From noodles, to crispy pancakes and birds cooked in Coke cans, Natalie Paris takes a walking tour to discover some of Hanoi’s best street food
“As a road user there’s an understanding when crossing traffic. I pick my moment but then when I’m on the road I don’t even look.”
Mark, our street food guide for the evening, had just swept us confidently thorugh a river of moped traffic and into an alleyway outside Hanoi’s Dong Xuan market.
We snacked on bang tom – shrimp-fried pancakes with a batter made of tapioca flour and sweet potatoes, served with salad, herbs and dipping sauce – as we listened.
“The Vietnamese tend to graze all day,” Mark explained. “Lots of flavours in the food here come from herbs: lemon balm, perilla and Thai basil – which is great for a spicy pesto, by the way.”
Squeezing down another alleyway, we pulled up tiny plastic stools at a dimly-lit stall. Two women sat beaming up at us from behind piles of noodles and green leaves.
Pho tiu is one of Mark’s favourite dishes, noodles with a sweet and sour soup of pork and fish sauce. It is the only dish these ladies make. Bowls of hot broth were poured out one by one in front of us, before the women deftly sprinkled handfuls of fried onion, lean pork, bean sprouts and peanuts onto each, along with a ladle of chilli sauce.
There’s an etiquette to eating in the home, we were told, but, “when on the street, as long as you’re getting it in your mouth, it’s ok”. The textures in the first spoonful contrasted beautifully, the silkiness of the noodles against the crunch of nuts and shallots.
Next we were taken to the fruit and vegetable section of the market, where Mark pointed to Buddha’s Hand, a fruit with fleshy parts clumped together like fingers, used for alter offerings. Pepper from Phu Quoc, the jungle filled island south of the Mekong Delta, was here also by the bagful, both green and black. Banana flowers, I had eaten but not inspected closely before. The stem, when sliced thinly, is apparently good for a crunchy salad as it absorbs flavour.
Silver fish of all sizes splashed about round the corner. Everything was alive – mouths gaping as if surprised to find themselves bumping about in a bowl on a busy pavement. Cleavers flashed and thumped as locals made their choices. “The Vietnamese are very fastidious about freshness,” Mark explained.
Fast food in Vietnam comes in the form of banh mi, a baguette filled with pate, cucumber, herbs, crispy onion and chilli. At this particular drive-in, moped drivers paused only to swap cash with one hand for a bagged baguette taken in the other.
As our bellies began to fill, it was time for a beer, a refreshingly watery brew with a 24-hour shelf life called bia hoi, sold on street corners from giant kegs. So far, so familiar I thought, until our next stop at a shop displaying rows of Coke cans with birds legs sticking out of the top. Poussin apparently – or young chicken – which actually tasted very good. Cooked in the can, with a bunch of medicinal herbs, lotus seeds that are a bit like chickpeas and preserved dates, ga tan had a Middle Eastern, tagine-like flavour.
Every good meal should end with coffee and Café Giang, which dates back to 1946, is where we finished the tour. Here you can try traditional egg coffee – or ca phe trung – a blend of coffee and egg whites, folded with sugar. Drunk cold, with ice, it tasted like a creamy tiramisu. Served with hot water, the sugar took on more of a caramel taste. Either way, it rounded off our five courses perfectly.