Chasing Down the Best Desserts in Hanoi
Hanoi, Vietnam: a Guide to The Sweetest Eats in the City
By Ruth Martin
I don’t know whether it was me or my partner who suggested the mad plan first, but one muggy Vietnamese morning we set out to accomplish the Sugar Challenge, a giant list we’d compiled of our favorite Hanoian desserts. List in hand we descended into the noisy sweltering streets with nothing but our cameras and a hankering for desserts. Little did we know how accurate the nickname for the list would turn out to be. The Hanoi Sugar Challenge was soon to become a daring, possibly life-threatening, definitely challenging task.
Stop 1 – Cà phê sữa đá and bạc sỉu (29 Hòe Nhai – 20,000 ₫ each)
There’s no better way to kick start your morning in Hanoi than by partaking in Vietnam’s coffee culture. My confidence in our ability to complete the challenge ran high as we sat down at our first stop of the day, a café on Hòe Nhai Street. Sipping icy cà phê sữa đá (coffee with sweet condensed milk at the bottom) and very milky bạc sỉu (similar to sữa đá, but sweeter), we watched the traffic fly by and we mapped out our plan for the rest of the day. By the time we left the café we were excited and a bit jittery from the black tar and sugar that now flooded our blood streams. It was time for breakfast.
Stop 2 – Smoothies from Trang Juice (2 Hàng Lược – 30,000 ₫ each)
Vietnam’s selection of fresh produce is incredible, especially for a girl who grew up thinking that the only way to buy chicken was in freezer bag from Walmart. The markets here are eye-opening, but another great way to sample some of the fresh produce is at a fresh fruit smoothie stand. One of my favorites is Trang Juice.
I ordered a fluorescent carrot and pineapple smoothie for breakfast and my partner ordered watermelon. Our very sweet but filling breakfast had us ready to tackle the next item on our list.
Stop 3 – Chè from Lutu Lata (39 Hang Cot Street – 32,000 ₫)
It was time for our first proper dessert of the day. We went looking for chè or as my Vietnamese students describe it, sweet soup. Personally, I adore chè, but the Vietnamese dessert is definitely a love it or hate it food.
I know few Westerners who actually enjoy the treat, but to me the combination of sweet pudding or yogurt, jelly bits, dried fruits, and ice is heaven on earth.
I love the texture and I love the taste, so this step of the Sugar Challenge was an enjoyable breeze. And of course it didn’t hurt that I got to enjoy this snack in the atmosphere of Lutu Lata. It’s a café on the edge of the Old Quarter that takes charm up a notch with its stacks of Bat Trang pottery, beautiful balconies, friendly waiters, and pop music. If you are anywhere near Hang Cot and have a hankering for coffee or chè, I highly recommend this cute, friendly café.
Stop 4 – Ice cream from Hokkaido Snowie (35 Hang Luoc – 120,000 ₫)
It wasn’t until I was faced with the mountain of strawberry and mango ice cream at Hokkaido Snowie that I realized the Sugar Challenge might actually be a real, honest-to-God challenge. The somewhat hokey ice cream shop, Hokkaido Snowie has a myriad of flavors, all of which come in absurdly large portions, so bring a friend if you decide to check it out.
We ordered our ice cream downstairs and then sat upstairs on the floor mats because there isn’t enough room between the floor and the ceiling of the restaurant for real chairs.
As always the ice cream in Hokkaido Snowie was lovely. We made a large dent in the small mountain of sugar and cream, although I’ll admit it was the one dessert of the day that we weren’t capable of finishing completely, otherwise we would have had to lay out on the floor mat and give up on the challenge before we’d even started. The ice cream was fruity and lovely, but extremely filling and I looked at the next item on our list with a little trepidation.
Stop 5 – Chocolate Bun from King Roti (34 Hang Gai – 15,000 ₫ each)
Stop 5 required a walk to Hoan Kiem, thank God, as I needed time to digest. We found our next sugar challenge at the bottom of Lương Văn Can. King Roti is a small business with an excellent advertising strategy.
A big fan typically wafts the smell of their sweet buns all down the street. Today I went for the chocolate bun, delicious and a steal at 15,000 ₫. It was the perfect, messy, mid-morning snack.
Stop 6 – Mint and Lime Popsicle from Hoan Kiem Lake (7,000 ₫)
King Roti is only a block away from Hoan Kiem, which was our next stop. There are several ice cream stands that dot the shore of Hanoi’s most treasured lake. On hot days you’ll see crowds of young people sitting on their motorbikes near the water’s edge, chowing down on delicious popsicles and ice creams.
My personal favorite treat is an interesting mint and lime number, identifiable by its bright green color and packaging, which is perfectly flavored to cool your taste buds on a hot day.
Stop 7 – Trà Chanh from Café Trà Chanh (26 Nha Tho Street – 15,000 ₫)
After the ice cream and the bun our next stop provided some much needed hydration. There are several cafes surrounding St. Josef’s Cathedral all serving trà chanh, an iced lemon tea loaded with sugar and flavor, but my personal favorite café is 26 Nha Tho which provides an unobstructed view of the imposing Catholic church and all the people stopping in front of it to take selfies.
Stop 8 – Egg Coffee from Giang Café (39 Nguyễn Hữu Huân – 20,000 ₫)
Next it was time for more coffee. This café, which is located down a secretive, narrow corridor with a very non-descript sign, very near the famous street eatery Xôi Yến, is actually not that secret at all.
When you follow the alley and walk up the rickety metal stairs, the café will open into a noisy room filled with tourists and locals alike, all enjoying my favorite version of Hanoi’s popular cà phê trứng.
A fluffy, whipped egg concoction floats atop a hot shot of thick, black Vietnamese coffee. It was around this point in the challenge that my heart began to pound quite loudly, although not unpleasantly, and I began feel a little light-headed whenever I stood up. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet!
Stop 9 – Coconut Coffee at Cong Caphe (Hàng Mắm – 35,000 ₫)
My partner and I had to gear ourselves up for the next stop in the Sugar Challenge. After all, we’d already had two coffees and the thought of downing a third immediately after the jet fuel like egg coffee seemed a bit insane, even for us. But this was a challenge after all! And what’s a challenge without a little danger (danger of bouncing around the streets of Hanoi like a pinball).
So off we went for coconut coffee which can be found in many establishments throughout Hanoi. However, one of my favorites is served at the chain, Cong Caphe. The chain can be found on nearly every street in the Old Quarter.
Its a communist-themed café that might seem a little cheesy to some visitors, but it’s a Vietnamese-owned enterprise and I’ll be darned if it isn’t delicious, even though the drink did make me feel even more light-headed than I thought previously possible. I was starting to feel that if I stood up too fast I might take off.
Stop 10 – Donuts (3 Lương Ngọc Quyến – 2,000-4,000 ₫ each)
Next it was on to a treat which I was not particularly excited for. If you’ve been to Hanoi, you’ve seen the donut ladies, the pushy saleswomen trying to sell their sweet but dry treats all over the Old Quarter. My first encounter with these donuts was not particularly tasty, but having seen a source-restaurant for these traveling saleswomen, I thought perhaps I should give the treats a second try for the sake of our challenge.
It turns out that eating these snacks hot out of the fryer is a significant improvement over buying the ones that have been sitting all day in someone’s basket (sorry, ladies), and I actually liked them so much I ate two, even though that immediately proved to be a poor decision. There was more sugar to come!
Stop 11 – Mia Da (A mobile stand on Lương Ngọc Quyến – 10,000 ₫)
Soon after the donut shop, I saw a man selling mia da, sugar cane juice freshly pressed from a cane into a plastic cup for kids and kids-at-heart who are craving something cold and sweet under Hanoi’s gray but stifling skies.
I typically love mia da, and was not in the least bit worried about this particular challenge. I assumed that it would be just as refreshing as it always is on sweltering afternoons.
It’s mostly water after all. Little did I know that it would turn out to be the biggest challenge of the day. I typically love the sweet flavor, but the essentially pure sugar and water drink nearly killed me after a full morning of inhaling desserts, including two donut holes mere moments before. I drank as much as I could before abandoning the drink and rubbing my tummy. We weren’t done yet.
Stop 12 – Vietnamese/French Cake (18 Hàng Cót – 4,000 ₫ each)
Our intention had been to make this stop earlier during the day as my favorite bakery is right next to Trang Juice, but we forgot and had to double back after our trip to Hoan Kiem. Due to the French people’s long colonial history in Vietnam, bakeries which sell Vietnamese/French style cakes and breads have been whole-heartedly adopted by the Vietnamese.
These cakes are sometimes a bit dry for my taste, but one particular bakery near Trang Juice has a whole range of cookies and treats which I just love. I could only manage this small cookie filled with cream for the challenge, but I’m still counting this little morsel as stop number 12 completed.
Stop 13 – Bo bia (Thanh Niên – 20,000 ₫ each)
Our next stop was a little out of our way, which I was fine with as by this point in the day I was flagging. Having eaten no real food and having walked the entire length of the Old Quarter and back I was wobbling on my feet and needed at least a few minutes to digest the copious amounts of sugar I’d ingested before our next stop.
Thankfully bo bia is a lighter Vietnamese treat and the cool texture of the chilled coconut, sticky honey bits, and rice paper wrapping was actually a welcome relief from some of the heavier desserts of the day. Besides, with only two more stops on the list, the sugary end was in sight!
Stop 14 – Karamen and Coconut Jelly from Minci (2 Nguyễn Trường Tộ – 7,000 ₫ each)
Finally it was time to come full circle. We looped our way back to Hòe Nhai, but before we could go home, we had one more stop: Minci. Minci is a brightly-painted, green, dessert shop, famous for its karamen and other sweet treats. For the last two items on our list, my partner purchased a karamen, a dessert similar to flan, and I had a coconut filled with jelly.
I don’t understand how they make the treat, and I don’t know the name of it in Vietnamese, all I know is that the taste of this sweet jelly and coconut made me smile with delight as it would be the last sweet treat I’d be eating ever possibly. I had survived with my teeth and my heart intact.
Challenge completed– Just stay away from the dentist for a while!
Ruth Martin is an English teacher and blogger who has spent the last 8 months living and working in Hanoi, Vietnam.