“ Don’t feel like you have to finish everything. We have a lot of food to try. You don’t have to finish it all.”
We’re sitting on the pavement at a low table with small, plastic blue stools. White, plastic containers holding chopsticks, toothpicks, soup spoons and napkins are in between us with the customary small plastic bowl that has chili, lime and salt. I’ve learned this little bowl of spices is the equivalent to salt and pepper in the U.S.. Especially on the pavement of Hanoi. It’s a wet, rainy day and I’m surrounded by Vietnamese people staring at me as I whip out my camera to take a picture of my bowl of Bun Rieu Cha (crab noodle soup). It’s steaming hot and I can smell the fresh spices and broth.
My guide’s name is Tu Van Cong. He and his business partner Mark Lowerson have carved out a niche in Hanoi with their “Street Food Tours.” I met him on twitter and after reading his tongue and check blog The Vietnamese God I decided I had to try the tour. Having an insider experience of street food with a crazy Vietnamese tour guide sounded too good to pass up.
At 8:30am Tu picks me up on his blue Vespa. Wearing a big smile, aviator shades, and a green T-shirt that says, “Summer Hawaii”, he looks like a 30 something Vietnamese hipster.
Our first stop is just outside the Old City in the temporary wet market. As we settle onto our plastic stools on the curb Tu briefs me about the culture and culinary experience we’re embarking on for the next three hours. “ Ask me any questions you want,” he repeats a couple of times, “ We’ll handle payment for the tour at the end and I’ll pay for everything as we go along. You just have to sit back, taste everything and enjoy yourself. I’ve eaten my way around most places in Hanoi in the 10 years so I know what to order and what my favorites are. Be sure to tell me if there’s something you want to try to or something you don’t eat. And again, don’t feel like you have to finish everything. We have a lot of food to cover.”
“Where are we?” is my first question, as I look around at various food stalls, noodle vendors and big green metal pods on the curbs next to every vendor.
“It’s a temporary wet market. Soon we’ll have a new warehouse space for the wet market that will be modern and clean. Apparently the government wants it to be more like Singapore. Many Hanoians aren’t happy about this. The wet market is an ancient tradition and people have been coming to the same vendors for generations. With the new space the rents will go up and some vendors won’t be able to afford it. People feel like we’ll lose something of the soul of Hanoi when this happens, plus the prices will go up because of the rent. The wet market is the body and soul of life here.”
Taking in my surroundings I’m beginning to scratch the surface of what “the politics of the pavement” means in Hanoi. Leaving my bowl of Bun Rieu Cha half eaten, I realize we have another two and a half hours of eating and exploring in the streets of Hanoi. I need to pace myself.
Our next stop is in an area where hotels and Hanoians buy sweet offerings and traditional cakes for weddings, ceremonies and holidays. I try my first young sticky rice cake. It’s green, sweet and very sticky.
Driving on Tu’s Vespa in the rain around the streets of Hanoi is an adventure in itself. He has no fear about turning into oncoming traffic and narrowly missing ladies on bicycles in coolie hats carrying produce. At one point I just close my eyes and keep breathing. By the time we arrive at our next destination, down some narrow alley, I am slightly edgy from the drive, the rain and the question constantly buzzing in my brain, “Where are we?”
We’re in another market and I look around to see motor bikes slowing down, an exchange of goods and money takes place with the vendor and the bike continues to roll down the narrow aisles of the crowded market.
“Why are people driving motorbikes through the market?” after a week in Hanoi I already know the answer.
“For their convenience.” Tu laughs. “They have maybe 1 or 2 things to pick up and they can drive through in 5 minutes. Park outside it takes at least 15.”
As we walk around looking at the produce, the cut open fish, snails, bags of live frogs and crabs Tu explains to me how easy and cheap it is to cook at home in Vietnam by shopping in this kind of market. The vendors do the slicing, dicing and preparation for you. You simply tell them how you want something cut or chopped, how much of it you want and they do it all. Once you’re home you just have to do the cooking. All the labor intensive preparation is taken care of when you buy it. Everything is fresh…you know exactly where your food is coming from.
After my morning Bun Rieu Cha, two market visits and a young sticky rice cake tasting we’re ready for coffee at Yen Phu Café. Dodging more produce laden women on bicycles with the Vespa we end up at a tiny, hole in the wall cafe (literally) with an interior that reminds me of a back alley. Tu quickly shuffles me past the tiny tables packed with Hanoians enjoying their mid morning brew, up a narrow staircase to another floor of tiny tables. The walls are filled with black and white photos, the floor is grungy and there’s one small window at the end of the narrow room. Light comes in from the staircase and you can hear the sounds from the kitchen below. I’ve become comfortable expecting nothing and being prepared for anything. Tu is chatting happily while I quietly take in the dark, dank surroundings wondering what I’ll be drinking next… which arrives in the form of a beautiful cup of Barista artistry accompanied by a tall thin glass of coffee infused frozen yogurt called café sua cha. This becomes one of my favorite desserts ever and I eat every bite. The coffee, with thick, fresh foam and a delicate flower engraved on top is almost to pretty to drink. The coffee is strong and smooth, but the café sua cha elicits a big smile and a photo opp.
Our next stop is the to Bahn Cuon Lady on Hang Ga Street . My first experience of Bahn Cuon was in Da Nang and it was delicious. Thin savory rice pancakes filled with wood ear mushrooms, diced pork, topped with fried shallots, mint, and coriander and nuoc cham dipping sauce. This experience does not disappoint in addition to the added bonus of watching her make the thin rice pancakes.
There’s a mild break in the rain as we get back on the bike and we’re heading to Diagon alley. As we pull up our miniature plastics stools Tu tells me this is his favorite noodle place. It’s the sauce that makes this place so special and he’s tried to get the recipe, he even wanted to write an article about her but no, she wasn’t giving up her secret sauce. She’s not interested in publicity, notoriety. Her unique sauce goes with her to the grave. This Pho Tiu was something special. Typically I don’t eat peanuts anymore. I could taste the peanuts immediately and I could not stop myself. The mix of flavors was just right. It was a completely unique tasting pho and this week I’ve been eating a fair amount of tasty pho. Pork, herbs, beanshoots, crushed peanuts and the indescribable special sauce. Another bowl of pho finished. Research, I tell myself.
Just as we were leaving, across the dank alley was a woman with a wok of piping hot “crack-in-the-wall- balls”. Sound enticing? I believe this name comes from the fact that the lady who makes them is actually sitting in a spot in Diagon that is like a crack in the wall. There’s no table, just her pans and her shredded coconut and yellow mung bean balls. Some have sesame seeds. They remind me of something I tried the other day in the street when I bought a few from a vendor I wanted to photograph. They were hard and dry and I was not impressed. I asked Tu about them and he said, “No don’t buy those! Sometimes they are 8 days old! I only buy from here. They have to be fresh, hot and straight out of the pan.” Fresh, hot and straight out the pan indeed. It burned my mouth when I bit into the soft mung bean center. It was a completely different taste. One of my favorites. Hot, soft and chewy. I had to keep blowing on it so I could finish it before we got back on the bike for our last stop of the morning…
An egg coffee at Café Pho Co. The egg coffee was my one request of the day. I had seen it on Tu’s blog and it looked yummy and if I was going off the coffee wagon for a day I wanted it to count. I wanted something different. The entrance to the café is between a souvenir shop and a clothing shop. The café is tucked in the back above the owners house. It feels like you’re walking into a 1930’s speakeasy in Hanoi. We entered a narrow alley behind two shop fronts where people drive their motorbikes into someone’s courtyard. Red lanterns hang from the ceiling and another narrow staircase takes you up to an elegant room with intricately carved wooden doors. On that landing is a spiral, iron staircase leading to another landing where the café begins. Following the staircase up one more flight and we were at the top of the building with a sweeping view of Hoan Kiem Lake. The perfect way to end a morning of zooming around back alleys and the narrows streets of Hanoi. The thick, creamy, egg white foam tastes like Tiramisu. It’s so thick you have to eat it with a spoon until only a thin layer remains that you can mix with the rich, dark, full bodied coffee at the bottom. Over coffee Tu tells me about a T-shirt that says “What the Pho?” (a play on WTF) and we agree I have to have one.
So our last stop on the Vespa ride back to my hotel is to a little t-shirt place to pick up my souvenir of our adventures with street food. After a non-stop morning of eating, Tu goes back home and sends me photos and email listing all the places and all the dishes we had in the order we had them. I don’t have to remember anything, it’s all there for me. Now all I need to do is fast for the next day and take it easy.
You can find out about the “Street Food Tours” on Tu’s blog The Vietnamese God and Stickyrice written by his tour partner Mark Lowerson. If you go to Hanoi and you love food, this is one tour you won’t want to miss.