explain the unfamiliar options.
We opted for the Hanoi Street Food Tour (hanoistreetfoodtour.com), a well-reviewed company that runs tours in the city’s buzzing Old Quarter. We chose the three-hour Hanoi Street Food Tour By Walking at a cost of $20 a person. The company also offers morning and nightlife-focused tours.
The walking tour starts at the office at 74 Hang Bac St., where you can buy tickets. We recommend swinging by in person; we easily got tickets for that day, and going there ensured we were at the right place. In Hanoi, businesses sometimes copy another business’ name, like a hotel or restaurant, and set up shop. Unsuspecting tourists can end up at the copy cat place instead of the real deal.
Standing back on a corner from the wave of scooters, our guide, Teddy, started by asking about food allergies and checked to see if we were comfortable sharing our eats.
Arriving at Bun Cha Ta, Teddy explained that most restaurants are known by numbered addresses. Many are named solely by their dish — like bun cha, a pork and noodle dish — and locals remember that dish, and where to find it. In this case, locals would describe it as the place serving bun cha at 21 Nguyen Huu Huan St., as opposed to “Bun Cha Ta.”
Climbing winding stairs, we arrived at a small room on the upper floor, where we dined on soup filled with fragrant barbecued pork. Our guide explained how to eat it — add a chile or two, but “just leave it” for flavor, don’t eat it — and detailed the broth’s mix of vinegar, honey and water.
In Vietnam, eating is a process. Small bowls accompany each meal so that diners can perfect the taste to their liking. It’s normal, Teddy said, to spend 10 minutes fiddling with addon ingredients to get it exactly right.
Next, we made our way to a place serving papaya and beef salad. A bit different from other papaya salads in the region, this one was light on spice and big on crunch thanks to the peanuts.
Not only did we get to learn about Vietnamese food and how to eat it, we got to see how it’s made. At the next stop, a woman preparing a steamed rice pancake called banh cuon waited patiently as our guide explained the process. Then she picked up a bamboo stick to effortlessly create an ethereal sheet from the batter.
Here is where stomachspace rationing began. After just three stops, we were all stuffed. And next on the list? A plate with four different fried foods, including the sweet dough- nuts that vendors sell on the street.
Sensing our filling stomachs, Teddy started dishing out tips. The next place, we’d be eating crab noodle soup. The money, she said, was in the broth. Skip the noodles if need be.
Flexibility was an asset for this food tour. When, for example, an American teaching in Bangkok mentioned how she loved black sticky rice and yogurt, our guide subbed that in. And when jackfruit came up, she asked a proprietor to slice some samples of the giant treeborne treat.
Beer, of course, was also on tap. Our guide joked that the bia hoi, or draft beer, could be likened to water. Nonetheless, we tried some on a slim street filled with tiny tables and waiters proffering menus.
Stuffed with food, information and restaurant recommendations, I considered this a great crash course in the nuances of local cuisine. People on a food tour can typically trust they will be taken to stomach-friendly places — happy tourists aren’t sick tourists.
That said, if you accidentally swallow a chile after the guide’s warning not to, that adventure’s on you.