Monday 30 April 2012

Street Eating in Hanoi

We based ourselves in Hanoi to launch such adventures such as our tour around Halong Bay and our motorcycle tour around the hills of Northern Vietnam. But this was also to be our last city in Southeast Asia before heading to oh-so-much-more-expensive Europe, so we concentrated on big bangs for our bucks.

Our leisurely time (between blogging) was occupied by cheap and cheerful shopping, drinking coffee a variety of ways (filtered, with condensed milk, with ice, with yoghurt, with stiffly beaten egg white, out the wrong end of a civet cat - you name it) ...

Ca Phe Sua Da. Making Vietnamese Coffee - Step 1
Ca Phe Trung Da (Vietnamese Coffee with Beaten Egg White)
Ca Phe Sua Chua (Vietnamese Coffee with Yoghurt)
... and eating through as much street food as we could find.

Streets of Hanoi at Sunset
High on the list was to sample a good bowl of bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup). Trouble was, we had no idea what it looked like. So at first we didn't recognise what we were ordering when we hungrily stumbled across a popular stall overflowing with noodle slurping locals sitting on tiny plastic chairs. Different from the usual pho with slender, round rice noodles in a tasty garlicky, tomatoey, paddy-crabby broth, we breakfasted twice on this hearty dish.

Bun Rieu Cua (crab noodle soup) - Hanoi
Ben's favourite dish was a big bowl of bun bo (dry noodles with beef), which we ate at least three times at Bun Bo Nam Bo. A sort of warm noodle salad, the lettuce and rice vermicelli was topped with a juicy stir-fry of marinated beef and onions, and garnished with bean sprouts, fried shallots and green mango pickle. A squeeze of chilli sauce and a quick toss with disposable chopsticks amidst a crowd of other young eaters made for a good value meal at less than three dollars.

Bun Bo Nam Bo (dry rice vermicelli with beef) - Hanoi
Not sure if this was a specifically Hanoi thing, but this random corner bia hoi restaurant looked well patroned, so we sat down one lunchtime because we were hungry. The first item on the Vietnamese language menu was Goi ca diet hong (day duai nay chao, nay chua), underneath which the English language menu translated this to "The terms pink salad (first tail porridge, cooked tomatoes)". Yeah, we didn't understand that either, but after half a beer of deliberation we decided to find out. The meal came out in parts; but without assembly instructions, we just stared at the arrangement in confusion. However the non-English speaking staff came to the rescue by demonstrating how to cure the raw fish in the lemon juice, showing how much of each herb and pickle to use in each rice paper roll, and which sauce to dip the fried tofu into, overzealously helpful to the point where they almost started to hand feed us. Different, but very satisfying and very healthy.

Goi Ca Dieu Hong, lemon cured fish rice paper rolls at random restaurant - Hanoi
Apparently everyone eats bun cha in Hanoi, so of course we had to give this dish a go at least three times as well. Grilled (and wonderfully fatty) belly pork slices, together with pork patties and green mango pickles, were drowned in a savoury broth, but retained their slightly chargrilled flavour. We were given a huge pile of rice vermicelli noodles (which we could never finish) and a communal colander of fresh herbs to consume after dipping into the broth. If we were greedy, we'd also order a couple of nem, deep fried crab spring rolls.

Bun Cha (rice vermicelli, grilled pork, mango pickle, bowl of herbs) with Nem (crab spring rolls) - Hanoi
We went out to a water puppet show one evening, where we craved a light, snack-type dinner. Hanoi's streets yielded the perfect answer - nom thit bo kho, a finely shredded green papaya salad topped with vietnamese mint, at least two types of beef jerky, crushed peanuts and a tangy sweet dressing. Squatting on the ubiquitous tiny plastic chairs next to a hundred others, we devoured the contents of that small, simple plate, bursting with flavours and textures.

Nom Thit Bo Kho (green papaya salad, topped with mint, beef jerky and crushed peanuts) - Hanoi
Similarly, the water puppet show was beautifully coloured, light hearted entertainment. Traditional music from traditional instruments played by traditionally dressed Kinh Vietnamese filled the theatre as colourful, cleverly manipulated wooden puppets splashed about and floated around, in and above the water-filled stage.

Romantic Water Dragon Scene - Water Puppets, Hanoi
Planting Rice Scene - Water Puppets, Hanoi
And of course, we had to try a final bowl of pho bo in what appeared to be Hanoi's favourite pho bo shop. With thousands of contenders producing millions of bowls of this very Vietnamese dish all over the country, we could only judge this status by the long queue out the door and into the street. Besides the large number of surrounding parked motorbikes, what sealed the deal was probably the longing look of one man as he rode in for breakfast that morning, looked at the queue, looked at his watch, looked back at the queue, worried at his watch … then parked up his bike and waited patiently for his bowl of national pride, probably at the risk of being late for work. And a tasty bowl it was.

Hanoi's Favourite Pho Bo at Pho Gia Truyen
Having eaten through a couple of months in Vietnam, we could now head to Europe for something different.

Waving Goodbye. Clouds viewed from flight over Vietnam - Hanoi to London

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