Pho Gia Truyen, on Bat Dan Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, doesn’t look like much from the outside—or from the inside, for that matter. The room has a clock, two fans, three bare lightbulbs, and a handful of communal tables. The only decoration is the food itself: hulking slabs of brisket suspended from hooks, a hillside of scallions on the counter, and a giant cauldron puffing out fragrant clouds of steam like some benevolent dragon. A cashier takes your money (about a dollar a serving), her colleague fills a bowl with noodles and chopped scallions, and a teenager with a faux-hawk ladles strips of ruby-red beef into the broth to cook for two seconds, then spoons it all into the waiting bowl. Half of Hanoi queues up for a seat, while others slurp their soup perched on motorbikes outside. All wear serious expressions, and eat in a silence that feels not joyless but reverential. The stock is so wholesome and protein-rich you feel yourself being cured of whatever might ail you, perhaps of anything that ever could.
A proper restaurant culture, the sort with waitstaff and normal-size chairs, is still in its infancy here, but Vietnam has a long tradition of eating out—quite literally so. Western notions of indoors and out are reversed: at a typical Old Quarter house in Hanoi, the motorbikes are in the living room and the stove is on the sidewalk.
When people here crave a particular dish, they usually visit a particular street vendor, often on a particular lane (which may even be named after said dish). The best way to tackle Hanoi is to treat the city as one vast progressive buffet, moving from the spring-roll guy to the fermented-pork lady and onward into the night. (For an exhaustive guide to Hanoi’s top street stalls, check out stickyrice.typepad.com.)
Or you could make it easy and hit Quan An Ngon (locals call it simply “Ngon,” meaning delicious). The owner recruited an all-star roster of street-food vendors to cook their signature dishes in the courtyard of an old villa, added menus and table service, and watched the crowds pour in—not just foreigners but also well-heeled Vietnamese, who can’t get enough of the place. (There’s also a branch in Saigon, a.k.a Ho Chi Minh City.) The quality is excellent, the atmosphere convivial, and seats hard to come by after dark. Come for breakfast and the food is even fresher (and the cooks outnumber the patrons). Most of these dishes are traditionally served all day, so the morning menu is much the same. My ultimate breakfast: an order of bun cha (grilled pork in a marinade of sweetened fish sauce with a side of rice vermicelli) and a bowl of banh da ca, a fabulously tangy fish soup from Haiphong laden with chunks of tilapia, chewy, fettucine-like banh da noodles, dill, scallions, and the magical rau can (a woody stalk with a strong, cedary bite).
Speaking of fish, Hanoi cha ca is one of the great Vietnamese dishes, a note-perfect blend of raw and cooked ingredients, assertive and delicate flavors, with a DIY element as a bonus. It’s often associated with a century-old Hanoi institution called Cha Ca La Vong, which is very good, indeed, though I prefer the more peaceful surroundings and local clientele of its rival, Cha Ca Thanh Long, a few blocks away. The firm white flesh of the snakehead fish is first marinated in galangal, shallot, shrimp paste, and turmeric, and briefly seared on a grill. It’s then brought to your table in a large pan with bowls of shaved scallions, crumbled peanuts, chiles, and a hedgerow of bright-green dill. A tabletop brazier is ignited. This is where you come in: tossing everything into the sizzling pan, sautéing the fish to a golden brown, then laying it onto a bed of cool vermicelli, with a few more dill sprigs for good measure. Add a dollop of supremely funky shrimp paste if you dare (and you should).
For all their obsessive eating and snacking, Hanoians tend not to linger at table. Most finish dinner in seven minutes flat. Where they do while away the hours is at the local café. Hanoians drink a lot of coffee: thick, rich, tar-black stuff, sometimes cut with condensed milk but often taken straight. The bohemian soul of Hanoi’s café scene is Nang, a 1956 landmark on Hang Bac Street whose 74-year-old owner, Ms. Thai, still brews nearly every cup herself. (Her father-in-law, who lived in Paris for a spell, taught her how to French-roast the beans.) Ms. Thai’s blend, sourced from Dong Giao, in the northern Nghe An province, is strong enough to power a 125 cc motorbike. The café is only eight feet wide, with tiny wooden tables and tinier wooden stools, occupied all afternoon by young Vietnamese men sporting the currently in vogue greaser look: slicked-back hair, black leather jackets, skinny jeans, white pocket T’s with single cigarettes poking out. The place looks exactly as it must have in 1956—a perfect microcosm of a city that’s always had a tenuous relation to the present tense.