As I walk around Hanoi there is always somebody cooking or eating; breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper and more often than not in between. Within every 10 or 15 metres there is some degree of socialising around food; whether co-workers, friends, family or strangers, food induces a camaraderie I have not seen in Australia or England.
Even on a satisfyingly full belly I walk through a balloon of smoke that has wafted in to my path and the appetite-inducing aroma that I now know as bún chả – char-grilled pork patties – draws me closer. It’s just one of the incredible street food experiences in Hanoi.
Finding specific street food stalls can be quite tricky though as, in particular the Old Quarter, Hanoi is a rabbit warren of roads, little alleyways and hidden away eateries that sometimes look so basic that you can walk straight past them without knowing. Having 4 weeks here gives us plenty of time to discover. However, having walked up and down the same stretch of road trying to find a particular stall I have gone back to our old friend the Lonely Planet, in which there is listed the top 10 street food experiences, each one a different take on the Hanoi food experience. What I will do is list the places as we try them out, and try to convey how brilliant and tasty they were through the vehicle of this blog – which to be honest is going to be a near impossible task. Of course, our time here is also about discovery, so interspersed in the 10 will probably be 10s more places that have, like sirens, drawn us to their charm.
The first of the listed ten we tried was in the Old Quarter called Xoi Yen. The four of us weaved and wended our way up some tight spiral steps to the second floor, in which we were plonked down in a busy open room looking out over the street, on chairs that were barely big enough for our five year old daughter. We spent 5 minutes trying to decipher the menu in Vietnamese, and when a chirpy waitress came to serve, we attempted with our best charades to try and convey what we wanted, using our neighbours’ meals as reference and the very little Vietnamese we knew. It was after 5 minutes the waitress politely smiled, and then gave us a menu in English. The speciality here is sticky rice (glutinous rice as it is also known as) which is topped with maize that has a mashed potato like consistency.
On top of this we had finely sliced sweet Chinese sausage and a real Hanoi classic, thinly sliced chả lụa – a pork terrine that is incredibly smooth and I think slightly salted with fish sauce. We left with enormous smiles on our faces – it really felt like we had participated and consumed a real part of Northern Vietnam.
The second one we tried was today, a stone throw away from an incredibly Gothic looking and almost intimidating cathedral, St Jospeh’s.
Around the corner, nestled under a banyan tree was Banh Goi, an eatery very typical of Hanoi. The speciality here was deep-fried food and we had two varieties; a fried sweet cake, bánh rán ngọt, and sea crab spring rolls, nem cua bể.
The sweet cakes were a real treat, probably Hanoi’s equivalent to doughnuts, but containing a sweet paste and rolled in sesame seeds. After some research, which is quite amusing when the researcher is using one language and the source of the research is using another, I found that the paste is made from chickpea, possibly mung bean, coconut and sugar. I could be wrong though.
The sea crab spring rolls were the best spring rolls we have had in Hanoi, and we have had a few believe me. The delicate crispiness of the rice paper skin with the unctuous crab, vermicelli and vegetable filling, all deep fried to add calories and flavour, was the food highlight of the day.
Can’t wait to do the next eight. Final Eight can now be seen here.