Eating Up Hanoi
As the city goes mad around him, Ryan van Velzer savours harmonious moments with some of the most seductive street food in Asia…What do you want from Hanoi? Baguettes? Spring rolls? Soups? Meat grilled on sticks? Maybe not, maybe you’re considering a visit to the war museum, the opera house, the water puppet show or Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum? Maybe you want to wander around Returned Sword Lake taking in the sights and sounds of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. But why? You could be eating. For those interested in absorbing the culture while inhaling the local fare, here’s a quick guide to food in Hanoi.
Ubiquitous is the word that comes to mind when people talk the about pho. Known throughout the world as the epicentre of Vietnamese cuisine, pho has as many different styles and variations as there are on its pronunciation (which I hear as somewhere between ‘Fuh’ and ‘fur’). For Hanoi locals it is fast food found on every corner and eaten at all hours of the day, but mainly for breakfast.
It’s simply impossible to say that any one restaurant makes the renowned noodle soup better or worse than anywhere else; it’s all a matter of taste.
The broth, made from beef, is boiled overnight for the next day’s batch. Thin strips of beef are added and to simmer in the stew. Before serving, chunks of beef are boiled and added along with the rice noodles, green onions, coriander and basil. Customers add condiments to their liking, vinegar, chillies and a homemade chilli sauce. At some restaurants customers form long queues early in the morning just to get their fill from their favourite breakfast spot.
Lunch: Bahn Cha Nem
In the alleys alongside the Huong Gai market in the Old Quarter are small restaurants with wooden benches that sit two people at a time. The chefs cook in front of you while behind you locals shop for groceries.
In the mix of wholesalers, street vendors and miniature restaurateurs you’ll see a sign for Bahn Cha Nem, a common lunch food in Hanoi. Bahn Chah is fried pork sausage (not processed like pork balls in some Asian countries). Nem is a crispy fried roll stuffed with pork sausage and vermicelli. The rolls and sausages are served over sticky rice noodles with a side of fresh herbs. Everything is then mixed into a little bowl of fish sauce (demonstrated to me by the chef). The sauce, light savoury with slices of green papaya, sings harmony to all the separate ingredients and brings the dish together.
Dinner: Bahn Da Do
On Phung Hung Street beside the West Lake there’s a small local restaurant, with no particular name, selling their specialty: Brown noodles. The noodles are wide and flat and known for their distinct brown colour. They’re served in a seafood broth made from crab and prawns then mixed with beef, crab meat, pork sausage (with crispy pig ear bits that add a crunch), fried tofu, bean sprouts, morning glory and fried shallots. For condiments, you can add a splash of vinegar and chilli sauce for little extra kick or some peanuts for their saltiness and crunch.
The contemporary cousin of Pho, Pho Cuon, is somewhere between the iconic soup and a spring roll. The restaurant I visited for the dish was on Ngu Xa Street, on the far side of the West Lake from the Old Quarter.
Pho Cuon takes the ingredients of Pho (the chunks of beef, fresh herbs and lettuce) and then wraps them up in rice paper and alternatively served with rice noodles (dry). Both versions are then dipped in golden fish sauce with thin slices of green papaya. A delicious variant on Pho, the noodles and the rolls take on a different flavour when dipped in the rich fish sauce.
As a side dish, a friend and I had fried corn rolled in seven types of flour and lightly fried. It tastes like a carnival.
After Dinner Snack: Bahn Cuon
Like many Southeast Asian countries Vietnam is host to a wide variety of snacks that appear throughout the day and night from street vendors and small restaurants specializing in certain dishes. Bahn Cuon, usually served as a small post-dinner snack, is made from a mixture of coriander, mushrooms and pork sausage wrapped in homemade rice paper. On top there’s fresh coriander, dried and ground shrimp and fried shallots. On the side a red pork sausage is served alongside a bowl of fish sauce.
While eating I noticed how the flavours were layered in the rolls; the light crispy taste of the shallots and the shrimp, followed by fresh herbs and finally into the savoury pork and mushroom mixture.
Like many of the restaurants I visited, this small restaurant specializing in Bahn Cuon on Hang Ga is run by one family. The mother sits outside making the rice paper for the rolls while a daughter serves patrons.
Made from strings of green papaya, carrots, basil and other fresh herbs, Nom Dudu closely resembles the green papaya salad in Thailand and Laos. While similar, there are a few noticeable differences. The salad is mixed with beef jerky, strips of beef and liver. The sauce lacks the atomic spiciness of Thailand and Laos and replaces it with a milder spiciness that warms the back of the throat. The restaurant, specializing in Nom Dudu can be found in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter.
Dessert: Sua Chua Mit
A common dessert throughout Southeast Asia, Vietnam makes the dish with jackfruit, ice, yogurt, and jelly. The jelly is formed into specific shapes: dragon fruit seeds, pearls, pomegranates and more. It’s often mixed together making a kind of dessert soup that looks like brightly coloured breakfast cereal. The dessert is popular for date night, a fitting purpose served at a restaurant beside Returned Sword Lake.
For a bit of history (and food) there’s the Ken Trang Tien in the downtown district near the Opera House. The Ken Trang Tien is home to the first ice cream parlour in Vietnam. Built in 1958, the Ken Trang Tien has been serving the same flavours of condensed milk ice cream since its inception. (It has added a few since then too.) While the first flavour was made with bean curd and condensed milk, the most popular is made with vanilla. While the ice cream isn’t the best, it’s a little bit like eating a part of history. One can imagine the lines of people that used to extend around the block waiting for the icy-cold treat in the heat of the Hanoi summertime. Nowadays, it remains a popular place for the younger generation looking to hang out with friends or go on dates.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fast-paced and chaotic lifestyle of Hanoi. If you’re standing still you’re in the way. The best retreat is to pull out a stool beside a street hawker, point at someone’s food and ask for the same thing (Vietnamese not required).
Too much about travelling is trying to get somewhere and we’re all guilty of it. And what are you supposed to do once you arrive? Why not, settle in, eat and let the world revolve around you.