(First Published in Nourish Spring 2014)
Colonial French charm mixes with the bustle of Asia making Hanoi a city of contradictions which entices and intrigues. As Vietnam’s capital, it is the cultural heart of the country. Sitting on the banks of the Red River and with several picturesque lakes, Hanoi manages to seamlessly mix old and new, its colonial heritage with modern day skyscrapers.
We had just three full days in Hanoi and quickly realised if we were going to see anything we would have to brave crossing the road. Going against all your instincts, the only way to cross the seemingly chaotic roads is to step out and walk confidently across. Don’t stop and don’t run, as these both confuse the hundreds of scooters and cars heading towards you.
With crossing the street mastered, it was time to start discovering this exciting city. We were staying in the old quarter which is made up of 36 narrow streets that are over 1000 years old. Referred to as the soul of the city, these streets were once where artisans would flock to from around Vietnam to sell their wares. They would gather together and share resources resulting in streets that specialised in certain products. Each street was then named after the product you would find there: Pho Hang Ma (Paper Product), Pho Hang Bac (Silver) and so on. Today, although still bursting with busy traders, the streets no longer only sell what their name dictates.
The best way to discover the area is on foot. But as we had limited time and wanted to get to know the real Hanoi, we had Cody from Hanoi Food Tours guide us. At quadruple the price this would have been worth it!
Our morning started at a local market where we saw everything from fresh pork being butchered to frogs being gutted, live silk worm, the mouth watering array of fresh produce with the abundance of herbs that dominate Vietnamese cuisine through to eggs of all different shapes and sizes, including fertilised ones.
With our heads full of the sights, sounds and aromas of the market it was time for a breather and do what the locals do. We pulled up a small plastic stool on the side of the road for a refreshing drink. Cody introduced us to Bich who has been selling her tofu based sweet soup on this spot, seven days a week for 30 years. There are two types on offer; Tao Pho made with silken tofu and a sugar syrup, or Dau Nahn, a mix of silken tofu with perfumed sweetened soy. Trade is steady but Bich still generously offers to give me a go at skimming the silken tofu into a glass. This is typical of the people we met throughout our time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese are laid back and friendly people, often more than happy to share their culture with visitors.
As Cody guides us through the maze of the Old Quarter, we discuss the history, architecture and culture. We stop to nibble on fried grasshoppers, sip on freshly juiced sugar cane, kindly decline bbq dog and stop for real Vietnamese coffee (a strong brew served hot or cold, black or sweetened with condensed milk). Cody takes us down laneways to show us how and where people live as well as how they used to.
Four hours later we collapse in the cool climes of Qua Cho Que for more food and a well earned local beer (Bai hoi). With lunch complete we thank Cody and head home for a cool shower and a nap because that night two more guides from Hanoi Food Tours were picking us up, this time on scooters, to show us Hanoi at night.
My trepidation of hopping on the back of a scooter and being part of the traffic madness is soon alleviated as we head out of the Old Quarter and around West Lake. As the sun sets, we pass floating restaurants and coffee shop after coffee shop full of locals unwinding. We pass lotus gardens and look back at the city with its mix of high rise and ancient buildings.
Our tiki tour complete, we make our first stop at what we are told is some of the best seafood in Hanoi. If the crowd of locals is anything to go by, this must be true. In typical Vietnamese style, this restaurant is outside on the pavement, even the seafood is being prepared and cooked outside before our eyes. With someone dispatched across the road for beer, a selection of fresh local seafood from oysters to finger clams starts to arrive.
Back on the scooter, we are off to our next stop for Pho Cuon, a delicious mix of stir fried pork mince you wrap in a fresh rice noodle wrapper with herbs. Just like our morning with Cody, we learn so much from our guides and are thrilled when they take us to the Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum for the flag lowering ceremony. This happens each night at 9pm with more pomp and ceremony than the English Changing of the Guard. But what amazed us were the masses of locals, young and old, who had come along.
One of our last stops for the night was for a Hanoi specialty: coffee with egg. To be honest I was not looking forward to this experience. As we turned into a long alley and then up a narrow flight of stairs, I was formulating my excuse not to partake. Coffee with egg though turned out to be, not a hardboiled egg bobbing in my dark Vietnamese coffee as I had imagined, but a delicious concoction similar to coffee and a creamy anglaise. I discovered later it is in fact an egg yolk whipped with a little sugar and then condensed milk, which is poured over the top of your coffee (or hot chocolate, rum and even beer). This specialty coffee was dreamed up by Mr Nguyen Giang in 1946 because of a shortage of milk at the time. At the time, Mr Giang was a bartender at the Sofitel Legend Metropole and his cafe that he opened serving the now famous coffee and egg, Giang Cafe, soon became a big hit with locals, and judging by the packed tables when we visited it still is.
The next morning, I headed to the Hanoi Cooking Centre to roll up my sleeves and get cooking. I wanted to learn more about how to put all the wonderful flavours and ingredients together and to hopefully be able to recreate them back in New Zealand. One of the founders of the Hanoi Cooking Centres is Australian chef and author Tracy Lister. Tracy came to Vietnam on holiday and became involved in the KOTO project which trains local street kids and finds them jobs in the hospitality industry. Eventually moving to Vietnam with her family, Tracy co-founded the Hanoi Cooking Centre and has written three beautiful books on Vietnamese cuisine.
In the well equipped kitchen, we learned how the fusion of French and Asian cuisines has forged some unique Vietnamese dishes while also getting more of an insight into the culture and history of Vietnam. We made seafood spring rolls bound with an aioli, then crumbed and deep fried; caramel pork slow cooked in a clay pot; and finally, a fresh salad using the banana flower.
Having never seen a banana flower before, I was fascinated as each layer was peeled off to reveal rows of immature bananas. This dish also highlights how the Vietnamese are ingenious at using everything, from nose to tail of a pig to every edible part of a plant.
With only one day left in Hanoi it was time for some history at the Ho Chi Minh Museum, before a little shopping and then a walk around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake before we collapsed with a cold beer for some people watching as the sun went down.
Rationing in Vietnam
From 1945 to 1990 the Vietnamese people relied on rations, which they received coupons for and collected from a special coupon office. This consisted of 5kgs of rice, 100g pork, 1 litre of oil, 500g sugar, 400g MSG and 2 litres of gas.
This forced the population to grow whatever they could themselves to supplement their diet. It also meant nothing was ever wasted.