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Tastes of Hanoi
Live beetles, snails and frogs are all on the menu at Hanoi’s street food stalls, writes Phil Carey.
EATING Hanoi’s street food is a unique experience – but the first challenge is actually crossing the street to get to it.
There are six million people in Hanoi and two million of them have motorbikes or scooters. Following the road rules seems to be an option, rather than a given. To cross the road, you just have to take a deep breath, strut out and keep walking. It sounds dangerous but it’s your only option to reach where you want to go.
However, to sample the best of Hanoi’s cuisine, it’s a risk worth taking. When it comes to Vietnamese food, the most authentic dishes are unlikely to be found in Hanoi’s top hotels. Instead, it’s the street stalls and food markets where you are likely to find what the locals eat.
To get a real sense of Vietnamese street food, book a ‘street eats’ tour with a group like the Hanoi Cooking Centre. It’s run by ex-pat Australian Tracey Lister, who was a chef in Melbourne for 20 years before she relocated to Vietnam in 2000.
“What I love about Vietnamese cuisine is that it is elegant,” she says. “It’s not overworked, but it’s aromatic and focuses on herbs.”
The tour begins at 9am and takes us through a range of street food stalls, where we watch the men and women who sit on small blue plastic chairs to prepare the food while we wait.
Our first course is a breakfast of Vietnam’s signature dish pho bo (beef noodle soup) and pho ga (chicken noodle soup). Pho (pronounced ‘fur’) is one of the most popular dishes in Vietnam. Pieces of chicken or beef float in a silky aromatic broth, flavoured with ginger and star anise. It’s finished with rice noodles and topped with greens like coriander. Traditionally, the soup was only prepared with beef, but meat shortages 50 years ago meant families turned to chicken in their favourite dish. Now pho ga is just as popular as pho bo.
Our next stop is a food stall selling rice pancakes or banh cuon, which literally means ‘rolled cake’. They are soft and very delicate rice pancakes, filled with ground pork, mushrooms and minced shallots and topped with fried shallots and dried shrimp. The dipping sauce is made up of fish sauce, sugar and pork stock. It’s a popular dish in North Vietnam which is often eaten for breakfast.
Another widely eaten dish which we get to try is banh xeo, a popular South Vietnamese dish that means ‘sizzling cake’. You get a savoury pancake of crispy fried rice paper filled with beef, bean sprouts and wrapped with herbs like mint and coriander. It’s dipped in a sauce that contains fish sauce.
We squeeze into a narrow street eatery, squashed together on bench seats. Our guide orders bun moc, a vermicelli noodle dish made from a pork and shiitake mushroom soup, which sometimes also includes snails. We pass on the snails but the broth and pork are delicious.
Finally, we finish with a sweet treat. Our guide takes us to Cafe Du Tri, which has been around since 1936. It’s small and smokey and you could easily miss it. But grab a seat upstairs and order a Vietnamese coffee, sweetened with condensed milk. Try the sticky black rice with yoghurt, a unique dessert.
Chatting with a local.
The secret to why Vietnamese food tastes so good is found in the combination of flavours. Vietnamese food encompasses five flavours: sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter. As our guide Nguyen Manh Hung explains, a traditional Vietnamese meal has all five elements present.
Using fresh ingredients is crucial. Meat is usually bought on the same day it’s going to be eaten, often procured from the food markets, which operate seven days a week. Rice noodles, live seafood, bean sprouts and greens can be found here, as well as more exotic fare like live frogs.
Visiting the food market is an unrelenting assault on the senses: the smell, the taste, the noise and the anarchy of shoppers riding their scooters through the narrow aisles, picking up their supplies. Although it’s hectic, it’s well worth a visit.
For a slightly more relaxed introduction to Hanoi’s street food, we book a table at Quan an Ngon restaurant. Imagine a restaurant with six kitchens, each a street food stall but all operating as one. It’s street food made sexy. Patrons can wander around the stalls then decide on what looks good. Try crispy Vietnamese pancakes or grilled pork on rice pancakes. Sparrows are on the menu for the more adventurous.
For something more upmarket, we try Spices Garden in the Sofitel Metropole Hotel. It’s a stylish restaurant in an amazing hotel. One of the hotel’s three restaurants, its highlights include prawns on sugarcane stick and grilled fish with peanuts, herbs and rice noodles.
While at the Metropole, it’s worth spending half an hour enjoying a glass of wine on La Terrasse du Metropole sidewalk cafe, where we watch the world go by.
There’s an endless stream of brides- and grooms-to-be having their pre-wedding photos taken with the hotel as a backdrop.
Another good option for Vietnamese food is Cafe Opera. Just opposite the Metropole Hotel, it serves good Vietnamese food in an elegant atmosphere. We try the steamed rice pancakes with grilled meat.
No matter whether you battle it out with the locals at the street food stalls, or try some of the more popular restaurants, the delights of fresh, healthy and delicious food awaits in Hanoi.
To book a cooking class in Hanoi:
Cafe Duy Tri: 43 Yen Phu, Tay Ho
Quan an Ngon: 18 Phan Boi Chau
Spices Garden in the Sofitel Metropole Hotel: 15 Ngo Quyen Street, Hoan Kiem District
Cafe Opera: 59 Ly Thai To, Hoan Kiem District
Tags: , Travel