Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Best Street Food in Hanoi

Street in Old Quarter Hanoi

There are everyday adventures and moments of magic - finding a pub that serves the craft beer you like after a months-long drought, taking a different route to work and seeing parts of town you hadn't noticed before - but people travel for a very good reason. There's something about discovering something wholly different that changes the way you look at life and stays with you for years to come. In our case, it was Vietnamese traffic, that impossible, chaotic beast. 

Authentic Bun Cha Restaurant in Hanoi

No foray into Vietnamese street food comes without an up-close encounter of the country's traffic rules, or apparent lack thereof: J has a video of us crossing the road in front of one of Hanoi's poshest malls. There's a red light and a green man so it's our turn to cross, but that doesn't stop 2 cars and 6 bikes from cutting right in front of us. 

It's a very good thing then, that on our first evening here we joined the Old Quarter-based Hanoi Street Food Tour by Walking, organized by the aptly named Hanoi Street Food Tour company. They're widely considered the best operator in that category, and it's immediately apparent to us why: the tour is excellent, but most importantly, the company's guides (all born and raised in Hanoi) teach all their guests how to cross the roads without getting run over, so they live to write their glowing reviews online. 

Best Bun Cha Restaurant Old Quarter Hanoi

If there's one thing that we'll never forget about Hanoi, it's the trick our guide Cherry taught us right off the bat that ensured we wouldn't get run over each time we crossed the road: "sticky rice". The basic version works like this: stay close to each other, and when there's a gap in traffic, move forward in unison. The one we learned also involves jazz hands and muttering "sticky rice" under our breaths like a Hail Mary, which we like to believe made it all the more effective. None of us got run over, so it obviously works. 

Soup-style Bun Noodles Old Quarter Hanoi

Walking tours are always my favourite way to explore new places, and food-based adventures really elevate the entire experience. Moving from one eatery to the next, you get to see both the highlights as well as the out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of the neighbourhood. Also, it's one thing to see someplace new, but eating the local cuisine really engages you more deeply: all your senses get deployed. It's also terribly interesting to track the provenance of foods you enjoy. The beef pho (phở bò) I so love, with its side plate of lime and herbs and bean sprouts and lashings of sriracha, is apparently an international variation of a southern Vietnamese rendition, of what was originally a dish from the north. The more you know.

Hanoi Street Food Papaya Salad

Vietnamese cuisine prides itself on the freshness of ingredients, and utilizes a great deal of herbs and spices to achieve the right taste and texture in a dish. Central Vietnam relishes spice, and southern Vietnamese cuisine tends toward sweetness, but here in Hanoi, and northern Vietnam more generally, there's a greater emphasis on balancing out flavours. Cherry wasted no time at all in informing us that there's a whole lot more to Vietnam's food culture than phở, and proceeded to bring us on a culinary adventure through Hanoi's buzzing street food scene, teaching us to eat like real Hanoians. 

Traffic in the Old Quarter Hanoi

Cherry herded us from one highlight to the next with a deftness that is all the more remarkable on hindsight. The number of cars and bikes and people in and around the Old Quarter is astounding on your everyday nights, but on Christmas Eve when we did our walking tour, the crowds were out in full force. The jams we saw on the road were appalling, but somehow the human traffic managed to be worse. Only 8% of Vietnamese identify as Christian, but they seem to have embraced the more capitalist celebratory aspects of Christmas with a frenetic sort of energy. I'd never seen so many people dressed up as Santa Claus before.

Banh Cuon Thit Old Quarter Hanoi

Even on a tour that stretched longer than the stated three hours, we weren't able to sample all that Hanoi had to offer, but what we did try was superb. Most of the restaurants we patronized have been around for at least a decade, specializing in particular dishes and perfecting their craft. We were ordered tasting portions everywhere we went, but even though we arrived with empty stomachs, by the midway point we felt full to bursting.

Best shrimp fritters Old Quarter Hanoi

Our first stop was for bún chả hà nội, which we'd already had for lunch with our fantastic AirBnB host Bruce earlier in the day. Cherry quickly helped us order an alternative dish. While the rest tucked into roasted fatty pork marinated with a lemongrass blend and dipped their noodles into a mix of fish sauce, sugar, rice vinegar and water, we had ours in a chicken bone broth, that had been left to simmer for a whole day. 

From there, we made our way to the papaya salad stand, where shreds of green papaya was tossed with beef, pork, a mysterious jerky and heaps of crushed peanuts, and ladled out in generous mounds. As we grazed, a chewing gum seller set up his stereo system nearby, and began belting out tunes to get people to buy his gum. We stayed long enough to watch him run away from patrolling street police and then return when they moved on to the next alley, before being whisked off for bánh cuốn thịt (Minced pork, mushrooms and onions wrapped in a rice roll) and bánh cuốn tôm (The same, with a fried egg), topped with dried shrimp and fried shallots, and eaten dipped in fish sauce with a squeeze of kumquat juice. 

Best deep fried street food Hanoi

Cherry told us that the small stools are used because Vietnamese people are small, which seems apt, but isn't the only reason. Technically, stalls operating on the pavements in Vietnam are doing so illegally. The ubiquitous low stools you see are deployed by street food vendors in case the police come by to break up supper. They're either easier to pick up and run with, or less hard to leave behind as they're less dear. But since most of the stalls in the Old Quarter and elsewhere are regularly patronized by members of law enforcement anyway, the stools are now seen as something of an indicator of quality. The closer you are to the ground, the better the food tastes! 

The Old Quarter Neighborhood of Hanoi

Our next stop was a stall selling all manner of deep fried goodness, including deep fried sour spring rolls, stuffed with fermented rice and pork. It also sold possibly our favourite dish of the evening, bánh tôm hồ tây - shrimp donuts, with a whole shrimp pressed into the middle of the dough. At this point the jet lag caught up with J, and he nearly fell asleep on the way to the alley that sold barbecued chicken wings and chicken feet, served with a sweet-sour-spicy relish.

Old Quarter Street Food Chicken Wings

Cherry managed to hail us a cab in spite of the chaos of the evening, and while we missed dessert (Vietnamese fruits and egg coffee), we definitely thought the tour had been worth every cent. We later met more Hanoians who found it a personal affront we hadn't been taken to try some of the city's other signature dishes like banana flower salad, or bánh mì, but we thought the tour was perfect as it was. 

Shopping at Hom Market Hanoi

There were other adventures for us to try on our own, and now we definitely had the courage and know-how to navigate the city. Which was why when we visited Chợ Hôm (Hom Market) the next day to buy some Vietnamese cinnamon, when the first lady we asked for direction started shouting something that sounded like "Beep! Beep!", we went in the general direction she waved at instead of running away. 

Spice shopping in Hanoi

We also learned a little something from one of our fellow tour-mates, who had developed a fondness for the dodgiest looking street donuts during his two weeks in Hanoi. We got ours from a specialist stall that fried theirs to order of course (FOOD POISONING IS NO JOKE), but he was right, they are extraordinarily delicious. 

Old Quarter Street Food Hanoi

So much of Vietnam's food has a history, yes, but they haven't been around since time immemorial. Like Singapore's chilli crab, invented only in the mid-1950s, many of Hanoi's most popular dishes are younger than you'd expect, gaining popularity and creating fad bubbles along the way. The latest craze in the Old Quarter is for a dish that comes from the south of the country - bún bò nam bộ (Southern Beef Noodles). Dozens of copycats have sprung up, but on our last night we went to the restaurant that started it all, with its pungent fish sauce, perfectly marinated slices of lean beef, smooth pickles, and heaps of  peanuts and fried shallots for extra crunch.

Bia Saigon is Vietnam's better beer

Most of the other diners were Vietnamese, but the power of TripAdvisor was palpable even here - halfway through our noodles, a group of tourists sat next to us and one placed an order for her bowl, with no beef, no fish sauce, and no peanuts, all while telling her travelling companions she "wanted something authentic, you know?" as the staff tried to figure out what to do with her bowl. It was hilarious, I nearly choked on my beer trying not to laugh. 

Best Bun Bo Nam Bo Old Quarter Hanoi

We ate so well in Vietnam, but food-wise I think my favourite memory will be of a little no-name joint, run out of the living room of a wonderfully kind lady living down the street of our second AirBnB home. Around West Lake is where most of the expats in Hanoi converge, but on the other side of the Âu Cơ are streets very infrequently visited by foreigners. J and I were down with colds, and at 6 am, this was the first place we came across that looked like it had soup. I still don't know the name of what we had, but they were the best noodles I had the whole trip, silky but with good bite. The homemade chilli sauce that came with it was so strong it cleared my nose out, so I could taste just how good the broth was. Once we made our delight known, ever so often, she'd come over and add another pork and mushroom meatball to our soup, or an extra ladle of bamboo shoots, which I loved. 

Au Co best noodles

Once you pass everything through the filters of your own life the the environment you're in, no experience is travel is really authentic, so chasing it blindly doesn't quite work. What you should hope for, are bits of travel magic that makes trips remarkable. And, well, that can be found anywhere, if you're willing to look. 

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