Eat like a local.
Slanting short tables, flimsy plastic stools, empty noodle soup bowls and lipstick stained tissue papers - these are a few signs that you should be looking out for at every street corner in Vietnam. If you found one, join them, because it could be one of the best meals you've ever had in this country where street foods are kings.
We bid farewell to the sun, surf and sand of Dong Hoi in Quang Binh province and head north to the French quarter of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. With its population estimated at 6.5 million and still growing, this over 1000 years old city has no trouble to feed the masses by having food stalls dotted almost every corner of the streets. And they are not just food stalls, they are institutions frequented by the locals; some of these stalls have been serving the same beef noodle soup for generations and every bowl is masterfully prepared.
Good food are not hard to find in Vietnam, you just have to eat like a local.
First morning in Hanoi, I intentionally skip the international buffet at Melia Hotel and wander off to find my first bowl of pho. It makes perfect sense since pho is originated from North Vietnam in Hanoi. But not just any pho, I want to try the best pho in town. All I have to do is ask the local and that's when I met Ngoc and Huyen, two concierge girls who look after valet parking at the hotel. With their perfect English, they give me the direction to the closest and the best pho shop and hail me a taxi to take me there.
I arrive at Bat Dan Street in the Old Quarter and immediately spotted a pho stall. But hang on a second, not far from me is another busy pho stall, I walk a little further then only realised that almost every second shop on Bat Dan Street is selling pho. My hunt for best pho is slowly slipping away. But one thing I notice is Pho Ga (chicken) seems to be just as popular as Pho Bo (beef) here in Hanoi and decided to give it a try.
While I am feeling like a three year old trying to contortion onto a plastic stool with my knees almost touching my chin, a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup arrives within seconds. This stall doesn't even have tables but food being served on a taller plastic stool. This is a communal style eating at its best, you simply have to ask the fellow noodle slurpers sit right next to you to pass the chopsticks and condiments over.
The pho ga here comes in a delicious clear broth, thin rice noodle is slippery smooth and served with slivers of chicken white meat. Every sip of the chicken broth with fresh mint and Chinese coriander is an instant remedy that warms the soul.
But don't let the colourless clear broth fools you, the stock has been simmered overnight in a big stainless steel pot filled with chicken carcasses that gives that broth a strong chicken flavour.
While the pho ga is delicious and all, I actually already have my eyes on the bowl of dau chao quay which has to be ordered as an extra on the side. It is a must! These fried donut sticks are already simply out of this world on its own, but try dunking them into noodle soup and let it soaks up the broth, it is like biting into a crunchy sponge with soupy broth gushes out and drips down the chin - it is pure food porn.
My pho hunt continues at Bat Dan Street, this time I am looking out for Pho Bo and there are way too many to choose from. I am lost, and I cannot find the best pho which I was set out to do, hence I decided to just go to the pokiest and grottiest pho shop on the best street for my pho-ix.
The lady boss sits at the shop front and cooks the pho bo to order from the customers as they walk in, while another lady will bring it to your table and collect the money as you walk out. The pho bo here is not the best I've had, it is a decent bowl of beef noodle soup that will keep the stomach full till lunch time. But I am loving the whole idea of me slurping noodle soup in a dingy little shop somewhere in Vietnam, that's my ideal way of travelling. Anthony Bourdain, eat your heart out!
Sadly, I didn't get to taste the best pho in Hanoi, and according to Google, it is actually located at 49, Bat Dan Street, Hanoi.
When I arrive back at the hotel, Ngoc and Huyen are quite eager to know how I found the best pho in town. When I tell them I actually didn't find it and show them photos where I've been, they are so disappointed and telling me all the stories about this best pho shop where people willing to queue up for long time just to taste their pho. They also believe that the shop will use the meat from a whole cow to make the pho bo per day, which seems a little too farfetch'd to me.
Nevertheless, I thought it will be a great opportunity to use their local knowledge and propose to them to be my foodie tour guides for the rest of the afternoon which they happily obliged. But I only have one agenda this afternoon, something I am dying to try since I've read it on Phuoc's and Leona's - I am on the hunt for raw egg coffee. Immediately, Ngoc and Huyen know exactly where to take me and Kate, a freelance travel writer is also interested and tagged along for the hunt.
Ngoc and Huyen take us back to the Old Quarter to look for this cafe, even they seem to have vague idea where this place is and have to ask a few shopkeepers in the area. Then we stop right in front of a souvenir shop and a tailor shop, assuming they need to ask for more direction.
"Can you see? No, Look up!"
And there it is, we found the Cafe Pho Co. A tiny 'cafe' signboard stuck way too up high above eye level that anyone would have ever noticed it, not to mention we are still standing right outside a souvenir and a tailor shop, but is it?
I follow the girls and walk through the dark corridor between the two shops into the old building...
... then out onto a common courtyart where its original beauty still remains.
But that's not it, we follow the narrow spiral stairwell and pass the first floor where a shrine is housed...
...then up to 2nd floor where the cafe is. But we keep on climbing up to the rooftop where more tables are set up. Here you will get the best view of the Hoan Kiem lake in central Hanoi. Piece of advice, make sure you order your coffee first when you are in the courtyard before climbing up to the rooftop to save you some legwork.
Behold the raw egg cafe! Served in clear glasses, filled with over an inch thick of whipped raw egg and a bottom layer of black Vietnamese coffee. A finishing touch of topping some of the black coffee over the whipped egg creates an ink dye effect that is visually mesmerising.
Ca phe trung has been drunk for generations and many do believe (and probably is true) that having a raw egg a day keeps the doctor away. If you cant swallow raw eggs like Rocky did, then this coffee is the way to go and I guarantee you will love it.
It is Tiramisu-in-a-cup; each sip is rewarded with sweet, thick, creamy, caffeinated concoction; we smile at each other in satisfaction with a white frothy moustache on our faces.
The girls tell us that they will ask the lady boss to show us how the coffee is made but no surprise a family recipe should be kept secret and never be shared. But no fret, the girls have another place in mind where the coffee is made right in front of the customers that we can go to check out.
A short walking distance from Cafe Pho Co, we arrive at Hong Sinh To, a shop mainly sells icy fruit salad drink called Hoa qua dam and Trung Cacao which is what we are here for. The lady boss cracks two eggs into each glasses and then put them inside the holders of a whisk machine. She only has to press a button and the machine starts whisking the eggs away for almost 5 minutes into thick frothy cream about triple of its original volume. In theory, she is making sabayon. Once the eggs are whipped, she added sugar and Milo powder and keep whisking away until well mixed. Simple as that.
The result is a glass of thick Milo sabayon that is sweet and creamy, eat by the spoonful, just like licking the bowl of leftover cake mix.
At this point, Kate suggests to the girls that they should test my knowledge in Vietnamese food. We will go and look for interesting food to try and I have to guess what they are. I say, bring it!
First stop is at Duc My at Lan Ong Street, it seems to a popular spot crowded with locals. While the stacks of freshly baked bread rolls for Banh Mi are luring me, but the girls have ordered something even more interesting for me to try. On the metal rack is a pile of unidentifiable deep-fried shredded meat that looks very much like anchovies, but my gut feeling tells me they are either snakes or eels.
But my first nibble of the unidentified object has confirmed that indeed they are deep-fried eels, called luon. The girls are a little disappointed that I guessed the secret ingredient almost immediately. The deep fried eels can be served in many different version, from noodle soup, stir-fried to as condiment with congee. We order mien luon nuoc, a bowl of piping hot glass noodle soup comes with a little morsel of crunchy luon, and heaps of fried shallots and herbs. I just love how such a simple bowl of noodle soup is packed with so much flavours.
We also try mien luon kho, which is a stir fried glass noodle with eel. I absolutely love this dish, it is lot pleasant to eat than the bowl of hot noodle soup in the sweltering heat. Every mouthful of the soft glass noodle has that little surprise of crunchy deep fried eel, so delicious!
Food stalls are slowly sprawling out onto the streets, everywhere you look there is some delicious local delicacies waiting for you to try, but nothing there can distract my full attention from that bright red glossy porcelain-like suckling pig hanging up at one of the stalls.
The suckling pig looks tiny hanging next right to the roast geese next to it. The stall lady is a little reluctant to sell some of the suckling pig to me when I asked, presuming that I won't like it and also because the roast meat is usually eaten as a proper meal with steamed rice, just like those Chinese BBQ restaurant here in Australia. After some persuasions, she finally cuts some of the suckling pig, weighs it on a scale, wraps it up in newspaper lined with banana leaf and sells to us for 80 cents.
It is ridiculously cheap for 200g of suckling pig with the incredibly crispy tiles of pork cracklings that are as thin as stained glass. We ask how much would a whole suckling pig would cost, her answer is VND250,000 which is equivalent to AUD$12.00; that's just ridiculous!
We walk further down to the backpacker district and it is already bustling here with tourists and young Vietnamese sitting outside on the pavements, drinking and snacking.
A few Vietnamese ladies trying to sell us some sweet snacks inside two woven baskets hanging from a long bamboo stick balancing over her shoulder. The sight of little morsels of golden deep-frieds is simply irresistibly mouth watering. We try banh cam, which is sweet sesame ball made of glutinous rice flour with mungbean filling, and also sweet potato balls which are moreish and chewy.
"We have one last test for you, Birry," the girls insist.
We veer into a dark alley where I probably wouldn't go on my own. A few tables and chairs have been set up where a few locals are passing time with a few beers and snacks after working hour. Big wheels of rice crackers are presented to us and also a few parcels wrapped in big country gooseberry leaves. "Try and guess what it is," they were waiting for a good show. Little did they know I actually tried it three years ago in Hoi An and already know what it is.
"It's nem chua", I answered, their smiles faded and the shoulders dropped in disbelief.
It is one of the best days in Hanoi being shown around by two locals that obviously love their food. I kindly offer them some gratuities for being so helpful and generous, taking time out to show us around but they will never accept our offer. But if you are happen to be in Hanoi and would like Ngoc and Huyen to be your guides and go on a food crawl, please do contact me and I will pass on their details. And promise to offer them gratuities whether they going to accept it or not. (In the end, I did bought them souvenirs which they happily accepted).
Cafes & restaurants that I have visited in Hanoi
For best pho in Hanoi No 49, Bat Dan St, Hanoi
For raw egg coffee (ca phe trung)
Cafe Pho Co
11P Hang Gai Street, Hanoi
For eel noodle soup (mien luon nuoc)
18 Lan Ong Street, Hanoi
(not far from here is Cha Ca Street, where cha ca la vong is originated)
Related posts from this Vietnam trip:
[A Table For Two travelled to Vietnam as a guest of Vietnam Airlines]