As the center of politics and commerce in Vietnam, Hanoi enjoys a cosmopolitan restaurant scene, with everything from gourmet Vietnamese and classic French to a variety of Asian-tinged fusion cuisines. The expat foodies patronize the small bistros in the Church Street area west of Hoan Kiem Lake and along Xuan Dieu Street, two miles north near the tony West Lake neighborhood.
Most Vietnamese prefer to eat dinner out rather than at home, so you're almost always sure to be mixing with locals if you dine before 6 pm. But expats and hi-so (high-society) Vietnamese head out on the town at about 7:30. Casual attire is acceptable for any place in the Old Quarter, though smart- or business-casual is the norm at swankier French Quarter spots. Reservations are advisable on weekendsand every day of the week at a few small bistros like La.
For most Vietnamese, however, "dinner out" means grabbing a stool and sitting out on the sidewalk to enjoy street food from a favorite neighborhood vendor. These operations sprout every evening on most major thoroughfares. Every hawker has a specialty, but among the standard fare are pho (a noodle soup with either beef or chicken), cha ca (fish and rice noodles), and roast duck.
The cuisine of north Vietnam is lighter than most in Southeast Asia, without any coconut- or curry-heavy specialties. Flavor is imparted by fresh herbs such as coriander, ginger, and lemongrass and nuoc mam fish sauce. Not surprisingly, there's a definite Chinese influence down to the chopsticks, and especially in bun cha, a savory noodle soup with marinated, minced-pork balls and mint. And locals swear their pho is Vietnam's best. The tastiest holdover from the supply-challenged days of socialism are the mom-and-pop specialty restaurants that serve a single dish.