Northern Vietnam is known for its centuries-old heritage, diverse ethnic groups, and breathtaking natural beauty. If Ha Long Bay is already on your checklist, check out the timeless charm of Hanoi and Ninh Binh as well. Also, no visit to the north is complete without a food tour of this region’s signature dishes. Below are our top picks for northern delicacies.
Originated from Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, bún chả has become the second most iconic dish of the city just after phở. It’s the locals’ top choice for lunchtime.
This signature Hanoi dish consists of 3 elements: a plate of cold rice vermicelli (bún); a bowl of dipping sauce with marinated, charcoal-grilled pork patties and pork slices swimming inside; and a platter of fresh herbs and greens such as perilla leaves, lettuce, coriander, and water spinach. The dipping sauce made from fish sauce, german turnip, vinegar, and sugar has a sweet and sour taste that complements the smoky aroma of chargrilled pork nicely.
The local way to eat bún chả is to dip a bit of rice vermicelli into the sauce, eat it with the pork and the greens, then repeat. It’s also recommended to add square crab spring rolls (nem cua bể) as a side for extra flavors!
Bún chả became an overnight sensation when host Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama were pictured enjoying bún chả together at a small restaurant in Hanoi on the season 8 premiere of Parts Unknown in 2016.
Chả cá Lã Vọng is named after the restaurant that invented and popularized it in Hanoi over a hundred years ago. La Vong Restaurant is still open today and was listed in the bestselling book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Chả cá Lã Vọng is a classic local specialty of grilled turmeric-marinated fish served with fresh dill. The fish to make chả cá is usually white fish, such as catfish, cod, or tilapia. After being marinated in galangal, turmeric, and other spices, chunks of white fish are grilled on charcoal then being sautéed in butter on a hot pan tableside with a generous amount of fresh dill and spring onions.
Once ready, sizzling chunks of fish and dill are served with rice vermicelli, roasted peanuts, and coriander, along with a dipping sauce made with shrimp paste (mắm tôm) and lime juice.
Smokey and aromatic, the fish is tender and flaky on the inside with a delicate, crisp caramelized coating.
Although La Vong Restaurant is where the original chả cá Lã Vọng is, you can also find just as tasty and even more affordable options throughout Hanoi.
Bánh đa cua is to Hai Phong, what phở is to Hanoi. It’s a beloved specialty that the locals take pride in for long. Its flavors are sharp and bold, just like Hai Phong people.
The main ingredients are flat brown rice noodles (bánh đa), crab meat, pork bones-based broth, and vegetables. Bánh đa is a type of locally-made rice noodles that’s similar to phở noodles in shape and size, but with a different color and texture. It’s brown and tastes much chewier than phở.
When served, bánh đa comes in a bowl of broth made from crab paste and a variety of toppings such as crab meat, shrimp, meatballs, fish cake, and ground beef wrapped in betel leaves (bò lá lốt). Fresh herbs such as julienned water spinach, Vietnamese celery, lettuce, perilla leaves, lime wedges, and sliced chilis are usually served on the side.
Bánh đa cua can be eaten at any time of the day. To enjoy the most authentic taste of this specialty, you should come to Hai Phong as it’s available everywhere on the streets there.
Square Crab Spring Rolls (Nem Cua Bể)
Nem cua bể is another proud specialty of Hai Phong. It’s like an extended version of Vietnamese spring rolls (nem rán). Instead of having an elongated shape, square crab spring rolls have a square shape with the size of a palm.
The main ingredients to make the filling are crab meat, lean pork, spring onion, vermicelli, mung bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, wood ear, shiitake mushrooms, and eggs. The rice paper used to wrap outside is also thicker than other types in Vietnam.
After mixing and wrapping all the ingredients in rice paper, nem cua bể is deep-fried, then cut in half or four and served with rice vermicelli noodles, lettuce, chopped cucumber, and sweet-and-sour fish sauce. To truly taste the crispiness of rice paper and the freshness of crab meat in every bite, you should enjoy it within the first 10 minutes after being served.
As mentioned above, it’s also served alongside bún chả. Hence, you can find nem cua bể at street stalls and luxury restaurants in Hai Phong or bún chả restaurants in Hanoi.