This place, Hanoi, is incredible. The buildings and monuments hint imperiously at the Communist past, and to a lesser extent its current presence. The noise, vitality and volume of motorbikes and scooters exercises the senses. The style, bustle and colours of the Old Quarters whizz you back to a French colonial past melded with the true modern day essence of Vietnamese trading. And importantly the smell of spices, bread, coffee and soups at every street corner induce what seems to be a permanent state of hunger. I love this place, and we are only one day in.
As the first part of this post title suggests today was about finding Pho, the iconic Vietnamese noodle soup, which can be seen made and eaten wherever you look in Hanoi. Our first Pho Bo (Beef noodle soup) was good, but we have been assured that we are about to be shown the best Pho in Hanoi by the owner of our rented apartment. This I will be looking forward to. A highlight of today was seeing a Vietnamese lady in essence carry her Pho ‘shop’ in two large baskets, one dangling either side of a long pole resting on her shoulder, something akin to a large set of scales. These baskets must have been heavy because in total they contained a burner/ stove, a big pot of broth, a mound of fresh noodles, as well as bowls, spoons, chopsticks and serving accompaniments including lime, chillies, herbs, bean sprouts and pots of sauces. She rested her wares at the side of the road, and literally within 30 seconds had set up her ‘shop’ and was serving a queue of people their lunch. It was quite amazing to see.
Coffee also has its place here, and I am surprised to see the many coffee shops dotted about the city. Traditional Italian style coffee can be had, which I have to say was excellent where I had it. However, as I wanted to try something different later on in the day I had the Vietnamese version. Hot water is added to a thin metal filter/ container that has ground coffee in the base. The coffee, I think, has been roasted in some kind of buttery oil which really gives it a distinguished Vietnamese taste. The coffee slowly drips in to a cup containing sweetened condensed milk. Once fully ‘dripped’ the hot coffee is stirred and then poured into a tall glass full of ice. That was the Whoa of the day.
The toe is a bit of a sad story; sad in that it’s not much of a story, has nothing to do with food and was down to my own clumsiness. Basically, whilst having mastered the often feared crossing of the roads here in Hanoi I slipped on some mud in the gutter, and having the most sensible of footwear on, flip-flops, proceeded to trip up and remove some of the outer layers of my toe. This was much to the amusement of the locals, and much to the pain of myself. With the red stuff pouring out I found a pharmacy, and once I had woken up the attendants, all three who were sleeping behind the counter, I was supplied and pampered with cotton wool, iodine, antiseptic cream and plasters. How special one felt.
As night drew in, about 5pm this time of year, the final act for the day was to purchase some cooking tools; wok, knives, chopping board, bowls, utensils etc. and then some ingredients for my first ever cook in Asia. Having travelled through Asia in years previous and never having actually cooked in an Asian country before, I was really excited at the prospect of going back to the apartment and getting in to the kitchen. One thing that Hanoi is renowned for is its subtlety of flavours, so that the taste of the produce is the feature. Therefore food tends not to be overly spiced here. With this is mind the first dish I cooked was simplicity itself: black tiger prawns, bamboo shoots, fresh coriander and rice noodles flavoured with, my find of the day, ‘butter fish’ fish sauce and a touch of garlic chilli sauce, and washed down with a couple of cans of Bia Ha Noi, the local Hanoi beer. Simplicity and Beauty all in one.