Ancient Hue is famous for its atmospheric depiction of Hue’s royal history. The city was once home to the Nguyen emperors, who brought with them skilled artisans, entertainers, scholars and monks. The restaurant interior features landscaped gardens, koi ponds and models of 19th-century wooden buildings. For a special experience, indulge in the Royal Court dinner, a six-course meal with traditional music and dance. Cooking classes are also available.
The best Italian food in Hanoi can be found at the Sofitel Metropole. The sexy red dining room draws a cocktail crowd, businessmen and those craving a break from French and Asian food.
Located in the Sofitel Metropole, Bamboo Bar is one of the best-known hotel bars in the city. The Metropole, located in the “French Quarter” of Hanoi, houses two additional bars, Parisian La Terrasse (an al fresco terrace), and the elegant Le Club. Bamboo bar is as it sounds, crafted of authentic bamboo and wood. This poolside bar is ideal for unwinding, people watching and enjoying the view.
Cha Ca La Vong
Despite being written up in nearly every guide book (not to mention the U.S.’s Vietnamese Embassy Web site), this classic spot in the Old Quarter still draws loads of locals, who mingle with the lunchtime crowds of tourists. There’s no menu, since the only dish is cha ca: a white fish (often grouper or catfish) that is marinated in a mixture of saffron, fermented rice and fish sauce, then grilled in chunks until tender at your table in a small cast-iron pan atop a charcoal-clay burner. Once it is tender, the gooey fish is mixed with chives and cilantro and served over vermicelli rice noodles, with shrimp sauce, peanuts and pickled vegetables. The place gets packed, so it’s best to arrive early and ask to be seated upstairs in the original dining rooms, which the locals prefer. Be prepared: there’s nothing fancy about this place.
For the best views in Saigon, head up to the Chill Skybar. Designed by the same firm as Bangkok’s Sirocco, it is the highest open-air bar in the city complete with a clubby sound and lighting system. The drinks are great but skip dinner, as there are better options throughout the city. Make sure you dress to impress—as this is one of Saigon’s hot spots.
Cuc Gach Quan
Hanoi restaurateur Didier Courlou has opened his first traditional French brasserie in a town where his fusion cuisine has set the standard for fine dining for years. In addition to the set menus, which are a steal for three courses, there are snack and à la carte menus featuring favorites like escargot, sausage with potato and lentil, farmer’s omelette, steak frites and one of the best profiteroles outside of Paris. The wine list is much more extensive than you would expect from the décor, which feels a bit thrown together as is the Hanoi way. But if the ambiance is not polished or professional, the staff is. The restaurant is on the second floor of a classic shop house in the Old Quarter so look up or you might miss it.
Fanny Ice Cream
On his first trip to Vietnam, French ice cream maker Jean-Marc Bruno fell in love with the vibrant colors and flavors of Vietnamese fruits, prompting him to found Fanny, an all-natural ice cream and sorbet shop. Now with locations all over the country, Fanny is beloved for its coconut, green apple and blackcurrant flavors.
Fanny Ice Cream
A local favorite serving frothy ice cream and sorbet, Fanny (which has three more branches in Ho Chi Minh City) is the spot for a refreshing snack while sightseeing. Unique flavors include young rice, avocado, durian, soursop, anise and salt caramel.
Ginger is set in a restored French villa that was spruced up with contemporary interiors and a stunning art collection. The seafood-leaning menu includes salted prawns, crabs stuffed with crabmeat and baked with cheese (an odd-sounding combination but delicious), and a hot pot with caramelized fish served over rice (a traditional Hanoi dish). For dessert, enjoy purple sticky rice with mango and homemade coconut ice cream.
This is the Starbucks of Vietnam, with branches all across the city. If you’ve maxed out on the strong Vietnamese coffee served at the local cafés with condensed milk, Highlands is a good spot for a latte-and-pastry break.
With a name that translates as “know one, teach one,” this not-for-profit eatery follows a model similar to that of Jamie Oliver’s renowned Fifteen restaurants where street kids have been trained in the kitchen arts so they can go on to have careers in the restaurant business. The 120-seat Koto, right across the street from the Temple of Literature and near Craft Link, is staffed entirely by Hanoi street kids and disadvantaged youths, who enroll in a two-year training program in hospitality, cooking and English. Most of the Vietnamese-Continental cuisine is quite good, and the staff is eager to please.
L’Usine Café and Shop
Opened by three French expats, La Badiane is considered one of the best French restaurants in Hanoi. The space has a contemporary casual atmosphere with an interior patio for eating outside in nice weather and a series of dining rooms decorated in an airy fashion with splashes of bright colors, rattan chairs and large photographs and Vietnamese art. The chef, Benjamin Rascalou, trained at some legendary restaurants in Paris before coming east to prepare global fusion cuisine. Among the specialties that you might find on the tasting menu are crab remoulade in ginger oil with beets and asparagus and pan-fried duck breast with tamarind red wine sauce. Reservations are recommended as this is an extremely popular spot.
Situated in the light-filled winter garden of the Sofitel Legend Metropole, Le Club is a calm place for breakfast, lunch, high tea in the afternoon or for pre-dinner cocktails or dinner. The menu mixes Vietnamese cuisine with Western favorites like a club sandwich, hamburger, croque monsieur or pizza. The hotel’s pastry chef excels at French delicacies, making afternoon tea a delight for kids with a sweet tooth, especially those who love chocolate as they have a special buffet with Belgian and French chocolates. Cocktail hour conjures the hotel’s glory days with a list of drinks named after such famous past visitors as Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin, who honeymooned here. There’s nightly jazz (except Monday).
Le Parfum is the place for an extravagant culinary experience. The French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant is located in the La Residence hotel, and boasts several tasting menus, including ones that focus on regional delicacies and international dishes. Among the most mouthwatering dishes are the cinnamon duck breast, curried lamb seasoned with Vietnamese spices and pumpkin soup laced with Phan Thiet vanilla.
Ly Club is named after King Ly Thai To, an 11th century king that established a site on the bank of the Red River to build his capital. This popular restaurant is located in a three-story French colonial building comprised of a cocktail and cigar bar, a main dining room, and a theater bringing together food and performance. The main dining room features antique furniture from the French colonial period, and it feels a bit like entering a musty, but authentic time warp. This fusion restaurant blends Asian cuisine with folk opera music. Performances available on the 2nd floor dining room only.
Set in an old courtyard house, Madam Hien complements French chef Didier Corlou’s more well-known fusion restaurant in Hanoi, Verticale. Corlou’s Vietnamese wife, Mai, runs the kitchen here and her traditional dishes like pho, a delectable noodle soup often prepared with beef slices, bean sprouts, scallions and mint, are a testament to the authenticity of this home-style restaurant.
This is one of a group of restaurants that is owned and run by a local man by the name of Duc Nguyen, a man I like to refer to as the “most interesting man in the world.” Born in Vietnam, Duc then left as a refugee at a young age and spent much of his youth in Texas. Afterward, he traveled throughout Europe as a chef before finally coming back to his native country. He was so inspired by the culture and cuisine that he decided to open up his restaurants in the town of Hoi An. Mango Mango and Mango Rooms are the more refined of his restaurants while Mai Fish is inspired by his mothers home cooking. All utilize local, fresh products and are located in the old town of Hoi An.
Located in a large colonial villa in District 1, Mandarin is best known for its authentic but refined Vietnamese cuisine. The atmosphere is inviting, and beautiful dark woods and traditional decoration define the villa. Large groups should consider dinner in the cellar where guests are surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine, candles and receive intimate service.
Located in downtown Hoi An, Mango Mango is a wonderfully situated open-air restaurant that caters to both Westerners and locals. The fare is Modern Vietnamese and Duc, the chef and owner, sources all local and fresh ingredients. All of the major flavors of Vietnamese food are present including sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter. The restaurant is known for its fresh seafood, sushi rolls and delicious braised meat dishes. Request a table on the second floor where the kitchen is open to the dinning room and patrons have views out over the river.
Also owned by chef Duc Nguyen, of Mango Mango and Mai Fish, Mango Rooms is located in the old town of Hoi An. While Duc’s other two spots can be classified as more traditional Vietnamese, Mango Rooms has a heavy South American influence and would be best characterized as South America Fare with a Vietnamese twist, not the other way around.
In the same way that the French love their macarons and have created a global craze for that special sweet, so are the Japanese exporting a taste for mochi. The rice donuts with fillings like mango yogurt, red bean, chocolate mousse and green tea are heavenly treats. Mochi Sweets is like the Ladurée of Japan. There are a number of outposts in Hanoi, and this one in the heart of the Old Quarter is the perfect place for a pick-me-up treat when shopping, but also worth an excursion just to taste this particular dessert craze.
Specializing in Seafood, Nam Phan is located in a four-story villa within District 3, an 8-minute drive from the main hotels of District 1. The restaurant is one of the endeavors of the Khai family, who are well known purveyors of silk, and own restaurants throughout Vietnam. Decorated in a modern Asian inspired style, the atmosphere is relaxed yet elegant and the service is spot on.
The more casual restaurant at the Park Hyatt Saigon is a great spot for breakfast, brunch or lunch. Ask to be seated on the terrace, which is enclosed by glass, so you can watch the buzzing traffic and life outside but don’t have to be privy to its scents and sounds. The breakfast buffet is one of the city’s most extensive, with croissants, baguettes and café au lait that taste like you took a wrong turn and ended up in Paris. The lunch menu is primarily focused on Italian dishes (soups, sandwiches, pasta, pizza), making Opera a good destination if you’re traveling with kids (or partners) who have reached their Asian-food limit.
Phuong Banh Mi
Made famous by a visit from renowned chef and food writer, Anthony Bourdain, Phuong Banh Mi certainly lives up to its hype as some of the best Banh Mi in Vietnam. Located on a small side street in the old town of Hoi An, this shop is the perfect stop for a quick lunch. The price for a sandwich is roughly around $1 so go crazy and order a beer to wash it down.
If you’ve reached your Asian-food limit or have kids who are craving some home cooking, the Press Club is a good option for a light lunch of soups or sandwiches. It has a nice third-floor terrace that offers respite from the Hanoi bustle and a convenient spot, right across the street from the Sofitel Legend Metropole, for lunch, dinner or afternoon coffee or pre-dinner cocktails. Several expats also swear by the weekend brunch.