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Twenty-four hours to eat in Hanoi

Twenty-four hours to eat in Hanoi

by Helen Graves 07 January 2016

Helen Graves takes a whistle-stop tour of Vietnam's capital and discovers a city full of incredible street food.

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Flying into Hanoi is spectacular. As the plane descends over fuzzy green mountains, we move increasingly closer to a cottony blanket of fog. It’s the harvest season, and farmers are burning the paddy fields, engulfing the area in a thick layer of fluff. For a while everything is white, and then, suddenly, we’re beneath it, hovering over thousands of miniature palms, patchwork farms speckled with people and between them, winding up the roads like lines of ants, the mopeds.

The moped is king in Hanoi, and its citizens will strap pretty much anything onto one. Live animals? Not a problem. How about a water buffalo, or a couple of pigs? No item of furniture is considered too large, and I see sofas, wardrobes and even a fridge chug down the highway. The bikes define the place, and it’s a joke amongst those who have been to the capital city that one must learn the ways of crossing the road if you’re to get anywhere. The technique is simple: look briefly, start walking and then don’t, whatever you do, stop. The bikes will move around you, like insects parting around a rock. Hanoi is an overwhelming and intoxicating place; the energy, the noise and chaos, the beauty of the faded buildings, the sensory onslaught from every angle but mostly, of course, the food.

In the Old Quarter (for that is where you’ll want to be), street food is everywhere. Tiny plastic neon stools line the streets, alleyways, and every spare inch of space. Grills flare, bowls clatter and chopsticks click in every nook and cranny. The dark and grimy lanes are not to be avoided; the grottiness of the passageway is not an indicator of the quality of the food, unlike the busyness of the stall. There is no advantage for vendors to bypass proper hygiene, because if people get ill, they won’t come back. This is why it makes no sense to be scared of street food. So, what to eat if you’ve only got twenty-four hours? With so much choice, it can be overwhelming. Here are my tips if you find yourself short of time but large of appetite.

Mopeds are everywhere in Hanoi
Pho is Vietnam's national dish and must be tasted at least once in the capital

Where to go

Pho Suong, No. 24 Trung Yen Alley, Dinh Liet Street 

There’s one dish that everyone wants to eat first: pho. This famous soup is eaten at various times of the day throughout different parts of the country, but here I ate it for breakfast. Rice noodles and sliced beef brisket come in a fragrant, anise-scented broth which is at once both intense and delicate. There’s a depth to the flavour but also a lightness that makes it perfect for the time of day. Locals pull up a stool for me and start passing condiments, gesturing to add rice vinegar infused with garlic, blobs of chilli paste and crisp peanuts and shallots. The soup is revitalising, and a fabulous combination of textures with punches of flavour from fresh herbs like coriander and Vietnamese mint.

Ngo Dong Xuan alleyway

Prawn fritters called bánh tom are made with a batter of sweet potato and wheat flour. The prawns are then pressed on top, shells and all. They’re fried first in one wok, and then in another, so they’re extra crisp, and served with a dipping sauce of sweetened fish sauce and thinly sliced green papaya. They’re not healthy but who cares, they’re fantastic, and the prawns are just small enough to eat whole. It’s all about the textures.

Green rice
Green rice is a fast and filling snack
Báhn tom
Báhn tom prawn fritters are simple yet delicious

All around the Old Quarter

Rice is fashioned into just about every form in Vietnam, and there are some interesting street snacks to be had in the way of young, green rice. It is said that when a breeze blows across a paddy field it is ready to harvest, and those with a need to make a living but few resources sell it on the street wrapped in lotus leaves. It’s also available as a sticky, glutinous hand held snack, bright green inside its plastic wrap, and incredibly filling.

Bún Chả, 34 Hàng Than 

One of Hanoi’s greatest dishes is bun cha. The best and most enterprising vendors set up huge fans behind their barbecues, which blow the tantalising smoke smells out on to the street, tempting customers in; an excellent marketing strategy which beats a chalkboard any day. The dish consists of highly flavoured pork patties wrapped in lốt or lolot leaves, sliced pork belly, rice noodles, a dipping sauce of sweetened fish sauce, young papaya and a huge plate of fresh herbs. Chilli can be added to the sauce as required and you take a tangle of noodles, dipping them in and scooping them up with everything else. A good bun cha will leave a blackened ring around the dipping bowl, showing off the fact that the meat has been properly grilled.

Buddha's hand
Buddha's hand fruits aren't eaten, but used as religious offerings instead
Shaved ice dessert
Shaved ice desserts are a great way to cool off in the humid heat

Tra Chanh - 31 Dao Duy Tu

The weather in Hanoi can be very humid, so it’s advisable to cool off with one of the seemingly endless varieties of shaved ice desserts. A favourite came with slices of very ripe banana (of which there are many varieties in Vietnam), sago pearls and coconut milk. A very sweet but refreshing snack, particularly when served with a long glass of iced tea on the side.

Cafe Nang, 6 Hang Bac

It is essential to try the famous Vietnamese iced coffee. The hardcore will have it sweetened with lots of condensed milk, which makes it thick, viscous and wonderfully unhealthy. There are varying degrees of sweetness available and it comes hot or iced. The open front to the excellent Café Nang is also a fine spot to do some people watching.

Old Quarter market

Finally, a trip to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without a walk around the market in the Old Quarter. It’s sprawling, with vendors squeezed onto every patch of floor. Produce is stacked everywhere: gnarly Buddha’s hand citrus fruits, which are not eaten in Vietnam (they’re mainly pith) but used as religious offerings, spiky scarlet barbs of hibiscus, long green vegetables with tendrils like wayward beards and every kind of herb – for the Vietnamese prize their herbs. Spices look incredibly fresh, with sticks of cinnamon like woody wands and star anise the freshest I’ve seen, cochineal red, still with their tiny stalks attached. The wet areas are a culture shock, full of buckets of live eels, bags of squirming toads, and fish being gutted on floor mats. It will make you wish you had the facilities to take it all away and cook. The freshness of everything is almost vulgar and it’s a fascinating juxtaposition of perfect produce on streets and in corners so grimy. It’s shocking, uncomfortable, fascinating and exhilarating all at once.

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