The chaos of Hanoi’s streets is fascinating. Festooned overhead are vast tangles of electric cables that hang like massive, high voltage beehives, teasing you with the prospect of a sudden unexpected jolt should they decide to fall. And there’s nothing more invigorating than crossing its scooter-laden streets. Walk at a steady pace and watch the wall of vehicles bear down on you — nevermind that you’re using the zebra crossing—then fan out like a swarm of swallows, skirt and meander past you like a well-rehearsed dance. Scary at first, but once you get used to it, you’ll realise that you will reach the other side with life and limb intact after all. But just when you think you have reached the relative safety of the pavement, there are the great vats of boiling soups and gravies stubbornly straddling the narrow walkways surrounded by low stools and tables scattered around, threatening to trip you over if you so much as take your eyes off the pavement for a moment to snap a shot. But it’s just the way they do it there and this is the charm of Hanoi. Friendly, welcoming, exciting, laced with a hint of unintended peril.
It was to these street-side food stalls in Hanoi’s Old Quarter that we went to taste and explore the local flavours on our first night there. Led by our guide Trang Ta from Hanoi Voyages, it was a dizzy, delicious three-hour trek to food stalls and small restaurants. A plate here, and nibble there…it all came together nicely to form a very filling and stimulating feast.
First, we popped in to Mr Bay Mien Tay (79 Hang Bac), a buzzy little restaurant well-known among the locals for its excellent banh xeo. Cooked at the front as you order, banh xeo was a sizzling, puffy crisp-edged egg pancake filled with prawns and beansprouts. A DIY affair, you take some of the pancake and wrap it in rice paper along with an assortment of local herbs like coriander, purple basil and mint. What a delicious mix of textures—crunchy and soft, pliable and firm—with a heady combination of flavours too.
A dessert stall on the road side by Mr Bay’s shop caught our eye, run by a cheerful young lady. We bought some of her glutinous rice balls (also known as mochi) filled with crushed peanuts and sugar, and served with a sprinkling of coconut shreds, as a between-course snack.
Then it was on to another stop for salad. This eatery above (38 Bat Dan Road) could do with a spring cleaning and a touch of aesthetics. But the beef jerky salad with fish sauce dressing — the only thing on the menu —was really delectable. With the jerky, there were green papaya, cucumbers, carrots, coriander and mint, beansprouts, and some peanuts which gave light, bright flavours and crunchy textures.
According to Trang, people would drop by at this eatery early in the evening for a pre-dinner salad—(why have drinks when you can have salad?!)—before heading home or moving on to their dinner venue.
Then it was on to the swankiest restaurant of the evening, the air-conditioned Countryside Restaurant (29 Bat Dan Road) inexplicably decorated like something out of a cowboy movie. There were two unusual dishes to be had here, quite different from the usual Vietnamese fare that foreigners are accustomed to. First, fried snakehead fish with dill, beansprouts, crisp fried onions which you had to assemble yourself, wrapping it in rice paper with coriander, mint and peanuts. The fish was just nicely cooked and moist, lifted by the dill, resulting in a complex marriage of flavours in each mouthful, and a delightful mix of textures.
The other was a juicy dish of fried frogs legs served with deep fried, peppery betel leaf. It was certainly not among the usual suspects in Vietnamese cuisine and absolutely more-ish.
We were to move on to a famous pho shop (49 Bat Dan Road) down the same street but the queues were ridiculously long, snaking down the road. The estimated waiting time was 45 minutes, so Trang decided to give it a miss and move us on to other options which Hanoi’s Old Quarter offered. As an alternative, she brought us to another pho shop but unfortunately, it wasn’t that great.
Our last stop made a fine finale — a well-loved hole-in-the-wall dessert stall (95 Hang Bac) run by a cheerful aunty. It was packed, but we managed to find some plastic stools, squeezed them into the nearest empty spot we could find – nevermind that it was right in the middle of the entrance way — and ordered up her icy specialties. Without a table, we ate our desserts off a metal tray perched on another stool. It was hot, humid, and we were seated barely two centremetres away from the street traffic and its generous fumes. It didn’t seem to bother the locals, so we figured that again, this was just the funky way Hanoi does it, so we relaxed.
The dessert was real fun. Creme caramel with black glutinous rice in coconut milk—a quirky mix of French and Southeast Asia—and an excellent black bean in coconut milk. Yes, sounds unexciting but it was surprisingly good—perhaps even the best of the lot. The soy ice cream with glutinous rice was fabulous too. And this brought us to the end of the food tour. By the time we meandered back to our hotel, it was close to 11pm, but the streets were still buzzing and the food stalls were still teeming with diners. No, it seems the food never stops in Hanoi.