Eating Our Way Through Hanoi – Food On Foot Tour

If you have ever been to the circus, you have probably been amazed/horrified by the Globe of Death. This hair-raising performance usually consists of about 8 motorcycles zooming around inside a metal sphere in different directions, coming within a gnat’s ass-hair of each other. That’s what traffic is like in Hanoi.

Even though we were delayed at the airport for 2 hours, our driver was still patiently waiting for us. We climbed into the cab and settled back to enjoy the ride into Hanoi’s center.

You may remember our tales of Costa Rica’s cabbies, or of Peru’s horrifying death buses that barely cling to the mountain side…we’ve participated in some fairly gnarly traffic since we’ve been on the road, but nothing prepared us for Hanoi.

While I’m pretty sure that an official driving rule-book exists, it’s plain to see that most copies were immediately flung out the window on the way home from the Vietnam-DMV. That, or it’s a very short book consisting of one rule: There Are No Rules. Or maybe: Everyone Go At Once In What Ever Direction You Want.. Unless you happen to be on a divided highway (rare), there doesn’t appear to be any lane-markings, or a general consensus that one should travel in straight line. It seems like all 2 million of Hanoi’s scooters are on the road at the same time, weaving in and out of cars and busses. Pedestrians attempt Frogger-like dashes across the road, usually requiring 50 vehicles to slam on the brakes. In the space of 5 minutes we had nearly hit a moped and a person crossing the road. We had almost been hit by a bus and we actually did bump the back wheel of a scooter. We were given the stink-eye from the very pretty business woman sitting primly on her scooter, before she zoomed off into the smog.

Once we got off the main road and plunged into the Old Quarter, things got slow, which led to less terrifying encounters, but offered a good close up of the moped armies.IMG_3878We settled into our hotel, then hit the streets for some food. One mediocre meal and a couple of beers later, we turned in for the night.

Vietnam’s reputation for delicious street food is said to rival Thailand’s…but it’s less of a grab-n-go, meat on a stick deal and more tiny independent family restaurants that specialize in only a couple of dishes. Cracking this nut was a bit intimidating, so we signed up for a Food on Foot tour, lead by Awesome Vietnam Tours.

Our tour started at 11:15am the next day, when we were greeted by our tour guide, a very cheery young lady named Trang.IMG_3862-0She was very enthusiastic about her job and promised us 4 hours of deliciousness…and she did not fail to deliver on her promise. We were joined by a father/daughter duo, Tim and Julia, and after a brief lesson in crossing the road (slow, steady, no eye contact) we arrived at our first refreshment stop: Sugarcane drinks. Huge sticks of sugar cane are smushed into a mangler and the juice falls into a jug below. Mixed with cumquat juice, this very sweet beverage had a slight citrus kick to it and it was the perfect way to start the tour.

Our first meal was Bún bò Nam Bộ. Nam bộ means southern; bún refers to the rice noodles (vermicelli) used in the dish; bò means beef. What you get in a bowl, then, is grilled beef, bún noodles, chopped cucumbers and lettuce, sliced green papaya and carrots, crushed peanuts, fried onions, bean sprouts, mint and various other herbs, and a fish sauce-based broth at the bottom.IMG_3861You give it a good old stir with your chopsticks and wolf it down.

While we slurped down our noodles, Trang told us that the restaurants and recipes of the Old Quarter are passed down through the family and are often just named after the dish they specialize in. The Old Quarter is the shopping district of Hanoi, all though it looks nothing like the sleek, sophisticated shops of Bangkok. The Old Quarter is like an ant hill, seemingly chaotic and disorganized, but is actually a well functioning commercial center. Originally compromising of 36 streets, each street had it’s speciality; paper street, sugar street, etc. Now, each street has a mixture of wares, but a lot of the traditional goods still remain in their designated streets. Rent in the old Quarter is absolutely astronomical for even US standards, especially as ramshackle and run down as it appears to be. A ground floor shop front can cost $3000/month which is why when a family owns a house, it gets passed down through the family. What serves as your living room/bed room by night is opened and turned into a restaurant by day. This quick transformation is made possible by using tiny plastic chairs and tables which can be picked up and moved very easily.

Bún bò Nam Bộ was an anomaly, as it is actually more of a traditional restaurant with long tables and proper chairs. It was also packed to the gills with locals on their lunch break. Incidentally, the whole city takes a two hour break for lunch…one hour to eat and one hour to nap. It’s hard not to like a place that takes it’s lunch that seriously.

Our next meal (and there were to be many, many more over the course of the next 4 hours) was Nộm bò khô (trans: salad, beef, dried).IMG_3863It consists of the Vietnamese version of beef jerky, green (unripe) papaya and carrot which are are pickled, sliced into julienned strips and drained off, then blended with coarsely chopped herbs. It was a nice palette cleanser after the hearty broth of the bún bò.

The tour covered 4km of the Old Quarter, our path winding back on itself several times. It’s very good that we walked in between stops…I was comfortably full at this point, but we had a long way to go. After a short stroll we came upon our next stop where we would devour some Bánh cuốn.

Bánh cuốn (literally “rolled cake”) is a Northern dish. The rice sheet, which is filled with seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom, and minced shallots, is extremely thin and delicate. It is made by steaming a slightly fermented rice batter on a cloth which is stretched over a pot of boiling water.IMG_3864-1We watched this marvelous lady make 12 of these in the space of two minutes on 2 different stations, whipping the sheets off the pot with a chopstick (singular) and depositing the sheets at the next station with a deft flick of her wrist…all while carrying on a conversation on the phone. Incredible.

Here’s all the yummy goodness before we ate them all.IMG_3865We were all slowing down a bit, so Trang decided to liven things up by taking us for a locally made mug of beer. I didn’t quite get the logic, as beer at noon tends to make me sleepy, but when in Rome and all that.

Bia hơi (fresh beer) is available throughout Vietnam. It is mostly to be found in small bars and on street corners. The light Pilsner was introduced to Vietnam by the Czechs. It’s brewed without preservatives and brewed daily, then matured for a short period and once ready, each bar gets a fresh batch delivered every day in plastic jugs. We settled down on tiny plastic chairs just off of one of the historic bustling Bia hơi junctions in the Old Quarter. Trang taught us the traditional toast: “mot tram phan tram” is “100% percent.” or bottoms up! We happily obliged.

It was awesome to just sit, digest and watch the parade of street vendors plying their wares to anyone that made eye-contact. It’s remarkable how much merchandise can be piled onto the back of a push bike or moped.IMG_3866IMG_3869IMG_3860IMG_3859IMG_3868John got his shoe fixed by an enterprising young man and I got a nice day-time buzz.
After our brief, but pleasant break, we were off again.

This time we settled at a modern restaurant called Orchid, where we were served some traditional dished in a beautiful teak dining room.

First up was Nộm Hoa Chuối, Banana Flower Salad. Much like the green papaya salad, the banana flowers are sliced into strips and joined by a tasty blend of herbs and minced meats.IMG_3870After our appetizer was Bánh xèo, literally “sizzling cake”, named for the loud sizzling sound it makes when the rice batter is poured into the hot skillet. The savory fried pancakes are made of rice flour, water and turmeric powder and is stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts…but that’s not all! They are served wrapped up in mustard leaves, lettuce leaves or, in our case, Bánh tráng wrappers (rice paper). Then you shove the whole thing in to a sweet and sour diluted fish sauce, then directly into your face. They were so good, I forgot to take a picture of them.

Our next dish was another do-it-yourself course: Cha ca Hanoi, which is filets of fish grilled on your table with turmeric and dill, with a side dish of cold noodles, vegetable goodies and crushed peanuts. Your roll all that up in some rice paper and throw it down the hatch.IMG_3871IMG_3872We staggered out of Orchid stuffed to the rafters and a bit dozy. Sensing our sluggishness, Trang turned once again to alcohol as an odd solution. We visited her office, where her boss had a large collection of rice wine, including the ever-popular Rotting Snake in a Jar flavor.IMG_3874There were some nervous chuckles, a few Hell NOs until one of the guys caved and accepted the offer. Not to be out done, John quickly signed up for the King Cobra shot as well. I, not surprisingly, declined. This is John trying to figure out what to do with his face while tasting this hideous brew.IMG_3873I did expect a shot of rice wine sans snake, so we were all a bit boozy and warm when we stumbled out into the street. In addition to ducking into restaurants, Trang also took us through a couple of small alleyways between the streets. These alleys, although narrow and cramped, serve as a common area for multiple families that live in the Old Quarter. There’s usually a shared toilet and humble kitchen space. Some of these alleys are private, ending in a small courtyard, but some of them cross into other main streets. It was definitely a glimpse into life in Hanoi behind the scenes.

Our last ‘main’ meal of the day was a variation on the first: Bún chả. Bún chả is grilled fatty pork (chả) over a plate of white rice noodle (bún) and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce. Sometimes referred to on the backpacker road as BBQ pork, it was filled with pucks of tasty sausage patties as well as a thick broth.IMG_3875Trang was an incredible guide…not only was she committed to filling every possible open space in our bodies with scrumptious food, it was clear that she loved her city and the culture. She was very quick to answer any questions about some of the odd things we were seeing. The night before, we had seen a woman burning fake dollar bills on a wood stove on the sidewalk. The only thing I could come up with was that it was some sort of protest…but Trang set me straight. She told us that people burn offerings, usually things that they want to be blessed with in their next life. As we walked the streets, she pointed out all the various paper mâché products you could burn to ‘take with you’. Some of the more amusing ones were huge fake houses, shirts and ties (for success in work) and iphones and ipads.

At this point, we were all very sluggish, so we inquired about getting a cup of coffee. “it’s on the list!” Trang assures us, but first we had to get dessert. We pulled up some more kindergarten stools on the sidewalk and sat our giant asses down amongst the tiny locals. Our knees were up by our ears and and we all felt like giants, especially when we were given Vietnamese apples to try:IMG_4083
Our dessert course was light (thank god) and it was hoovered up fairly fast, thus no pictures. We had two different types of chè, which is a term that refers to any traditional Vietnamese sweet beverage, dessert soup or pudding. We had black sticky rice and coconut cream (my favorite) and Chè mít – made from jackfruit. On our way to dessert, Trang found us some Durian fruit to sniff, which is just a gross as it’s rumored to be. I tried to order some more sticky rice chè at another restaurant, as I would like to eat a 10 gallon plastic pickle tub serving size of it daily, but we had a translation failure and I ended up with coconut ice cream…which is not all bad.

By the way…it’s been 4 days since our food tour and, other than the meals on our Ha Long Bay cruise, all the food we have eaten has been pretty wretched. I’ve had some back problems, so sitting on the sidewalk on tiny stools hasn’t really been in the cards for me, so we’ve been picking ‘western’ style restaurants to eat in. The result is awfully bland vietnamese food. I’ll let John describe the horrors of the hotpot night, but if I had one piece of advice to give Hanoi-bound travelers it’s this: Take this tour, become comfortable with the food and don’t eat anywhere else but the local restaurants. It may be a little intimidating…there’s raw meat sitting out on counters, people yelling at you as you generally get in the way and mysterious things that bubble to the top of huge stockpots resting over fires on the sidewalk. Seeing John get sick for an entire month in Peru, I was anxious about the hygiene in these places too and intimidated by the lack of english menus/signs. The thing to remember is: these businesses have been passed down through the generations and rely entirely on word of mouth. The dishes they specialize in, usually only a couple per place, have been honed over the years to perfection. We’ve eaten a whole mess of street food here and we have never experienced any discomfort…in fact, our stomachs feel better than they do at home. As far as cleanliness and quality goes, if a business serves bad meat or people get sick…word gets around fast and people will stop going there. If the place is bustling…you’re good to go.

It was finally time for coffee, but Trang had one last trick up her sleeve. Having been teased about ‘weasel’ coffee the entire day, we were a bit dubious about the coffee tasting. Weasel coffee is made from coffee beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a weasel. The beans come out whole…the weasels can’t digest them…and then they roast them up just like non-poo beans. I object to this on two grounds: 1) that’s gross and 2) it can’t be very comfortable for the weasel.

Fortunately, Trang was taking us to a famous Hanoi coffee house: Giảng Cafe. The cafe was founded by Mr. Nguyen Giang in 1946, when he was working as a bartender for the famous five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel. It’s speciality…and it’s thought to have been invented here, is cà phê trứng, or egg coffee.IMG_3876You can get it hot or iced and its chief ingredients are chicken egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk and butter. The strong coffee lurks around at the bottom and the egg custard sits on top. It’s served in a bowl of warm water to keep the coffee at the correct temperature, but mine didn’t get a chance to sit around for long enough to cool down. Stirring the custard into the coffee created a little mug of sweet heaven…it tastes like a melty, coffee flavored creme brûlée.

4.5 hours, 9 meals, 1 shot, 1 beer and 1 strong egg coffee and we were done with our Food on Foot tour. I wished we could take Trang with us in our backpacks (she would have fit) as she was a wonderful person to spend the afternoon with.IMG_3877We said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel to sleep it off. As it happens, we didn’t leave the hotel at all for the rest of the day, instead opting to generally lay around and then got an early night in preparation for our walk around the lake at dawn the next day.

I think I put on a couple of lbs…but it was worth it!

Categories: Asia, Vietnam

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