expect to pay somewhere between $5 and $10 per person after bargaining.
Then the show begins. You'll be seated and, before your eyes, the owner will adeptly kill the snake, drain the blood into a jar of rice whiskey, and systematically disembowel the animal, extracting the liver and showing you the still-beating heart before adding it to the whiskey/blood concoction. The guest of honor eats the heart and takes the first sip of whiskey before circulating the bottle. Thus begins a lengthy seven-course meal, starting with fried snake skin, grilled snake filet, snake spring rolls, snake soup with rice cake, minced snake dumpling, copious amounts of rice whiskey, and orange wedges for dessert. It's a decent meal, really, and certainly something to write home about.
Be warned that many of these places are part of the underground market in endangered species, selling bear paws and rare jungle animals thought to have medicinal benefits, but the snakes are common cobras found everywhere in Vietnam, and a trip here makes for an interesting night. Be clear with the driver about where you want to go (for example, not to a brothel afterward), and don't pay until you arrive at the destination.
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.