A Chef's Tour: The Hanoi You've Never Seen Yet

You’ll see me awake at the crack of dawn under only two circumstances: when I want to catch a truly epic sunrise (like Angkor Wat), and when I drank so much that it was already time for breakfast. There’s no way you would find me lively and in a good mood at 4AM (especially when I’m traveling), so why is it that when I saw this tour called “Hanoi Private Dawn Market Tasting Tour” by A Chef’s Tour, I knew that I had to do it?

Well, I’m a chaser of unique experiences too, and this tour—I haven’t heard of anything like it. In a touristy city like Hanoi, what else can you do? What else is there aside from great coffee, beautiful rustic cafes, hearty soups, and delicious bun cha? What can you see aside from lakes, museums, and temples? This was my answer—a market tour that not only allowed me to discover food I have never seen nor heard about before but also showed me the culture of such a fascinating city.

I have tried A Chef’s Tour in Bangkok, and it was so awesome that I believe every foodie would want to go to any city where they hold tours. As the name suggests, the tour is led by a local chef—in the case of Hanoi, it was Chef Duyen, founding member of the Hanoi Cooking Centre and a guest chef in Gordon Ramsay’s Asian Adventures. She runs her own food tours and cooking classes and used to work in a market herself, before going to culinary school and establishing her own business.

The tour starts at 4AM—such an ungodly hour, I know, but believe me, if you are passionate about food and unique experiences, it’s totally worth it. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to wake up, so you know what I did? I didn’t sleep at all and by 3:45AM, I was already waiting for Chef Duyen at the lobby of my Airbnb. She arrived in a taxi, all bright and bubbly as if it was time for lunch!

Why does the tour start this early? Well, according to Chef Duyen, we were in fact, even a little late. The height of market activity happens at 2AM (we were visiting huge, wholesale markets), where locals, business owners, vendors, basically many types of people are looking for the freshest produce and the rarest catch. Which makes me the only one not looking for anything in particular—therefore while I took photos and sampled street food leisurely, motorcycles were rushing past, carrying loads of vegetables and fruits; flower carts were being stowed away as if they were being chased; and people were shoving, pushing, haggling (I guess?), running, shouting … I ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT.


Our first stop was the Quảng Bá Flower Market which is a wholesale market selling fresh-cut flowers from Hanoi and different parts of Vietnam (mostly from Da Lat). I’ve never seen such a huge quantity of flowers in my life (I’ve never been to the one in Manila, sorry, LOL), and most of them, I don’t even recognize. Some of them are so pretty that it made me want to travel to Da Lat to see the flower farms!

Business owners and vendors from smaller markets order from Quảng Bá, so it’s quite impossible for a random person like myself to buy anything, especially since they are sold by the bulk. I noticed that most buyers were women—Chef Duyen said that the women dive into the busy markets while the husbands typically wait outside with their motorbikes.

Next, we drove over to a bigger market called Long Biên, which is situated right beside the historic bridge across Red River. It’s another wholesale market, with dry and wet areas, and it’s pretty hardcore (my local friends were shocked that I went there, LOL). Chef Duyen actually lives within the vicinity, so she knows every corner of the market as well as the food stands and eateries around.

It was around 5AM when we arrived, and while the market was still bustling, a lot of stuff were already sold out—like prawns and some fruits. We first visited the dry area where we sampled fruits and vegetables. I loved seeing produce that are not found or hard to find or super expensive in my country. More importantly, I actually got to see the ingredients that go into my favorite Vietnamese dishes! From the crops used to make noodles down to various leaves I have never seen and tasted on their own. If you like to cook, you will appreciate this experience even more. Basically the inner tito (uncle) and homebody in me is jumping with joy, haha!

The wet area features an assortment of meats and seafood, of course. Huge oxygenated tanks contain freshly caught animals like eel, catfish, octopus, shrimp, and squid, as well as different types of fish and a number of items I don’t recognize. There are “exotic” stuff like snails, crickets, toads, and silk worms as well. It’s weird how I don’t even go to wet markets back home, but here, I was so engrossed with everything that I didn’t mind if people kept pushing me, and that I didn’t understand any word everybody says (my Vietnamese vocabulary is limited to “một – hai – ba – dzô”)!

Then we checked out some spices and Chef Duyen made me sample some. Along the way, she would point out a vendor selling a particular kind of food, and she would ask me if I wanted some. I tried a couple of things like delicious glutinous rice balls (similar to buchi) covered with sesame. I saw some boys eating bún miến ngan (duck noodle soup) and wanted to try this “market version”, but I didn’t want to overeat because I was reserving space for the food stalls we would visit outside.

And that’s right, once we got out of the labyrinth that is Long Biên, Chef Duyen made me try more food. First stop: a street stall serving xoi, or Vietnamese sticky rice. This dish, typically served on a banana leaf, can be sweet or savory—the one I tried is savory, with toppings of fried shallots and peanuts. I think the rice is cooked with turmeric powder (in this case, it’s called xôi xéo).

Then we went to a neighborhood eatery selling bun rieu—a soup dish made with tomato and crab fat broth. I’ve been meaning to try bun rieu so I was happy to entrust the restaurant choice to Chef Duyen. Various meats are added to the dish; in this shop, there was pork sausage, beef strips, tofu, and snails. I love it. The rich and tangy broth is so comforting. I was on the brink of falling asleep at this point but the bun rieu energized me.

Here’s a new discovery: bánh mì trứng ngải cứu. I have never heard of this bánh mì variety before. It’s basically a scrambled egg sandwich, but what makes it special is the herb added to the egg: ngải cứu, or wormwood, also an ingredient in Absinthe! Wormwood is a medicinal herb used to treat digestive problems and it’s super bitter when raw. But cooked and mixed with egg, it’s pretty tasty!

Lastly, Chef Duyen took me to Café Giang. It’s a pretty popular (and historic) place because the original owners actually invented the egg coffee. I have been to this café before, so instead of ordering egg coffee, I tried their bac xiu: Vietnamese coffee with sweet milk. It was already 8AM, I should be sleeping, but this small glass of coffee sent palpitations all over my body until around 9AM I think, hahaha (at this point, I just wanted to crash to bed).

You’re probably wondering what’s special with this tour. I mean, you could go to markets around Asia and they would look more or less the same, right? Probably, but it’s not the way it looks that matters here. If you’re in love with food (especially Vietnamese food), a tour like this led by a knowledgeable, passionate chef can be the best tour you will ever have. A real foodie would want to learn about the produce, the ingredients, the stories behind the dishes. You won’t get that from the run-of-the-mill tours that abound in touristy places like Hanoi.

My advice? If you don’t like food, or don’t want to learn more about food (Northern Vietnamese food in particular), stay away from this tour. Otherwise, it’s probably one of the most amazing and authentic experiences you’ll ever have.

What I loved about this tour:

• Discovering stalls and eateries I never would’ve found myself
• We were the only tourists in the places we went to 😊
• Chef Duyen is so knowledgeable and jolly
• 6 dishes to try after the market tours (I skipped two because I have already tried the exact dishes and places—I’m a great researcher :p)
• Bottled water and transfer service to and from hotel/Airbnb are provided
• Group is small (up to 8 persons only)

Book your Hanoi Private Dawn Market Tasting Tour here

A Chef's Tour

*My tour is sponsored by A Chef’s Tour. All opinions, however, are my own.

Have you been to Hanoi? What do you think of Northern Vietnamese cuisine? Would you try A Chef's Tour's Private Dawn Market Tasting tour?

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