A long overdue post…
Hanoi is known for its vibrant street food scene and the list of must-try dishes is immense: bun cha, banh cuon, and pho bo, just for starters. We needed professional help. That's where Daniel Hoyer came in, an American expat chef living in Hanoi who gives local food tours. My husband and I hopped on the back of two motorbikes to join the throngs zipping through the narrow streets of the old quarter and began eating our way through the streets with Daniel.
Our first stop was Chau Long market, where we witnessed the many innovative ways that the Vietnamese use all conceivable parts of the animals they slaughter. Despite being a little squeamish about the intestines, hearts, and livers lying around, it was clear that everything was incredibly fresh. According to Daniel, nothing in the whole market had been dead for more than a few hours and the fish and seafood were all still alive in aerated tile tanks built onto the ground. I think that was supposed to be reassuring…
More than in any of the other Southeast Asian cuisines I've encountered, the freshness is palpable in Vietnamese food. This is due to a number of factors. The first is that herbs and greens are almost universally served raw alongside piping hot soups and inside fresh spring rolls. The bright flavors of lemon-mint, holy basil, fresh cilantro, perilla (like lemony wood cleaner), fish lettuce (it actually smells like fish), and zalzom (very perfumey), combine in unexpected and unique ways in every bite and the overall effect is a constant parade of flavors on your tongue. The second source of freshness comes from the rice noodles – in Vietnam they are either made right at the restaurant or sold fresh in the market but they contain no oil, unlike the fresh rice noodles in Malaysia and Thailand which often have a light coating of oil. The third reason for the freshness is the most obvious, which is the ingredients themselves. Vietnamese shop every day, and often twice a day, for vegetables which arrive on the back of motorbikes hours after they are harvested. You can taste that in the flavor of the food.
In addition to fresh herbs, the base ingredients for Vietnamese cooking include garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, and many varieties of fresh herbs. These combine to create a very different flavor from the galangal of Thailand, the coconut milk of Cambodia, the tamarind of Malaysia, and the shrimp paste of Indonesia.
But back to the food tour. After the market we headed to Class Motor Coffee Shop to warm up with some coffee. Vietnamese coffee is the other half of the cuisine and it is truly phenomenal. The beans are a secret blend of roasted Arabica and Robusta coffee, combined to create a velvety, chocolatey undertone of richness in every sip. It is made in individual tin drip cups and it is served with a generous spoonful of condensed milk. I'm not sure if I've already waxed poetic on the joys of condensed milk but regardless, I'll do so again because we don't have a sufficient appreciation for it in America. The thick, syrupy sweet substance makes everything taste just a little bit better, and it is used here in desserts as well as drinks. I have no idea what combination of chemicals makes this miraculous goo but I've decided that it's better not to ask and to simply enjoy.
It was starting to get dark after we had coffee we hopped back on the motorcycles and zipped around one of the many lakes that dot this otherwise very congested city to make our first food stop of the evening.
This restaurant, which consists of a few low plastic tables and stools under a sloping tin roof, doesn't have a name. But it does have a few specialties and we dedicated ourselves to trying all of them. The first was Pho Cuon, or delicious rice flour rolls filled with beef, lettuce, cilantro, and mint, which we dipped in a sweet fish sauce blend.
Next was a heaping plate of Ngao Nuong or roasted clams, prepared over an open flame and drizzled lightly with oil and lime juice before serving.
Our third dish was Ngo Chien, an alternate version of popcorn – individual yellow kernels coated in rice flour seasoned with a touch of turmeric and chili powder and then fried. We ate heaping spoonfuls of these crunchy morsels doused with the ubiquitous and delicious sweet fish sauce, which somehow brought out the flavor of the corn.
All of this was accompanied by large bottles of Vietnamese beer, which average fifty cents a pop. According to Daniel, it is completely socially acceptable to drink beer with breakfast. We felt it was also totally socially acceptable for us to enjoy our super cheap beer on New Year's Eve.
We hopped back on the motorbikes and braced ourselves against the chill as we careened toward “chicken street,” aptly named for the dozens of open flame grills roasting skewers of chicken feet on wooden spears. Since we didn't fully appreciate the delicacy that is chicken cartilage, Daniel ordered rounds of chicken wings and thighs smothered in a sweet barbecue sauce. It was served with grilled french bread painted with the same delicious sauce and the whole thing was a smoky, sticky feast as we perched on child-sized plastic stools on a street packed with happy eaters flickering in the inconsistent street lighting.
Fully sated, we bid Daniel farewell and set off on foot to continue the New Year's Eve festivities. The first stop was Hoan Kiem lake, the heart of the city and the area which we'd heard would be the center of any celebrations. A brisk walk around the perimeter of the lake revealed lots of colorful neon lights and a few large groups of revelers standing around scattered jumbotrons. Upon closer examination, it became clear that they were watching a massive Near Year's Eve celebratory concert. We began to piece together what city might be hosting such a concert when a flood of teenagers bumped into us, rushing excitedly toward the Opera House in the French Quarter. Intrigued, we followed them, and shortly hit a massive wall of people blissfully shouting the words to a Vietnamese pop hit. This was the jumbotron concert and we had unwittingly stumbled upon teeny bopper central. It turns out that New Year's Eve is primarily celebrated by the youth in Hanoi as the real New Year's festivities occur during Tet, the lunar new year in early February. After enjoying as much jostling as we could handle, we headed back to some bars in the Old Quarter and welcomed in the stroke of midnight back around the lake. Fireworks there were not, but we had certainly eaten our way through the end of 2012 and straight into a delicious 2013.