Hanoi Holiday (part 2)

Hanoi’s memories still linger in my mind, just as these stubborn sniffles still linger in my sinuses! I’m feeling much better now, but not at the 100% I am used to. Which means less cooking, less frequent posting, and oh-boy you don’t want to see the pile of hand-washing waiting to be done!

Yesterday, with a whoop and a holler, I managed to (on top of a full day's work!) go to the bank, roast some vegetables, wash 3 dresses, and start this post on the rest on my Hanoi highlights…

The Street food – Hanoi street food proves that there can be such a thing as “good fast food”. The city’s many street-side food vendors and small restaurant proprietors whip up deliciousness as fast as their famous motorbikes take a roundabout. And just as expertly. Usually, each establishment will serve one dish, one that they have been churning out time upon time…in some cases for generations. So you can imagine just how perfect all that practice begot.

One delectable example was the grilled beef (called bo nuong – please correct me if I’m wrong) we had at a place called Xuan Xuan (#47 Ma May, Old Quarter) near our hotel. After getting cozy amongst the squat stools and tables, we got a little gas cooktop with a grill plate, a plate piled with marinated strips of beef (with a ton of garlic! MMM!) & veggies, and a little squeeze-ee bottle filled with oil. We were then left to our own devices with regards to our dinner. We squirted oil on the hot grill pan and laid on the beef. The smell of the sizzling beef (and garlic!) was amazing! And the taste was way up there too :) We polished off 5 baguettes among the 3 of us sopping up the juices!

You can truly never go hungry in Hanoi. A fantastic meal is never far away…and often at a bargain price! The pho in my last post is a good example…as is the banh mi/banh my pa te below (yummy!!!). In a small market we chanced upon, there were delicious pork patties (the type you find in bun cha) we just couldn’t resist. Aside from this there are countless treats to be found down the bustling lanes of the Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake. Just follow your nose :)

Riding a motorbike in the Hanoi rush – When it comes to driving, whether it is a car or any other vehicle, I am a late bloomer. Suffice to say I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to driving anything (now, being a passenger I am fabulous at). So as adventurous as it sounded, I couldn’t bring myself to hire a motorbike. As fate would have it, when my hotel offered to get me my banh mi, I found out they would be sending someone on a motorbike. I jumped at the chance! In two shakes I was on the bike and off to get our breakfast. As a pedestrian, Hanoi’s motorbikes can seem overwhelming and a tad threatening…As a passenger, they are exhilarating, fun, and seem like the best possible way to be getting around! With the wind in my face and thoughts of banh my pa te in my head, everything seemed brighter that morning :)

Banh mi – Oh had I been waiting to try this! This baguette sandwich that combines French (pate, mayonnaise, baguette bread) and Vietnamese influences (Vietnamese herbs, pickled veg, fish sauce, chili) has gotten rave reviews, not the least from my SEA neighbor Bordeaux in Bangkok, whose banh mi meal haunts him still! I was determined to be likewise haunted. I asked the guy at our hotel where I could get a good one…and he offered to send someone to Din Liet (the street, towards the lake from the Old Quarter…it was on #38) to get one. Well, if you read the above, then you know I wrangled a place on his motorbike for the ride :) Between the thrill of riding a motorbike in the busy Hanoi streets, and the truth of this sandwich’s goodness, I was in heaven. Fatty pate, butter, crisp cucumbers, chili, strips of pork…and a fried egg, all squooshed together in a soft baguette. This is going down as one of my favorite breakfasts…ever. I must replicate this here somehow...

Cha Ca La Vong – The one place that everyone I asked said do not leave Hanoi without trying. More than a hundred years old and serving only one dish, this place is somewhat of a legend in the Hanoi food scene. It’s even snagged a coveted spot in Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places to See Before Your Die. The draw? An age-old recipe of fried fish in a secret blend of herbs, oils, and spices, cooked at your table over a coal fire. There are rumors about the “secret” that makes this dish taste so good, the secret that makes people flock to this place. Secret or no, I too was soon under its spell as I piled the succulent yellow-tinged fish and bright green herbs onto my bowl of bun (rice vermicelli) adding a sharp splash of fish sauce. My brain kept questioning, “What’s that flavor?” but my palate just wanted to surrender. Guess which won out? ;) Cha Ca La Vong, #14 Cha Ca, Old Quarter, Hanoi.

French-Viet at Green Tangerine – My dining experience in Hanoi would not be complete without trying at least one French-Viet place. Just as the blend of French and Vietnamese (and greater Asian) beguiled me, the same combination in food could be just as good I thought, maybe better! Set in an old colonial house, the restaurant is a haven of calm in the busy Old Quarter. Enjoying their French chef’s creations in the airy courtyard was great way to rest our feet and catch our breath. I had the duck liver mousse in a small bun seasoned with coriander and citrus (and served with sesame brittle that went perfectly with it!) and C had shrimp in Chinese spices served with fried potatoes and apple slices. We were a big group for this meal…so we all got to pick from each others plates and sample the chef’s delicate balance of French and Asian. Green Tangerine, #48 Hang Be, Old Quarter, Hanoi.

Re-reading this I realize that it is all about food! Am I, or you, even surprised? Oh dear, you must think I do nothing but eat. Although that wouldn’t be a gross exaggeration, I do get around to other things as well! I enjoyed the serene beauty of Halong Bay, coasting along in a junk boat (and getting my first taste of Hanoi vodka!). I was moved by the amount of locals in the line going to see Ho Chi Minh, particularly by an adorable bunch of well-behaved and respectful kids. I bought a cute bag! I was awed by his imposing mausoleum, all size and stark lines…such a contrast from the crazy vibe of the Old Quarter and the old-world charm of the French Quarter. I was entranced by how cozy French and Asian influences could be with each other, like old friends…like the flavors in the banh mi I had that morning, surprising yet suited.

Hanoi, I know what it’s like to carry more than one culture on my back. And I know that being true to one does not necessarily mean being false to the other. After all, balance and fusion bring about such great specimens – you and me included ;) You will not be easily forgotten!