What & where?

A little bit of thought is required if you’re hoping to enjoy the best Hanoi’s food scene has to offer

By KEVIN RAISON on December 14,2018 10:02 AM

What & where?

If you want to find places without using a ratings site, the best advice is to know what you’re looking for before you begin your search

I was hanging my head in shame as we walked out of an expensive restaurant in West Lake. Being told by one’s date that you’re not allowed to choose the restaurants anymore, even in jest, is definitely a blow to the ego.

Where did I go wrong? Well, I did what many people do when trying to decide where to eat: I checked out online ratings. However, as the now famous Oobah Butler proved through making the shed behind his house the top-rated restaurant in London on Tripadvisor, ratings are not to be trusted. This is especially true in Vietnam, where employees are often compelled to leave positive reviews by their bosses and “likes” can be bought. I’m not saying all reviews are worthless, but if a review is not specific, only a line long, and uses such bland and empty adjectives like “good”, “bad” or “fantastic”, then skip it. One can also generally ignore blogs, as they are seldom updated and places often close even within a year of a post.

“Ping” went my phone the following weekend: “I’m hungry, let’s eat”. These are some of my favorite texts to read, because firstly I can’t pass up a chance to eat out and, secondly, when she’s hungry enough to tell me she’s hungry I know she has a plan. Within five minutes I know what dinner is to be. As competitive as I am, I don’t find it the least bit bothersome that she’s able to consistently find food far better than I typically can track down.

We left the small, packed back-alley joint thoroughly full from some of the freshest and best seafood I’ve had in Hanoi. I figured then was as good a time as any and I started to inquire how she finds such places. Her response was a bit underwhelming though: online.

To be fair, the internet can be helpful at times. Distrust reviews, sure, but websites such as Foody.vn rank places not just by their overall rating but also by the amount of people who visit. With this system you can easily see past places that are ranked highly just because one person (the owner) left the only review. Likewise, the Facebook page “Dia Diem An Ngon Hanoi” lists many great places to eat along with photos, reviews, and prices. The page tends to be kept up to date and, well, if you weren’t hungry before you very well might be after checking it out.

If you want to find places without using a ratings site, the best advice is to know what you’re looking for before you begin your search. Many of the best places to eat provide only one dish, but they do that one dish so well. In Hanoi, a lot more of the “modern” places might have a selection to choose from, but everything on the menu is often inferior to at least somewhere specific in Hanoi and is also a bit more expensive. This was especially true the last time I tried a new brunch place on Hoi Vu Street. I could readily point out places that provided better quality examples of each item we had from the menu, and of course at significantly lower prices. The coffee was even worse, like watered down instant coffee but at a premium price.

What & where?

Truth be told, when I eat alone I’m usually none too picky and am rather practical minded, but, and I’m sure you might agree dear reader, when one invites someone out to eat they hope the location can truly deliver, especially if guests are from out of town. I’ve had a similar experience in a famous large French villa style restaurant in Tay Ho as well. The place is exceptionally popular with the expat scene. However, every item we ordered from the menu was at least twice the cost and half the quality of that which can be found at smaller, more niche restaurants. Life’s too short for bad food, so know what you want and search it out. This might mean, though, learning a bit of Vietnamese.

But suppose you want to live spur of the moment, or you’re travelling and don’t want to put in that much effort to do research, then how does one find good food? Well, there’s certainly the obvious recommendation of “look for somewhere busy”. While this works well in Singapore’s hawker stall food centers, where one can quickly glance through a selection of 20 places in a span of 40 seconds, this is trickier in Hanoi, as food joints are spread out. Still, if a place is packed, there’s a reason for it, especially if a place is packed and it’s quiet: because there the food is worth focusing on.

Also, look at the crowd. Are they all backpackers? If you’re looking for a meal to impress then that may not be the right joint. Typically, I’ve found that local people focus on quality while backpackers focus on what’s cheap. Keep in mind, though, that a lot of Vietnamese people prefer the quality of the food over the quality of the service. One of the best “pho” places I know in Hanoi is busy every morning, sells out, and closes for the day by about 11am, and is staffed by one of the consistently rudest men I’ve met in my life. Though he has all the decorum of a mountain pig, the food is exceptional.

If it’s crowded, check it out a little bit first, and keep in mind that in Hanoi sometimes you have to be willing to drive a bit and you’ll be able to find many more fantastic options. There are some places that are good, and there are some places that only seem good when it’s 4.29am, everything else is closed, and you’re four beers, three tequilas, and two vodkas more drunk than you swore you’d ever let yourself get … again.

If you’re looking for a solid way to cut through nonsense and just figure out where a solid choice is, ask how long a place has been around. If you’re looking into smaller Vietnamese restaurants there many have been seemingly open forever. Such places and their staff might not look like much but you should never doubt the cooking prowess of a Vietnamese grandmother, as they’ve had decades to hone their craft. Growing up in a society where things like measuring cups aren’t common, their understanding of food isn’t mere calculation and assembly, but instead is often mastery of a craft so refined that they can sense an imbalance in a recipe and the correct ingredients to add just from the direction of the wind and the feeling in their bones. Hyperbole aside, there are a lot of time-tested places that local people and those living in Hanoi would be willing to advise you on.

In sum, distrust vague reviews, look for crowds that you imagine would want the kind of food you want, look for specific dishes rather than restaurants, and seek out the time-tested staples of Hanoi. Go with that and you’re sure to find at least a few places that’ll leave you with a thorough appreciation of Hanoi’s food scene. Happy hunting!

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