Tag Archives: Hanoi

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #7: Bánh Gói

Not an English motorway station in sight.

A quick one this.

In a bit of a rush between a 12-hour-day and drinks I stopped off to grab a few quick bites at the side of the road on my main street of Đội Cấn. I had driven by this stall several times on the way to work and thought the same thing every time. They look like Cornish Pasties, an English hand-held snack of meat and potatoes in a pastry thick enough to withstand accidental blows whilst stuck in a harsh English coal mine.

Called ‘pillow cake’ in Vietnamese, these pastries were made from a thinner dough akin to an Indian samosa. Maybe the Vietnamese mines had better conditions in those days. Either way I appreciated the lightness of the pastry with this much oil involved. It was filled with pork and glass noodles and probably other things but they were long gone before I had the chance to inspect the contents my mouth. Comes served with the mint and the lettuce and the spicy dipping sauce and your own saliva.

Where: Close to the corner of Đội Cấn and Liễu Giai.

How much: 6,000 VND each.

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #5: Nem tai lợn (fresh pig’s ear spring rolls)

ear-to-tail cuisine.

I often get caught out in the monsoon rain wearing only a T-shirt and sandals. It normally means a wet end to my day, which loses out a swirl of American sitcoms and sickly sweet Vietnamese snacks.

Not this time. Out on Ngoc Ha market as God began sobbing, I took shelter under an unassuming gazebo which housed what looked like a salad stall. Deprived of vitamins from my love of Bún chả (more on this later) I had made flirty eyes towards this exact stall the day before, promising myself I would get more acquainted with it when I had a chance.

It seems the heavens bought us together to become one.” I said.

“Chào em.” came the reply.

Being trapped by the rain isn't always a bad thing.

In Britain, to make a pigs ear of something is to totally mess it up. ‘You’ve made a pig’s ear of my cucumber sandwich!’ is how we scolded our servants, before finishing off our tea and heading out for a spot of tennis.

In Vietnam they invert the equation.

The ear is julienned and tossed in toasted rice flour. Another product is made by pulverizing the ear and leaving it to ferment wrapped in banana leaves. Both concoctions are paired with thinly-sliced carrot, coriander and lettuce leaves and wrapped in thin rice-paper. The nem is served with a spicy dipping sauce with peanuts inside.

The result: It was like the Dillinger Escape Plan had gatecrashed a party in my mouth. There was contrasting call-and-response between cartilage-crunch and the fermented chewiness of both pig’s ears. The mellow jazz of the rice paper quickly giving way to the piquant-scream of the dipping sauce. I ate in 13/8 timing and it was good.

A few mumbles and lots of pointing later, out came these:

Two parcels of pork meat cooked with wood-ear mushrooms. The outer-rice had the consistency of jelly, making a fine contrast with the juicy interior. I have no idea what they are called. If any Vietnamese people are reading, I’d appreciate the knowledge.

Crun-chewy.

I couldn’t go without sampling the salad, which turned out to be a similar mix to the Nem but in salad form. Also delicious.

The women who run the stall happened to be very nice people who let me take enough pictures to make it look like a murder scene. I thoroughly recommend you give them a visit sometime. Monsoon weather is optional.

I didn’t plan to eat here, just played it by ear. In order to find the best food in Hanoi, you need to keep your ears to the ground. They may be made from the ears, but they certainly bought home the bacon. You can’t make a silk purse of a sow’s ear but who cares when its this tasty?

Where: 14 Cho Ngọc Hà, Ba Dinh

How much: 40,000 VND (probably includes a foreigner mark-up, but worth it.)


Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes #3: Oyster Cháo (rice porridge)

Which of these dishes is the tastiest? The answer may surprise you.

In attempting to master this strange language, I immediately have the advantage over my Western peers as Cantonese (my mother tongue) is also a tonal language. Additionally, several words in Vietnamese are shared with their Chinese neighbours in the north. This can be compared to similarities between German and English. Examples of similar words include ‘dau’, which means bean, ‘mow goo’  which translates to mushroom, and ‘Coca’ which is a popular soft drink.

And like blighty’s love affair with the German-invented donor kebab, certain dishes are shared between countries with variations that make it specific to that country. The donor kebabs of Berlin come full of vegetables and make a decent lunch. The donor kebabs of London come full of meat and make a decent vomit on a Saturday night in Shoreditch.

One dish that the South-east Asian countries share is rice boiled long time with water into a rice porridge. Something like a watery risotto, it’s known as Juk to those in Hong Kong, Okayu to the Japanese, and cháo here in Hanoi. I stumbled upon a bowl of ground-oyster cháo at a stall on the shore of Truc Bach lake, a prosperous area north-east that is known for its seafood. Topped with fried shallots and a really meaty herb, It was great. Nourishing, delicious and well better than the stuff my mum used to make. In fact, eating here is a constant betrayal of mother’s home cooking,  I simply find everything here to be much better than anything she could muster.

An arm and a leg

That might be too extreme a statement. Alongside that we had plate of grilled snails that were pretty disappointing. I could have used the meat to erase my maths homework, and the taste was really bland. Becoming accustomed to quality food here, ordering a crappy dish really grinds my gears. But what’s worse, they cost five times the amount of what the cháo had cost. Let this be a lesson to me: like the English football team at global football tournaments, money doesn’t always translate to success here.

Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes #2: Bún cá (Fish noodle soup)

You are a filthy whore.

There is a Vietnamese saying: You turn to noodles (or your mistress) once you’re bored with your rice (or your wife). And just recently, a Viet-American rapper posted a song in which he compares his bedroom prowess to a bowl of Phở. Try as we might, it is impossible to disconnect the relationship between food and sex.

Which brings me to fish noodle soup.

Having powerful Vietnamese friends can get you far in Vietnam, but having civilian Vietnamese friends will merely grant you access to consistently memorable food. But that’s good enough for me.  As a gracious gesture for teaching her English, a friend’s Hanoian girlfriend takes me for a 60 pence bowl of Bún cá. But not just any old rice noodles. They are cut like tagliatelle and then left to brown in the Hanoian sun. The slow drying results in a rougher textured noodle that somehow manages to soak up lots of the the delicious fish broth in which it sits whilst remaining ‘al dente’ at the biting point.

Take me now.

The broth is made from the bones of the ‘lake fish’ (I couldn’t get a better definition from my friend) and topped with fish sausage, spring onions and a very bamboo-like yellow vegetable.

Slurping down to the bottom of the bowl,  I could feel the endorphins bouncing around my head like freed zoo animals.  Is this the same feeling girls get when they eat chocolate? I finally understand that Cadburys Flake advert from years ago.

As we ate, the streets shimmered under the monsoon rain as everyone ran for cover. maybe this place isn’t so different from Manchester after all.

Around Hanoi in 30 dishes #1 – Bahn Xeo

It would be foolish to talk about Hanoi without mentioning the food. That’s like making a cup of tea and leaving out the milk. That’s like omitting seminal funk-rockers Faith No More from the rise of rap-metal in the late 90s.

I’m no stranger to Vietnamese food. For two decades my mother faithfully reproduced the food that she learnt to cook in her home town of Lang Son. She cooked simple, honest Northern Vietnamese fare  that carried more than a whiff of soy saucpiration (yea, I went there) from the Chinese province of Guangxi across the border. I therefore saw it as a given that a mother’s food should be amazing. It however didn’t stop me rebelling by diving head-first into learning to cook Italian food. But oh what a fool I was. For Vietnamese food is so much better.

I’ll be introducing a section that I shall tentatively call Around Hanoi in 30 Dishes. This is pretty self-explanatory and I’ll make sure I upload pictures that best captures the smell, as well as the surroundings in which it is eaten (also very important).

Lady making Bahn Xeo

First off we have Bahn Xeo. A couple of workmates found this dish to be one of their favourites and so we promptly rushed to their local only to find it closed. Luckily the German speaking owner (?) took us to his brother’s place instead, which was open for business. Win!

Aforementioned taste explosion

Now contrary to what I was saying sixty seconds earlier, the pictures really don’t do it justice. A paste is made with rice flour and turmeric. This is slowly fried with prawns, pork and a handful of beansprouts. The resulting pancake is eaten with Nuoc Cham (a condiment of lime juice, rice vinegar, fish sauce and sugar found everywhere in Vietnam) and some wonderfully bitter leaves. All washed down with the equally ubiquitous Tre Da (ice tea). The Nuoc Cham dipping sauce performed the Monica from Friends role here, bringing all the ingredients together into one delicious and sexy taste explosion. Its sweetness contrasts nicely with the bitter leaves, its piquancy expertly tango-dancing with the deep-fried crispy rice batter on your oh-so-grateful tongue.

All for one measly pound. For those of you lucky enough to be here, get yourself down to 69/9 Van Chuong. If you don’t live here, your local pound shop is likely to have a decent tinned-fruit section. Alternatively you can cook it yourself.

Hanoi, I’m not scared of you anymore y’hear?

I’ve been here for a month now and finally getting used to the city. I’m no longer as wide eyed (and mouthed) as I was when I first arrived. I now know how to negotiate the open manholes, hanging electricity wires and poorly parked motocycles standing between me and my next amazing meal. I survived the floods without being electrocuted.

We're in the middle of monsoon season.

I also start Vietnamese lessons next week which is a real relief. On recent nights out with western friends I’ve been the person the restaraunt-owner talks to before anyone else. So you can imagine the look on their face when its the white guy who can speak better. A hilarious time for all concerned! Kinda like the end of the 60s sitcom where everyone shares a joke and then freeze mid-laugh as the credits roll.

But it’s getting a little old now. so yay for Vietnamese lessons.

One owner even asked my white friend if I was his son. We pondered the improbable scenario that needed to occur for this to be true. It involved child trafficking.

One month on, my experience of teaching is improving. I feel I have the respect and even admiration of the students. Like most Hanoians, they have let down their guard and are much more receptive and warm towards me. This is a great feeling and makes me feel that my teaching (and not my apperance) is whats most important to these students.  We’re gettting somewhere here.

The good nature isn’t just confined to the classroom. On the street I find people are willing to rush to my aid if I had any language problems. Their English isn’t great, but the fact that they are trying to help gives me a warm feeling inside.

Of course, you still get your fair share of dickheads. Many people try to charge you western prices (normally double those of local prices) for everything, and this becomes apparent when you realise that menus and price lists are a rare sight in Hanoi. As a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) I often get charged the western price. Compared to living in London, its still a great deal, but knowing you’ve been charged over the odds adds a bitter aftertaste to your bowl of pho. Another reason to learn Vietnamese then!

Most interesting thing seen on the back of a motorbike – A HUGE block of ice riding free and unattached to the back, with the driver holding onto it with one hand and the other on the handlebar.

First class

Well I’ve just had my first class. If only i could take a picture of the look that the vietnamese give me when I am introduced as their new ENGLISH teacher.

A kind of shock and bemusement which I kind of expect. What I didn’t expect was one of the students, indignant at being on the losing side of a word-game, mumbled something in angry vietnamese (I could tell it was angry because she sounded like my mother) and then told me to **** off. All in all then, a great start to my teaching career.

Apart from (or perhaps because of) that incident I’m looking forward to what the future holds. This is gonna be fun.

Other fun stuff: walking down the old quarter the other night a motorbike driver offers me “Vietnamese massage, very young girl, eeeeeverything fifteen doller (he actually did say eeeeeeverything)”. I hopefully enquire whether he has any much older women. MUCH older. He appears bemused and drives off.

Most interesting thing seen on the back of a motorbike this week: a 12-foot ladder laid horizontally. I wouldn’t want to be close to that bike at a junction.