I have recently returned from a two week trip to Vietnam, which was a memorable trip for many reasons – both positive and negative. One of the overwhelming positives for me was the Vietnamese cuisine; during our two weeks we tried many different kinds of wonderful food and I will recount some of these over the next few posts.
We started our trip in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. We were originally planning to only spend one day there, but due to a typhoon spitefully deciding that we were not to be allowed to go to Halong Bay and cruise around one of the world’s natural wonders (I’m not bitter at all); we actually had about four days in this intense, charming and fun city that can be an overload to the senses.
The streets of Hanoi are a sight to behold, they are filled with the noise of traffic and human activity, every street corner has some form of enterprise selling food or drinks where locals crowd around on little plastic chairs. Plus you have the “fun” that is crossing the road. Newcomers to the city that wish to cross the road can be seen waiting patiently on the side of the road for a break in the incessant buzz of cars and scooters that zoom around the roads – only to find that such a break in traffic just does not happen. Quickly one realises that the only way to cross the road is to do what the locals do – walk headlong into the traffic and cross the road slowly, but steadily, letting the traffic weave around you. It has to be experienced to be believed.
On our very first day, still suffering from jet lag we were delighted to have the opportunity to meet up with some relatives of ours that live in Australia but were fortunately in Hanoi at the same time that we were. Considering that we hadn’t planned it this way, it was serendipitous to say the least. They had been in Hanoi for a few days and took us under their wings and guided us to a restaurant that they told us we had to visit – New Day in the city’s Old Town district (immediately north of Hoan Kiem lake).
The restaurant ticks a lot of the boxes that you want to see from a restaurant when you are exploring a new country: filled with locals? tick; popular enough that it it’s difficult to get a table? tick; full of hustle and bustle and waiters darting all around the place? tick. We were ushered up to a table somewhere in the upper echelons of this tardis-like restaurant and our relatives helped us to select a great selection of dishes that they had enjoyed previously and wanted us to experience.
The food arrived promptly via the whirling-dervish like waiters and in truth we struggled to fit it all onto the table – always a good sign!
Papaya salad which featured a sweet sauce and vermicelli noodles. The dish had a slight chilli spice which was balanced out with some fresh herbs and peanuts. We had first discovered this dish (or a variant thereof) in Thailand and were really pleased to see this back on the menu – delicious!
Fresh Nem, which are Vietnamese spring rolls, stuffed with shrimps, noodles and a nice dipping sauce. We would come to know this dish very well indeed throughout our trip. These were decent, if a little papery.
A spicy chicken dish served with chilli and peppers. This was exactly the kind of dish that epitomises Vietnamese cooking for me. Simple concept, simple flavours, tasty.
Fried beef with ginger, lemongrass and chilli. The meat was lovely and tender with nice, thin strips.
Roasted duck. This should have been a great dish and our relatives told us that when they’d had it previously, it was divine. This time, it wasn’t… It was over-cooked and tough, which was a real shame as the bits that were edible showed some nice flavours.
To add to these dishes we supplemented the table with a very tasty fried aubergine plate – always nice to balance the meat out with some vegetables; as well as some egg fried rice and some noodles.
All in all this was an excellent meal, made all the better by being able to catch up with family that we get to see very rarely. I was also glad that we were able to catch up with them BEFORE England lost ignominiously to Australia in the Rugby World Cup, which spared me some ribbing!
Hanoian Street Food
Having more time in Hanoi than we expected meant that we had to find some other ways to make the most use of our time (thanks, Mr Typhoon). One way that we decided to do this was to take a street food tour with a local guide so that we could explore the famed Hanoian Street Food. We went with the aptly named Hanoi Street Food Tour company and were led by the chirpy and likeable Cherry who spent about four hours with us guiding us to the best spots, those frequented-by-locals, off-the-beaten-track, authentic places that it’s easy to miss unless you know what you’re looking for.
We were taken to TEN different places to try various different dishes. I won’t list them all here for the sake of brevity, but here were my favourite dishes.
We started off with the simply delicious Bun Cha. “Bun” means rice noodle and “Cha” means Pork and in this case pork belly. The result here was a sweet broth (caused by honey added to the cooking liquor) with some fantastic balls of minced pork belly and some crunchy vegetables (papaya and carrots). I think that there was also some lemon grass in the dish, which added a pleasing fragrance to the dish. The picture here attests to the fact that I enjoyed this dish tremendously.
After this we were back to Nem. This time we had a selection from a famous Hanoian restaurant called Quan Goc Da (the Banyon Tree restaurant, so-called because there is a Banyon Tree growing outside of it). The selection that we had here shows the versatility of this dish; we had fried Nem with crab inside, sour Nem where the rice powder had been allowed to ferment and “pillow cakes” which were shaped somewhat like a cornish pasty and had minced pork, mushrooms and glass noodles inside. My favourite were the fried Nem, as I liked the crunch of them a lot.
One of the more memorable dishes that we (although not all of us on the tour were brave enough…) tried was Bun Oc. “Bun” as previously was glass noodles, the “Oc” was snail. This dish was another broth (this time a sour broth, made with white wine vinegar) served with nice cubes of Tofu, tomtoes, juicy meatballs and plenty of snails. There were many little snails in this dish, which were very nice, but is also featured one simply gargantuan snail which took me about five minutes to chew! It was the size of an oyster and probably with hindsight I should have just swallowed rather than trying to chew it…
After three hours of walking around and eating all of this interesting and tasty food we were very ready for a beer! Fortunately in the middle of the Old Town is an area known as “Beer Street” where in the evening locals and tourists alike descend to drink the local beer speciality, known as Bia Hoi (fresh beer). This is a low-alcohol beer (c. 3%) which is made from fermented rice. It is made daily and is unpasteurised, as such each batch can only be kept for a day – hence why it is “fresh”. The beer itself is pleasant, if lacking a little in flavour terms – however when each glass is 3,000 Dong (c. 10p, 15c) then you can’t really complain!
This was a really great tour and it certainly made a difference being guided by a local, who could help us navigate through the hundreds of places that you could choose to eat and take us to the places that best sum up the wonderful world of Hanoian Street Food. Thanks to Cherry, our guide, for providing interesting insights into Hanoi and Vietnam.
Hanoi is a wonderful, bustling, vital, vibrant city that, in the end, we were grateful to have time to explore properly.
Stay tuned for further posts about the rest of our Vietnamese adventures!
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