The low plastic stool is wobbly and sits at an angle by the side of a busy junction of two narrow streets. It’s a nippy Sunday but noisy two-wheelers whizz around, weaving between pedestrians; men with loaded pushcarts honk and holler for way. The handful of locals sitting around on similar stools, within touching distance of traffic, can’t be bothered about the din. We converse intermittently - me in English, they in Vietnamese, and both of us in the universal language of hand gestures. All this is punctuated by generous swigs of bubbling golden beer from tall plastic cups. My first taste of Bia Hoi, the local fresh beer brewed each day, feels light and airy and makes me as blasé as the locals.
It is just past noon, but I am already four meals down. That’s not even counting breakfast. My face probably has a beatific expression – the outward manifestation of sensory satiation from all the utterly delicious Vietnamese food that’s been consumed since morning. Since my arrival in Hanoi the previous morning, food is all I have seen and want to make the most of the limited time in the city (translation: eat as many different things as possible). I reach out to an expert and Chung Van Hoang of Ha Food Tours suggests a walking food tour of Hanoi’s old quarter, a four-hour binge-fest sampling some of the city’s iconic eats. So we start soon after breakfast, on a cold and cloudy day ideal for eating our way through the city.
Chung feels it is best to start with a little context right away; he’s probably also sceptical of getting through once the gorging starts, and he may be right. So he briefly narrates Hanoi’s (and Vietnam’s) tumultuous history that spans Chinese conquest, French colonial period, occupation by the Imperial Japanese, re-entry of the French, Vietnam War and the city’s designation as the capital of reunified Vietnam in 1976. “All of these have influenced our cuisine,” he says. And goes on to point out that it is largely reliant on fresh, clean flavours with an emphasis on aromatics and herbs, and use of very limited oil, apart from deep-fried delicacies such as spring rolls and croquettes.
Our first stop is at a little outlet near the gorgeous Hoan Kiem lake. It is a bare space, open to the street on two sides and seating spilling over onto the pavement. A large board on the wall has just six dishes with pictures, but the hero is nom bo kho, green papaya salad with beef jerky. It is loaded with herbs, fresh greens and fistfuls of crushed roasted peanuts. The crunchy textures and flavours are really refreshing and tingly on the tongue. The jerky is chewy and flavourful from spices and adds a great contrast. We also taste nem chua ran, fermented pork rolls, that are tangy and spicy by themselves, but a piquant dipping sauce adds different dimension.
It is tempting to ask for seconds, but I see virtue in pacing myself. We leave the lake’s vicinity and head into the heart of the old quarter. As we weave through narrow streets and alleys of the old town, we pass little markets, shops and stores spilling over with all kinds of food – fresh vegetables, greens and fruits, colourful spices, powders, oils, sauces and condiments, large containers with varieties of live fish and shellfish, vessels piled high with all kinds of fried goods, tofu and bundles of noodles. Chung patiently answers questions about things that pique my curiosity.
Clearly, the Vietnamese are fond of food. It is common to see at any time of the day or night, vendors with baskets or on two-wheelers, pushcarts and street-side outlets with seating on pavement, all doing brisk business. The array of eatables is mindboggling – from fruits and tender coconut to elaborate one-pot bowls, from fried sweet and savoury snacks to baked delights... Also, except for fine dining restaurants, almost all other kind is street food, or rather pavement food, with outlets appropriating the sidewalk for seating.
As we head deeper into the old quarter, the streets get narrower, the houses more packed and the alleys have just enough space for two-wheelers and pedestrians. Round a corner, Chung leads us into a lively eatery and before we are seated, bowls of bun ca, with steam rising out of them, arrive at our table. The bowl contains a fish noodle soup with glass noodles, herbs, greens and tomatoes; it is sharp and spicy, hearty without being overly fishy, and utterly delicious. It is accompanied by fried fish rolls, spicy fermented bamboo pickle, and two kinds of sauces. To wash it down, there’s a kind of weak iced tea, but it is too sweet for my taste.
We stagger out into the street, savouring the tastes and textures, and run headlong into the next cloud of aromas. A woman sitting half inside her tiny eatery and half on the pavement is deftly wrapping mince in translucent sheets and frying them. It smells heavenly, and we heartily tuck into the fried spring rolls (nem ran) as well as steamed version (banh cuon), both dunked into a tongue-tingling dipping sauce. To offset the fiery flavours, Chung buys banh ran, sticky rice doughnuts each the size of a golf ball, from a sweet old lady a few doors down. It is slightly crunchy on the outside, soft and hollow on the inside, and not overly sweet with a hint of sesame.
And so it goes on. At the Blue Butterfly, a charming restaurant inside a beautifully restored heritage building, we have the only fancy meal of the whole tour–banh xeo, crispy fried pancake with pork, shrimp and bean sprout, which is sandwiched between fresh lettuce with assorted herbs. There’s also nem ran chay, vegetarian fried spring rolls. Both are exquisite and the flavours are both subtle and distinctive, never overpowering the fresh ingredients.
As we head to the next stop, weaving through a maze of tiny streets and dodging traffic, that’s when we see people at the junction chugging beer and Chung suggest we should join them. That we cannot understand each other is no deterrent; it is clear they are enjoying themselves. They are unfazed by the movement and chaos around, and look benignly at passing humanity; no conversation necessary. A small bowl of peanuts makes an appearance, and they languidly shell them, popping the nuts into their mouth and letting the shells fall to the ground below. They are clearly relishing every moment, every sip, every morsel. I learn a thing or two about mindfulness and being zen. When we get up to leave, they send us off with smiles and waves.
Two hours later, I am ready to call it a day. More stops and more food have followed the beer. Among them the famous cha ca, grilled fish served with noodles, green herbs and assorted condiments. These are to be stuffed into gossamer thin rice paper according to individual taste and eaten after dipping into yet another deliciously piquant sauce. It tastes like heaven, the flavours bursting on the tongue and fish soft enough to melt. My only moment of queasiness happens when Chung stops at an eatery to point to a containers filled with tiny writhing worm-like creatures. “These are sea-worms, a seasonal delicacy. We make an omelette kind of dish with them,” he says pointing to stacks of roundels nearby. It doesn’t look appetising at all. But we are at the end of the tour anyway, and finish with the famous egg coffee, ca phe trung, a concoction of whipped eggs, condensed milk, espresso – a frothy, airy drink that feels more like dessert than coffee per se.
The next few days, I taste even more dishes. Several kinds of pho (soupy noodles), with the beef and pork ones taking me straight to heaven; banh mi that is the work of a magician – the bread crusty on top, springy inside and loaded with generous meat, veggies and mouth-watering mix of spices and sauces; bun cha, pork meatballs served with glass noodles, broth and greens, that is succulent and luscious. An evening spent on Beer Street is a raucous street party, with bottles of ice cold beer downed with light as air crunchy spring rolls and chewy fried squid.
But no matter the dish or the time of the day, I inevitably find myself savouring every bite, noticing the various textures and tastes. It could be because much of it is novel, or (I suspect this is more the case) it could just be that I have adopted indulgent mindfulness from the locals.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.