It’s Rafael Carneiro of Brazil’s first time visiting Viet Nam. He has mostly eaten noodle soups since he arrived – which has given him the impression that all Vietnamese food is the same. But a street food tour he took in Ha Noi proved him entirely wrong.
Food tours are expanding in the capital city. Most tourism companies offer them to travellers, and many are highly recommended on sites like TripAdvisor.com and Travelfish.org.
Instead of jetting out of Ha Noi as soon as possible to get to destinations like Ha Long Bay or Sa Pa, more tourists are now spending quality time in the capital wandering the streets of the Old Quarter and enjoying its various signature dishes, including pho and bun cha (fresh noodle with charcoal grilled pork).
Food tours stemmed from walking tours in which tourists enjoy the city on foot, learning about its history and culture. Firms now offer a wide range of tours that allow visitors to see the streets on bicycles and motorbikes. Besides, tourists can also buy ingredients at markets and cook at a Vietnamese home, or visit villages in the suburbs for lunch.
Out of all these options, street food tours are most popular. Food tours help visitors understand more about the city and its food, and bring them an unforgettable experience.
Like many other visitors to Viet Nam, Carneiro knows little about Vietnamese cuisine, and had never been to any Vietnamese restaurants in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro.
“I booked the tour because it is interesting to try the food here,” Carneiro said.
“My favourite dish is banh cuon (rolled pan cake) because I think it is different from others in the way they cook it,” he said.
Anneliene Magen of the Netherlands, also quite new to Viet Nam, said she’s had some experience with food in the south and centre of the country. She said she went on a food tour to try places she wouldn’t be able to find on her own.
“I heard that food is really great in Ha Noi,” she says. “I think joining a tour is a good way to find the best places. That way I don’t need to try a bunch to find a good one,” she said.
Magen added all she knew about the cuisine before arriving was that there’s a lot of rice and nem (spring rolls).
“I think Ha Noi and Hoi An are the best places to taste Vietnamese food,” she said. “I prefer pho bo (beef noodle soup), banh goi (pillow-shaped cake) and bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup). I want to eat as much local food as possible.”
Nguyen Ngoc Ha was one of the first tour guides to set up a food tour in Ha Noi. His company, Ha Noi Food Tasting Tours, has drawn in an average of 180 guests per month, while he alone has given tours to more than 3,000 tourists since April 2012.
Ha focuses on introducing visitors to Vietnamese culture through tasting its food. He chooses food stores and restaurants on old streets of Ha Noi, showing architectural characteristics of old houses and telling stories about the forming of small alleys.
He said that most food tours showcase only street food, but that’s not the only way meals are served in Viet Nam.
“Eating in street stalls is cheap and convenient for people,” Ha said. “However, they also go to restaurants where some owners offer secret family recipes. I want tourists to understand how Vietnamese people eat.”
The tour guide often brings visitors to some fixed locations such as Giang Cafe on Nguyen Huu Huan Street, where the first ca phe trung (egg coffee) was made. Other dishes always on the list include pho, bun cha, nem and cha ca (grilled fish). He also takes tourists to try new dishes like PappaRoti (Mexico buns) to let them know that Viet Nam welcomes delicious food from abroad while keeping its traditions intact.
In their first visit to Viet Nam, couple Debrah and Robert Braunschweig from Switzerland joined a food tour recommended by their daughter.
“We used to visit Vietnamese restaurants in Zurich, but it is difficult to differentiate Asian foods because they mix them,” Debrah said. “The food tastes different here. Vietnamese food is very fresh while in Zurich, people often buy packaged foods at supermarkets. I will try to cook Vietnamese food when I go back home.”
A bun cha stall in Hang Chi Alley in Hoan Kiem District is a popular stop for the tours. Seller Nguyen Kim Chi said that individual foreigners also come there to enjoy the food.
“Pho and bun cha are foreigners’ favourite dishes,” she said, adding “tourists often take photos of how we cook it while tour guides explain the method of cooking. Some of them go back in the following days with their friends.”