Story: Duc Dam
Photo: Amachau

This year, Hanoi welcomed autumn early. Now is the best time to go out on the town and savor some street side specialities.

Hanoians take great pride in the city's street foods

In Hanoi, the dry season is considered the “dating season”. At this time, the sun’s still shining brightly and the cold winter drizzle that keeps people indoors has yet to arrive. Of the city’s four seasons, autumn is the most romantic. Heaven and Earth seem to play matchmaker. As they wander around Hanoi’s alleys, past streets laden with plants and trees that date back to colonial times, young couples inevitably pass street food vendors.

Who says that only the scent of flowers or sitting on lakeside benches that are too wide for two but too small for three are the only romantic aspects of Hanoi in the autumn? Sharing snacks on the sidewalk is a poetic cultural tradition for Hanoians of all ages.

Lakeside green papaya salad

Hanoi is famous for its beef pho and bun cha, which are often included on lists of the world’s best street foods. Hanoians feel proud when visitors compliment these dishes or ask where to try them. Equally delicious is Hanoi’s lakeside green papaya salad with beef jerky “nom bo kho”. Served beside Hoan Kiem Lake, this dish is called “Nom bo kho Bo Ho” by Hanoians with Bo Ho colloquially referring to the area around Hoan Kiem Lake. As diners wait to be served, the familiar sound of clicking scissors cutting the beef jerky whets their appetites. The fresh combination of crunchy grated unripe papaya and minty green marjoram is enhanced by a spicy chili sauce. Sunlight seems to dance on the plate thanks to this salad’s bright mix of colors. Many places in Hanoi serve green papaya salad, each with their own style, but the quintessential place to try this simple but sophisticated dish is on the corner of Ma May Street, near Hoan Kiem Lake.

Hanoians take great pride in the city's street foods

Here, you’ll taste a salad that’s crisp, sweet, and crunchy. The salad is just dry enough, with tender and flavorful beef jerky, dried liver, and a dash of beef tendon to complement each other and bring out the sweet, sour, and spicy salad dressing, topped with roasted peanuts. The bursts of flavors are like a happy song that makes people twirl. The simple ingredients of this lakeside papaya salad make it far more delicious and memorable than versions served in fancy restaurants.

Ngu Xa rolled pho

Besides dishes served around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi has hundreds of delicious dishes served around other lakes. A proposal was recently made to create more pedestrian streets on Ngu Xa Peninsula by Truc Bach Lake, known for its delicious beef noodle rolls (“pho cuon”). Unlike the sharp papaya salad dressing, these rolls have a light, natural, and tangy kumquat flavor. Fresh rice noodles are cut into squares like rice paper rolls, rolled around stir-fried beef and herbs that always include coriander and basil, and dipped in sweet and sour fish sauce. While the ingredients and cooking techniques seem simple, it takes real skill to perfect this dish, as the cook must control the fire’s heat when stir-frying and allow a quick flare of flames to give the meat a hint of smokiness. 

Beef noodle rolls are among Hanoi's best-loved street foods

Using similar cooking techniques as those used to make medium rare stir-fried beef for noodle soup, the cook produces beef that’s sweet and tender. Best of all, this rolled-up pho doesn’t make us sweat in the Augu

Dracontomelon fruit: a taste of nostalgia

The autumn sun is scorching, but the cool green canopies of dracontomelon (quả sấu) trees conceal clusters of ripe yellow fruit. While the unripe green fruit is dried or pickled with sugar to create a special summer drink, this fruit’s ripening is a sure sign that autumn has arrived in Hanoi. Oddly, it’s impossible to buy ripe dracontomelons. This might be because most of this fruit is harvested while green and used to make billions of gifts that can be stored and consumed all year round. This means that few people wait until autumn for the fruit to ripen. The fruit that do evade the summer harvest must be masters of hide-and-seek, staying too well hidden for early picking. In the past, dracontomelons were a special treat for youngsters. For many people, their sour taste is nostalgic. 

Ripe yellow dracontomelon fruit

Today, with more access to sweet imported types of fruit, kids don’t crave dracontomelon fruit like they once did. In the future, tall buildings will fill Hanoi’s western side and sunsets spent sitting beside West Lake will fade into memories… On a US travel website, writer Kathryn Romeyn recently shared: “One might imagine the capital city of a country with more than 97 million people to be hectic, but it’s the opposite in Hanoi, which, to me, was like the set of a romantic period film with its patinaed colonial architecture shaded by lush canopies of towering trees.”