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My very first impression of Vietnam is of Hanoi, after three arduous connecting flights. It is 7 30 am and the locals are commuting, as are we, into the city. I watch them with heavy lids through the windows of our cab. Already, the temperatures have reached the 30’s. Throngs of motorbikes and scooters honk and zip by, some so heavily loaded with bags of snacks and plastic drums, you can barely see the driver. The memory of the traffic and then, attempting to cross the street with scooters and cyclos swerving around each other and me, will remain a lasting memory of Vietnam. It is here, in Hanoi that I cross the street by myself on day 2, to buy a raincoat for the second half of food tour I am on. Come rain or shine, in a city like this, the food takes precedent. This is also the city where I eat my first mangosteen. I remain a convert for life.
THE PHO QUEST
One of the dishes I plan to sample, and compare all over Vietnam, is pho. I read about it being plain in the north, spicy mid-country and sweeter in the south of the country. Having never eaten it before (authentic Vietnamese food is hardly available, if at all, in South Africa) I concoct an expectation based on reading recipe after recipe. Rice noodles in a star anise and ginger broth with beef and a mountain (or not, depending on region) of zesty herbs. My mouth waters in anticipation, even as I get off the flight, past the rigours of Customs and into the cab waiting for us. I go as far as mentally researching an article, I romantically title “Chasing Pho: one girl’s mission to find the perfect broth”. I have my first taste of pho that very morning, ordering room service from our lovely hotel. I can’t decide what I need more, food or sleep, so I choose an option that affords me both. I know locals eat pho and rice for breakfast so at this point I feel very pleased with my choice. My pho is wheeled on a linen-covered trolley and the silver dome whipped out; I smile like the Cheshire cat. The herbs and condiments are served on the side. The broth is bland and I am starving. I’m also significantly underwhelmed. No matter, I think. I’m not a girl to be put off by the first bowl of soup she meets. Also, we all know what they say about hotel food in a street-food culture like Vietnam, I console myself.
Throughout our journey to Hue and Danang, Hoi An, Saigon and the Mekong, I order pho from street vendors and quans, and smart restaurants that the concierge suggest. Each version is nice, but far from spectacular. I eat pho where the former president of the United States is said to have eaten pho. I make my own versions in our apartment in Saigon weeks later, armed with thin beef I successfully manage to get a butcher to cut up for me. I want to high-five her, so great is my joy! While I respect the significance and nutritional value, and would welcome a steaming bowl of pho on days when I feel the attack of the lurgy, I discover that there are other soups and broths I prefer. For a very good chicken pho, with all the trimmings:
42 Quan Thanh Street.
STREET FOOD EXPLORATION
For food lovers, there is no better way to orientate yourself with a city and her bearings, than by going on a street food tour with an experienced eater, local or expat. I spend a full day with Mark Lowerson of Sticky in Hanoi blog, and it turns out to be the confidence boost I need to gobble almost everything I desire on the streets, for well over a month after. It is with Mark that I eat my first, and only balut (fertilised duck egg). A protein rich pick-me-up, it isn’t bad at all, served with Vietnamese mint, chili and fish sauce. Mark is knowledgeable about local customs, foreign misconceptions and has a strong conscience about illegal trade of snakes and dogs, for example. Also, he whizzes me around the city on the back of his motorbike. I could not feel more hip! A small selection of must-tries: Bun Rieu Cha: an unusual, gutsy combination of grilled pork skewers served with crab and pork soup and herbs. It is sensational. You need to get here before she closes at 9 am. Yes, this is breakfast.
Tuyết Bún Chả Riêu,
12 Phùng Hưng Bún chả.
The best one I’ve eaten to date. A combination of crisply grilled pork belly and leaf-wrapped pork patties also blackened, in a broth with thin rice noodles on the side, herbs, sprouts and chilli.
Café Duy Tri
34 Hàng Than.
Iced yoghurt coffee. Housed in an old coffee house from the 1930’s, narrow and very low ceiling upstairs. They grind own coffee.
Yen Phu Café,
43A Pho Yen Phu.
Different versions of cold ‘soup’ or bubble tea, some with beans, lotus seeds, chickpeas. I prefer the syrupy jasmine tea with blocks of black brass jelly, ice, tapioca and if you’re very lucky, Jasmine blossoms. Can be found all over the city. Contact Mark.
If you opt for a class, pick one with a central market visit. Shopping with a chef gives a thorough overview of the market and you can come back and purchase with more confidence. I enjoyed Hanoi Cooking Centre, with a sparky chef who lead the class where we made caramelized pork clay pot, banana flower salad with prawns, a wonderful, spicy bun rieu with crabmeat and crab sac. This is where I learnt how to cook with thienly blossoms.
NIGHT ON THE TOWN AFTER
A day exploring and shopping the 36 streets of the Old Quarter (and dodging the scooters), start with drinks at the Bamboo bar at the swanky Sofitel Metropole hotel. Then continue to enjoy a night of street eats or opt for dinner at Green Tangerine situated in a stylish French house in a vibey spot in town, serving French cuisine with a Vietnamese twist.