Hanoi is beautiful, shocking, grimy, chaotic and exhilarating. I fell in love with the place and then had to rip myself away after a mere 24 hours but – surprise surprise – I managed to do a whole lot of eating during that time.
The Old Quarter is the place to be, defined by street food and mopeds. If a space is large enough for a human, then it’s fair game for a bike. Everything is strapped onto two wheels, including live animals and furniture. Crossing the road is something to build up to, mentally, for one must start walking and never stop. If you panic or hesitate, you’ll get a look that says “urgh, pathetic tourist”, but keep moving and they’ll part like water flowing around a rock.
The best way to explore is on foot, so embrace the mayhem, and don’t be afraid to head down dingy alleyways because that’s where some of the best meals are. Fears about street food are usually unfounded – these people are trying to make money, why risk making people sick and losing their livelihood? Use your eyes and nose, if the food looks bad, don’t eat there. If a stall is busy, it’s usually a safe bet. Another way to ensure a good time is to take a tour, as I did. Hanoi Street Food Tours is excellent and the guides will work to your requirements. They packed loads in, gave me tips to seek out later on and even a lift back to my hotel by bike which was brilliant fun even if I did sprout a few more greys.
Rice noodles are everywhere, and one of the best ways to enjoy them is bun cha. Straight off the red eye from London and with little sleep, I was in need of a minor miracle – that food you see in the opening photo turned out to be it. As I manoeuvred my arse towards a tiny plastic stool I was shaking with weariness, and that hot broth ran through me like blood through veins, energising and sluicing the residue of the flight. We’d asked for a small portion of noodles and those great tangles arrived, ready for a bath in hot, sweet fish sauce and sliced green papaya.
The pork comes two ways: grilled patties fragrant with lemon grass, and strips of belly cooked over the fire, a great fan strategically propped behind to blow enticing smells onto the street. Who needs PR when you’ve got marketing like that? The mark of a good bun cha is a black ring of charred bits that settle around the rim of the bowl and needless to say, these had plenty. You add chilli and herbs and it’s like all your birthdays have come at once. I would travel the 12 hour flight to Hanoi just to eat that again.
The other major rice noodle dish in Vietnam is of course pho, and I ate it for breakfast at Pho Suong, amazed at the clarity of the broth which was soothing, light, cleansing. I squished in amongst the locals and they seemed amused, passing over bottles of rice vinegar infused with garlic, plus chilli paste and fried shallots. Iced tea is available for a pittance from an independent person operating in the same space; I wonder how those guys selling drinks can make enough to survive. I also recommend seeking out fresh lime juice made with teensy calamansi limes. There’s no need to worry about drinking iced drinks in Vietnam since all ice is factory made.
Shrimp fritters (báhn tom) are also well worth trying. Made by pressing whole shrimp into a sweet potato batter, they’re fried twice in hot woks of bubbling oil set perilously close to tables. Served with more sweetened fish sauce and slivered papaya, they’re a crunchy, spiky mess of prawn heads and legs. Don’t be afraid of eating the prawns whole though, you get more flavour that way.
The market is also in the Old Quarter, full of the magical fruit and vegetable displays one sees in SE Asia – gnarly citrus, tropical fruit at peak ripeness, vegetables like creepers from a comic strip. The wet market is both revolting and enchanting; people squat on the roadside with buckets of squirming sea life, bags of toads and fish hacked into sellable pieces. There are turtles in bowls, birds in cages, snails in crates. Spices look fresher than ever, sacks of star anise a cochineal red.
Hanoi is hot and humid, and I made many pit stops to cool off, often at a bia hoi hole-in-the-wall. Bia hoi is an unregulated, freshly brewed beer which is light, refreshing and costs around 10p a glass. You just plonk yourself on a stool and they keep filling you up from a tank. The dregs are thrown away at the end of each day and they await another delivery. Make sure to find one that serves it nice and cold. The other option, if you’re not into the idea of drinking that, is shaved ice desserts. I can’t remember the name of this one (below) but it was basically condensed milk with sliced banana and sago pearls, into which you chuck a load of shaved ice. A great mixture of slippery textures and a life saver on a sticky afternoon.
Hanoi is currently the place I’d most like to return to – I feel like we have unfinished business. I knew it was going to be good, tingling with excitement as we flew in over the mountains, down through the fug hanging over the paddy fields – I just had no idea it would be that good. There is such a vibrancy to Vietnamese food with the salt, sour, sweet balance and if there’s anything that can power a person through after three hours sleep on a plane, it is pounding those chaotic streets in search of an excellent feed. You won’t have to look far to find one.