A Street Food Tour In Hanoi
"What's your favorite Vietnamese food?"
It was the one question we were asked during every encounter with locals in Vietnam. And it was the hardest question to answer.
For that I have the Hanoi Cooking Centre to thank, a cooking school and tour operator who took us on a 4-hour culinary adventure through the frenetic streets of Hanoi. We arrived at HCC at 9AM on a Friday, having just landed in Vietnam at midnight. Our stomachs were already rumbling from the little that we'd seen of Hanoi on the cab ride from our hotel: hungry restaurant patrons lining the sidewalks on miniature plastic stools, chopsticks in hand, hunched over steaming bowls of noodles. Whatever they were slurping, I wanted it.
We were greeted at HCC by Ho, a trained chef and our personal tour guide. He led us around the back of the school to a quiet courtyard with sunny walls that were beautifully overgrown with ivy. Ho motioned for us to take a seat at one of the courtyard's rattan dining tables, and quickly returned with cups of iced longan tea. We sipped the sweet beverage while he explained the morning's itinerary: a pho (rice noodle soup) breakfast nearby, a tour of the Chau Long market and a dabbling of his favorite street food vendors.
On a scale of 1-10, my excitement level was about an 11.
After polishing off our tea, we followed Ho across the street to a pho shop. As we peered into the heavy vats of broth simmering outside the restaurant, he explained the time intensive nature of pho. The base of this iconic Vietnamese dish - a chicken or beef broth - will simmer for eight to ten hours before it is ready! I immediately crossed it off my mental list of let's-create-this-at-home foods.
David and I were perplexed by the simple nature of pho in Hanoi - it was missing the mounds of bean spouts and basil leaf garnish that were our experience in the U.S. We learned that pho has many regional variations, with the north enjoying a "purer" soup and the south preferring lots of embellishments - and a sweeter broth. Another surprise was the salty donut accompaniment, quay, that Ho instructed us to dip into our soup. The savory fried pastry provided a welcome crunchy contrast to the chewy rice noodles.
In my excitement for tasting the real deal I downed my entire bowl of pho, completely disregarding the fact that this was merely the beginning of our food tour. We still had A LOT of eating to do.
Our bowls slurped dry, we were on to the Chau Long Market.
Chau Long Market is a traditional wet market, where locals go to shop for meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. Oh, and frogs - as shown above. It was dark, damp and most definitely an assault on all the senses. From the startling thwacks of knives hitting butcher blocks to the pungent aroma of chopped fish bits, I was suddenly acutely aware of everything happening around us. Shoppers defiantly pushed their motorbikes through the market's narrow alleyways; a woman selling chewing gum wheeled a karaoke machine behind her blasting unidentifiable music; water seemed to be coming from every direction as vendors attempted to wash food remnants away from their stall.
We were grateful to have Ho by our side, guiding us through the market. He pointed out local produce and ingredients, explaining their role in Vietnamese life. He showed us the frogs and snails that would be later made into local delicacies. Some of it - okay, a lot of it - made me a little squeamish. The Vietnamese don't waste any part of a slaughtered animal, so everything (and I mean everything) is for sale.
Our curiosity thoroughly satisfied, we exited the market and hailed a cab for Hanoi's Old Quarter, AKA, street food Mecca. First up: banh cuon, a dish consisting of steamed rice cake rolled with minced mushrooms and pork. We were mesmerized by the woman sitting in front of the shop, watching closely as she ladled the rice batter onto a steamer, covered it for mere seconds, and then swiftly transported the whisper-thin sheet onto a tray using chopsticks. It was like watching an artist at work.
The finished product is served with a generous topping of crispy fried shallots (is there any better garnish?) and fresh cilantro. The "rolled cake" is then dipped into nuoc mam, the staple Vietnamese sauce that quickly became an obsession for us. Made of fish sauce, water, lime juice, sugar, garlic and chili peppers, nuoc mam is a delicious dichotomy of salty and sweet that you'll find served alongside nearly every dish in Vietnam.
There was much more to be discovered, so we put down our chopsticks to follow Ho back onto the street. This being our first morning in Hanoi, David and I were not yet accustomed to navigating our way across the city's busy intersections. Ho kept us close by, and we learned to watch for his hand motion indicating that now was the moment to make our mad dash to the other side.
The energy of Hanoi's streets was like nothing I'd ever seen, and it wasn't just about the motorbike-filled roadways. The small businesses, restaurants and workshops lining the streets are largely left open and exposed to the elements, with shopkeepers, cooks and craftsmen literally working on the sidewalks - their livelihoods spilling out onto the street. If left to my wandering ways, I would likely have held up our food tour for hours perusing each and every storefront!
We soon approached a dark, smoke-filled alleyway of food vendors, and the air around us was quickly overcome by the intoxicating smell of grilled meat. Ignoring the complaints coming from my already protruding belly, we saddled up to one of the countertops for our introduction to bun cha.
You know that impossible question I mentioned before about our favorite Vietnamese food? Well, if I had to pick one - and only one - it would be bun cha.
Bun cha, which is believed to have originated in Hanoi, is both BBQ and soup rolled into one.
The heat from the grilling station that stood a mere foot or two from my seat at the counter was quickly warming my skin. I watched as a cook dutifully rotated juicy skewered pork patties (cha) over an open flame. Once grilled to perfection, the patties were presented with a pile of rice vermicelli (bun), fresh herbs, pickled vegetables, and, once again, the ever-important nuoc mam. Everything gets tossed together in one sublime bowl.
David and I felt as though we'd discovered the holy grail of street food in bun cha, but Ho reminded us that there was more to taste! We relocated a few stalls down the alleyway for nem lui, a spring roll stuffed with crisp lettuce, sweet pineapple slices, fresh herbs and yet another chargrilled pork patty. A dish that hails from the central Vietnam city of Hue, nem lui is a little different in that the meat patties are traditionally formed around stalks of lemongrass, which impart a unique flavor to the meat during grilling.
The unusual part of this dish for us was the use of rice paper to create the roll. Rice paper is consumed raw, unlike the typical rice wrapper used in spring rolls, which must be dipped in hot water before assembling. Once we'd wrapped all the fillings in our rice paper, Ho demonstrated the necessary dip into - you guessed it - nuoc mam, which would soften the paper for eating. The roll had a wonderful crunch and refreshing flavor; the perfect match for a sweltering hot day in Hanoi.
At this point in the tour, I was convinced that there wasn't an inch of space remaining in my stomach. That was, until, Ho brought up dessert, otherwise known as che in Vietnam.
Che might best be described as a frosty, sweet soup - or perhaps a deconstructed smoothie. The cooling treat generally involves a coconut milk base, which is filled with a rainbow of tropical fruits and seeds, crunchy nuts, various beans, jelly and crushed ice.
There are a million variations of che, and just simply not enough time to try them all.
After all that eating, we needed a caffeine jolt to stave off the inevitable food coma. Our final stop was Caphe Duy Tri, a historic cafe dating back to 1936, and, according to Ho, the best place for ca phe (coffee) in Hanoi. I could go on for hours about my love for ca phe and the cafe culture in Hanoi. Cafe Duy Tri was the beginning of it all - our first taste of the addicting beverage that would come to define our trip.
After placing our orders for ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk), we headed upstairs to the cafe's tiny balcony, where one could easily waste several hours watching the labyrinth of traffic below. I'd heard many stories about the superiority of Vietnamese coffee, and I was beyond anxious for my first taste of this legendary drink.
At last, our beverages arrived: tall glasses of dense dark coffee layered over thick sweetened condensed milk, served on ice with a silver mixing spoon. I swirled my spoon to create a frothy latte-like mixture, and tried my best to sip it slowly, without much success.
We learned that dairy farming in Vietnam is a rather recent development, so when coffee was first introduced by the French in the late 19th century, sweetened condensed milk was used in place of fresh milk. Luckily this delicious concoction has stood the test of time, and you'll find cafes advertising ca phe sua da on nearly every street corner in Hanoi.
Having reached caffeinated enlightenment, it was time for our food tour to come to an end. Ho led us back to HCC, where we were presented with a souvenir: a chef's apron emblazoned with the school's logo. It's currently hanging in the kitchen of our Tokyo apartment, where I hope it brings me luck in recreating the flavors of Vietnam.
Hanoi Cooking Centre
Located at: 44 Chau Long Street, Ba Dinh District, Ha Noi
Tel: +84 4 3715 0088
Tours operate daily from Monday to Sunday, beginning at 9AM and ending at 1PM. The cost is VND 1,320,000/USD 60 per person; reservations can be made on the HCC website here. HCC also offers cooking classes for those who'd like to learn how to recreate tasty Vietnamese dishes at home!
For more recommendations on where to sleep, eat and play in Hanoi, check out my 48-hour weekend guide here!