Hanoians have balancing flavours down to a fine art and Vietnam’s capital is a haven for fresh ingredients and honest cooking. Take a look at our top five feasts for a day in the city.
1. Pho Bo at Pho Gia Truyen
Noodles for Breakfast? It’s the only way to start the day in Vietnam and this place has Hanoians queuing round the block to sample their fragrant rice-noodle soup. Beef bones are boiled for hours to create a rich stock to which meat, fresh greens and noodles are added.
2. Bun Cha at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
This tiny one-room cafe set off a busy street is staffed by one surly but efficient old lady who serves up some of the tastiest, freshest and best value food in the city.
Seasoned pork balls in a fragrant broth served with crab spring rolls and a mountainous fresh herb salad make up this Hanoi favourite popular with locals and tourists alike.
3. Pretty much everything at Quan An Ngon
This slightly more upmarket street food experience comprises tens of stalls, each representing the best street food recipes from around the country. Choose from dishes such as sticky rice, crispy pancakes or squid with lemongrass. It’s a great introduction to a whole range street food Vietnam has to offer.
4. Coconut Ice Cream at Kem Trang Tien
If you fancy a bit of dessert head down to the city’s ice cream district (yes Hanoi has an ice cream district) and visit this popular hangout for Hanoi youths who roll up on their scooters in droves to enjoy the best coconut cones you’re likely to taste. Think Quadrophenia with ice cream.
5. Iced Coffee at Café Pho Co
Hanoi is famous for its coffee culture and there’s no better place to sip some of Vietnam’s home-grown brew than at this well-kept city secret. Enter through an old silk shop to find this hidden arcadia filled with birdcages and tropical plants.
It’s three stories high meaning you can watch the mist settle over Hoan Kiem lake while enjoying coffee like the locals do, iced with condensed milk.
Ever since I was a young un I’d always quietly salivated over the thought of tasting real Asian street food and finally, in January this year, I got my chance. I packed my bag, ate my last cheese and Marmite sandwich for three weeks, and hopped excitedly on to a 14-hour flight to Vietnam.
…14 hours later, tired, ravenously hungry and harrowed by ‘moderate turbulence,’ I was on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. It was certainly no disappointment. There were food carts all around the streets selling everything from Pho, Vietnam’s national Noodle dish, to delicious peanut-topped mussels to half-fertilised duck eggs. The latter, it was decided, were to be eaten in more adventuresome spirits.
I decided to head straight for the food section of Ben Thanh market in the heart of Old Saigon. I pointed wearily to a picture of a crispy pancake and a noodle dish with a crab claw poking out. They arrived seconds later and they were stunning; fragrant, complex, perfectly balanced flavours. This was my first taste of my 21-day odyssey, and it was good.
Before I set off I’d done a bit of research on the basic principals of Vietnamese food. It is considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world and works on five fundamental taste elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet. These in turn correspond to five organs: gall bladder, urinary bladd… you get the idea. Chefs will try to cook with five colours and attract all the five senses. To cut it short, It’s basically all about balance.
After my first taste of food in Ben Thanh, I decided market food was the way to go. By the time I’d traveled up to central Vietnam they’d provided me with everything from clay pots and fried noodles to a rather tasty intestine soup. It was the market at Hoi An where I had one of my favourite meals of the trip; an east-Asian Smörgåsbord of favours and textures was pilled on to a plate and served up for the equivalent of £1.50. There was pork belly, marinated prawns, vermicelli noodles, omelette, spring greens and more. I hurriedly preserved the moment for prosperity (see below) and wolfed down the lot.
The thing I was learning about Vietnamese food was how well considered many of the dishes were; it seemed so triumphantly considerate of its regions and resources and so respectful of its ingredients. Meats and vegetables, I learned, are cooked for as briefly as they allow so as to preserve their original flavours and textures. Season and climate are considered in order to achieve an over all balance. Duck meat, for example, is considered cool and eaten in the summer, Chicken (warm) and pork (hot) are eaten in the winter. I reflected on all those BBQ’d sausages I wolfed down last summer in a new light.
By the time I got to Hanoi it had gotten quite cold and I was in the mood for some comfort food. I found it in a local dish called Bún Cha, pieces of pork fat and pork patties in broth served with rice noodles and Thai basil salad. I promise when I get round to making it I’ll post up a recipe. It was sweet and light but filling and the perfect way to end the trip.
There’s so much more I could say about Vietnamese cuisine but I only wanted to provide something of a clumsy introduction. If you haven’t already, look up some regional recipes, pick up some fresh ingredients from your local Asian supermarket and have a go at making some yourself. – Jodie