Text by Will Meyrick
Vietnam’s northern capital Hanoi is rich in opportunities to experience culture, loads of history, possibly the best of Vietnamese street food and you can visit one of the largest remaining traditional markets in the city centre. The food here is a melting wok of regional variations, soft rice-noodle filled bowls of steaming short ribs, succulent roasted chicken, the smokey flavour of barbecued pork, amazingly long sausages and curiously quilled, thick prawn pancakes. Flavours of lemongrass, basil and cinnamon complement the gingers, corianders, mint and chilies distinct to the region while hints of lemon, fish sauce, shrimp paste, tamarind and orange can be found in meat stews and the noodle ‘gravy’ thick soups.
It’s good to get your bearings quickly as Hanoi is divided into ‘quarters’, sections that indicate mostly the general activity of the area: the French Quarter with its elegant boulevards, the bustling Old Quarter full of antiquities and the Museum area—pretty self explanatory what happens there. The Hoan Kiem Lake is located between all these areas and that makes it a great point to fan out from and return to.
Take a little break before continuing your trip.
All good people, chefs included, have to visit Ho Chi Minh’s museums and mausoleum in Hanoi to get a grip on the culture that has made this city what it is. There is tenacity to the spirit of Hanoi, and being that the city has just past its 1,000th birthday it is steeped in multitundinal layers of history. To see the body of Ho Chi Minh preserved in the imposing mausoleum is almost mandatory, and surprisingly he looks quite at rest, relaxed and almost animated. The Ho Chi Minh Museum too is a ‘have to go’ – it’s hardly a museum, it’s certainly not dull and the instillation art creates a bit of a shock.
You find fruit sellers on every corner all over the city.
I have a warm association with Hanoi. I worked there briefly and have always relished the experience of being in the vibrancy of this northern Vietnamese city. Since I worked there, it has been ‘cleaned up’ in the sense that a lot of the major market trading has been shifted out of the centre which has affected the street ‘buzz’ somewhat, and that thick sense of community has been a little diluted but has not diminished the charm of walking through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter or discovering the quirky coffee shops like Puku Café on Tong Duy Tan in the French Quarter.
However, when time is tight the place to hit up straight away is the Hanoi Cooking Centre – 44 Châu Long.
Possibly the best way to meet Vietnamese cuisine head on is to start with their street food and market tour. The HCC organizes tours into Cho Chau Long, the ‘wet’ or fresh produce markets and, taken with a commentary that is informative and engaging, you get to learn about the uses of the food, things you would not pick up just observing, medicinal uses, flavours and the unusual – blood sausages metre long – and you get the chance to taste. Be open-minded, silk worm are really just protein like the nuts you might have with beer, the blood sausage sells out fast but the banh ran, yummy sticky rice balls, are served all day. After your tour you can end up discovering the delights of Vietnamese bubble tea, or find yourself in a legendary coffee house like Café Lam, located on Nguyen Huu Han, or Café Duy, a tiny shop front on Pho Yen Phu where you can find the ‘Café Sua Chua’, the frozen yoghurt coffee. I was a little perplexed at the offer yet found it satisfying despite its dessert-like texture and it was perfect boost before heading back to the Hanoi Cooking Center to discover the art of cooking some of Vietnam’s best street food dishes.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral, where you can find a lot of cafes nearby.
Wandering the streets and eating at random from street carts and noodle shops is still one of my favorite occupations and in Hanoi the best of foods are served outside day and night. A rule of thumb here is to slide onto stools where there are large numbers of punters, a busy place is a sure fire success, and look out too for the Vietnamese cops, as they know the best places for a quick bite on the beat.
Vietnam’s food is amazingly fresh and distinct in flavour. Pho is the known national dish, originating in the north and showing influences of both Chinese and French cuisine. The name pho is pronounced in the same way as the French dish “pot au feu”, a traditional French soup. Typical of Vietnamese food, it also has south and north equivalents. In the south you are likely to find your pho surrounded by greens and garnish, while in the north the only greens you’ll get are scallions.
A seller of the popular Vietnamese meat & noodle soup, Pho Bo.
The Pho Bo that you can get on the street in Hanoi is made from beef marrow bones that are simmered with infusions of charred cinnamon, star anise, and cloves as well as sliced beef and rice noodles. There’s the ubiquitous fish sauce, in Vietnam called Nuoc Mam, and the essential garlic and ginger.
This north and south unity theme meets also at a great food court, Quan An Ngon, at Phan Bo Chau Street where Vietnamese dishes from both regions and the Middle Region are showcased to preserve and expand on the knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine.
Seafood dishes such as Ca Hao Gung Hanh, whole fish steamed with ginger, Cau Rang Muoi Tieu, salt and pepper crab, fried fishcakes and fish ball soups are from the coastal areas, and in the south the dishes tend to be spicier and contain more fruit, whereas the foods from Central Vietnam are more inclined to vegetarian dishes and carry the heritage of Royal Vietnamese cuisine that explains their artful presentation. Don’t leave without trying the Hanoi Cha Ca – no, it is not a dance – it’s a fish dish that is often cooked at the table. Goi Mang Tuoi, bamboo shoot salad with shrimps and pork, the purple mam tom, fish paste, and the dill create an exceptional flavour that fizzles up as the fish fillets fry.
A typical cafe area, very humble, intimate and always crowded.
There’s a great Vietnamese snack I recreate at Mama San, the La Lot. I love the way the Vietnamese use leaves, not unlike the Dolmades of Greece, to wrap their meats. Wild betel leaves, grape leaves and Perilla leaves all have their culinary uses, as do the roots of lotus and the blossoms of squash. Typically desserts aren’t big in Vietnam but the French influenced custards and tapioca pearls served in coconut milk and ice, dotted with corn kernels, are sold roadside to accompany coffees at mid-morning.
Some big chunks of boiled meat to be added to bowls of soup.
While the food of Vietnam dominates and accentuates the enjoyment of travelling in the country, when in Hanoi it is important to remember there is more than the official history to see. A visit to Hotel Metropole on Ngo Quyen near the lake will envelop you in a gentle reminder of the exquisite history of Hanoi. It’s the place where you can order a hot chocolate in the conservatory (and afternoon tea is served on glass plates), take the time to think of the past inhabitants; Jane Fonda at her activist prime, Graham Greene residing there to write his novel The Quiet American, and delightfully, Charlie Chaplin on his honeymoon. Dream a little in the opulence before returning for a final round of culture: The Vietnamese Water Puppets (perhaps best booked in advance) are exciting for a few minutes and their location lakeside makes for a beautiful last evening in the middle of the city. Attending with Rubi, my friend and colleague, we found the show a little like the wayang puppet shows of Indonesia, yet it is worth attending, so with a last look around the streets, seeking out a final bite of barbeque at a hole in the wall occupied by slightly drunk locals, we had completed our forty eight hours.
Fish cake is used in many kinds of Vietnamese dishes.
Full of food, culture and history I left marvelling at the way Vietnam has managed to transition from, yet still acknowledge and include in its touristic advancement, its richly divisive pasts. There’s a lesson there and I think it is learned through the cuisine, for how can a nation remain divided when it sits down to the same food at the end of a day?
About Will Meyrick
Will Meyrick, a restaurateur with Sarong Bali, Mama San Bali, Hujan Locale ubud, Mama San Hong Kong and E&O Jakarta. A celebrity chef and a street food enthusiast. The author of “Sarong Inspirations” cook book.