When former President Barack Obama traveled to Hanoi in 2016, he famously joined the late Anthony Bourdain for a meal of bun cha, a beloved local specialty made up of bits of marinated, charcoal-grilled pork patties and pork slices in a dipping sauce with rice noodles and herb garnishes.
And then of course there’s the world-famous pho. Made with rice noodles, this beef noodle soup is a must-try on the streets of Hanoi – not to mention readily available overseas.
But there’s much more to the city’s diverse food scene.
Here are five dishes every Hanoi visitor – not just global leaders – should try. (And yes, we know, we’ve barely scratched the surface. For more amazing meals, check out our list of 40 delicious Vietnamese foods.)
Cha Ca (fish cooked with turmeric and dill)
Hanoians consider cha ca to be so exceptional that there is a road in the capital dedicated to these fried morsels of fish – Cha Ca Street.
Along the busy road, where spiderwebs of exposed electric wires hang overhead, dozens of specialists compete to sell the best cha ca – crispy turmeric-marinated fish that’s fried tableside in a pan with herbs.
The most famous restaurant on this strip is Ca La Vong – one of the oldest eateries in Hanoi – and the first to set up shop on Cha Ca Street, over a century ago.
The dish itself dates back more than 130 years. It was first invented by the local Doan family, who served the special meal to troops during French colonial rule.
Ca La Vong, 14 Cha Ca Street, Hanoi
Banh Tom (shrimp cake)
Deceptively time-intensive, Hanoi-style banh tom, or shrimp cakes, have just a few main ingredients: freshwater crayfish or shrimp from West Lake, flour and sweet potato.
Instead of grinding the shrimp into a paste (like a fish ball), the fried seafood is usually left whole – sitting atop the crunchy cakes.
It’s typically served with lettuce leaves for wrapping, plus chili, lime juice and fish sauce for dipping.
Banh tom is thought to have become common in the 1930s when small street vendors began congregating along Thanh Nien Street – a road that separates West Lake (Tây Hồ) and Trúc Bạch Lake.
When the hawkers garnered popularity, the government later combined many of the stalls and opened one big restaurant along the waterfront.
Enter Banh Tom Ho Tay. Today, the restaurant remains a fixture on Thanh Nien Street and still draws a steady stream of friends and families, gathering for slow afternoons full of crispy, savory shrimp cakes, chilled bia hoi (local draft beer), and front-row seats to the lake.
Bun Ca (fish noodle soup)
Fresh and light, bun ca combines fried fishcakes, dill, tomatoes, green onions, and perilla – a mint-like herb.
A lunchtime staple in Hanoi, you can find bun ca (fish noodle soup) just about anywhere.
But Mark Lowerson, founder of Hanoi Street Tours, points to a vendor west of the Old Quarter called Van, that specializes in the dish.
“This is one of the best in town,” he tells CNN Travel. “There are two types of noodles, and then your choice of steamed or fried fish.”
While in other countries, adding salt could be considered an insult to the chef – Lowerson says that’s not the case in Vietnam.
“Here, you are expected to use the condiments on the table,” he explains.
“Add a little lime, vinegar, chili and herbs to achieve the essential balance of salty, sour, sweet and spicy.”
Bun Ca Van, 105 Quán Thánh, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 167 937 7964
Bun Rieu Cua (crab noodle soup)
Bun rieu is a meat or seafood vermicelli soup with a distinctive crimson color. The broth gets its appearance from tomato paste and annatto oil, made from achiote tree seeds.
Freshwater crabmeat and blanched tomatoes are the soup’s star players. Tamarind paste lends sourness to the broth, while airy bits of fried tofu contribute crunch.
Depending on the region, bun rieu might also come topped with beef, pork, snails or fish.
Vermicelli noodles swim in the soup, adding balance to a dish that’s both colorful and light. Add to that the requisite plateful of lime wedges, chili and greens – like banana blossoms and mint – and you have a perfect meal.
Where to try it? There’s an excellent bun rieu street stall run by Ms. Thu, located in Thọ Xương Alley, near St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
Ca Phe Trung (egg coffee)
Vietnamese “egg coffee” – or Ca Phe Trung – is a Hanoi specialty in which a creamy soft, meringue-like egg white foam is perched on dense Vietnamese coffee.
While destinations across the city now serve it, Hanoi’s humble Cafe Giang cafe claims to have invented it.
There are hot and cold versions. The former is served as a yellow concoction in a small glass. It’s consumed with a spoon and tastes almost like a coffee flavored ice cream – more like a dessert than coffee.
The hot version comes resting in a small dish of hot water to maintain its temperature. The strong coffee taste at the bottom of the cup seeps through the egg – the yellow layer on top – and is quite thick and sweet, though not sickly.
Cafe Giang, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan, Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi; +84 98 989 22 98
CNN’s Dan Tham, Kate Springer, Karla Cripps and Halima Ali contributed to this feature.