...as Eli said. The food! What graze-friendly gloriousness Hanoi invited us into. Strolling around, following our noses - and sometimes just following the basket that dangled off the shoulder of a speedy woman ahead of us in the crowd. We accepted the invitation, the challenge, with a good dose of excitement, and (if only at first) empty bellies. Having spent a few weeks in Vietnam before hitting the streets of Hanoi definitely helped us, both linguistically and digestively. Certain dishes were not without their surprises or mystery ingredients, but we were lucky to have mostly delicious, even if not the most attractive, experiences. We would first like to extend a big thank you to stickyrice.typepad.com. This exhaustively thorough blog introduced us to the complex Hanoi street food scene, inspired our boldly attempting mysterious eats, diminished the trepidation that often accompanies ordering and diligently identified things via both descriptions and locations of all kinds of finds. As for what really stood out, or quickly became a near-daily necessity, we made a selection of savory vs. sweet below - complete with notes about flavor, ingredients, surroundings, adventures or a combination thereof. Since neither of us eat too much meat, the savory side is likely an example of the simpler (yet still oh-so-satisfying) fare available. No fried tarantulas this time, just straightforward goodness enjoyed on minuscule plastic stool beside a swarm of motos and pedestrians.
Chao: A rice based soup, generally cooked into a downright gruel minus all of the bad notions that word conjures up. In traditional Chinese medicine, and culture, it is known as a congee and in Thailand it is johk. Served up from very early in the morning through early afternoon, it is topped with fried shallots, some green onion snippings (always cutting with scissors, these ladies are so reasonable and crafty), a dose of soft cruton, powdered pepper and chili, and whatever base meat or veg you choose. Most places specialize in one or two, such as trai (finely chopped oyster), ga (chicken) or more rarely rau (chopped vegetables). Our first chao trai feast treated us to a surprise, the flavor was so mild and lovely that we thought it was merely herbs and rice. We also met a lovely young woman from the Boston area who is working in the central highlands for a few more months, so good conversation accompanied our simple bowls. Eli was so hooked on this version that he kept an eye out for the same woman on each walk outside.
Pho: Best enjoyed for breakfast, this rice noodle soup was an old favorite in Boston, but was elevated to near transcendental experiences with the right combination of shredded vegetables, tofu, hearty lime slices, chopped herbs and fresh chili flakes. Our Hanoi go to was a small place called Coffee12 (we never figured out if that was the address or amount of hours open or what) that had lots of locals, sweet women working there and a clean, clean broth. A cleansing ritual and the right amount of warming for the brisk mornings.
Banh Gio Nong: We originally tried this because I recognized it from a stickyrice post. A sticky rice square patty is lightly stuffed with mung (yellow) bean paste and a small bit of pork belly. It is found crisping on a large metal platter over a wood burning fire, or perhaps a clay stove housed in a basket, and served in a banana leaf with a dash of fish sauce and/or hot sauce (get both!). Our first one was ordered from a small corner set-up; we walked down the street testing, then savoring it, and promptly did a u-turn to get a second one. We spent the rest of our time in Hanoi casually seeking a better one, but it remains the champion.
Banh Trung Cut: These almost raw looking steamed buns with filling are common and dirt cheap - a stellar snack, or meal, if you aren't wheat-free (ugh!). If you feel adventurous with the stuffings (we were only mildly so), you can order them off the back of bicycles - just listen for some random seeming hooting message and look for e bike with the big aluminum bucket in the back, steam billowing behind. Our go to, the Trung Cut comes with mushrooms, herbs, a hard-boiled quail egg and minimal amount of pork inside.
Bun Dau Mam Tom: A great example of trusting your own eyes (is that...it looks like...perfectly fluffy, fried tofu?),
as well as able to eat fresh leafy herbs on the street and not contract something horrible, much to the chagrin of so many travel warnings. A simple plate of fried tofu, cool vermicelli, fresh herbs (purple/Thai basil, mint, shiso and something mildly sweet) and a shrimp paste dipping sauce. The latter part is an acquired earthy taste, and the strength depends on the maker, but it is necessary to complete the flavor walk that your mouth takes. A little extra mint, less sauce or extra sauce on the tofu followed with a shooter of basil - the dish shifts and melds, and the old woman who served it to you is endlessly entertained. Plus, it is nice to have something other than a one pot, or one hand, dish.
Banh Troi Tau: The pairing of all that is holy and wonderful, according to me. A laughably hideous bowl of utter perfection. Hot ginger infused syrup (not super sweet and the stronger ginger the better) with two rice flour dumplings suspended in it. At two averagely good shops there was always one with a black sesame paste filling and one with mung bean paste. Decent - and I will always choose the former as the last to be eaten. However, one magical place exists - open only after 3:30pm, a vacant door and stoop before, specializing in this and two other bowls of dessert only. It materializes with an air of mystery and utility, and locals literally stake the place out, either waiting upon every stool or trolling on motos, necks craned. This establishment serves one dumpling full of shredded coconut and one with the black sesame paste. Also, after tasting their ginger broth, the rest just tasted like sugar syrup. OMG. I spied a sad frozen version of this in a Bangkok store, but dare not spoil the taste memory. Should anyone know of a good place for this stateside, please-oh-please do tell.
Chuoi Nep Nuong: What a concoction! Whoever invented this one gets two gold stars and number two on the list of "Best Desserts of WonderWander's Hanoi" - a niche list if ever there was one, but don't think that means it's meaningless. Take one banana (the small, super flavorful kind, if possible), wrap in sticky rice and grill. Cut into a cup (with scissors, natch), drench in a warm tapioca/sweet coconut milk mixture, and sprinkle a few crushed peanuts to garnish. Delicious and practically even good for you, what with all that banana and all. Probably just as awesome with some cinnamon on top and a little vanilla ice cream underneath.
Che Con Ong: Definitely not a favorite, but it gets a mention because it could likely save your life. Were you to be stranded somewhere in heavy snows, with shelter but no food...this could last for a week or two, keeping you sustained until help arrived. A sticky rice patty drowned with ginger infused browned sugar syrup (not quite caramel flavor, but a good substitute word), served cooled and covered in a few crushed peanuts. We consider it the Vietnamese GORP, but not as addictive.
Chi Ma Phu: A practical dessert, should you be interested in the healing qualities if black sesame and something not super dessert-like, as we westerners know it. It is a mildly sweetened ground black sesame soup, served in small doses - and particularly good at the aforementioned magic hole-in-the-wall. What we liked most was the simplicity, almost an after dinner tonic dessert.
Banh Da Ke: A semi-sweet snack off the back of a bicycle - yes, please. One big, round, crispy rice cracker is covered in a smear of mung bean paste and sprinkled with what we think was crumbled, cooked egg yolk (but we really aren't sure) and sugar. It is important to use what Vietnamese you have to communicate only a little shake of sugar - otherwise, you will feel your enamel eroding with every bite. When light on the sugar, however, this is a great light snack that is not too savory and not super sweet. Almost a mild yellow bean hummus of sorts, surrounded by lightweight crunch and held within a square of yesterday's news.
You may realize by now (really, how could you not?) that our food experiences are integral to our place-making, be it that we are somewhere for only several days or a few months. Thankfully, though it might sometimes seem otherwise, our documentary process isn't a straight shot from the table or street to the digital realm. The tried and true, and far less obtrusive, in-between is a small and scribbled notebook with various lists of dishes, drinks or ingredients to hold on to. It is divided by country and contains the proper terms, ingredients, or sometimes simply the location of where we tried a specific bite. Beyond being helpful for our writing here, we have found that it has become a trigger unto itself - as we review certain details, or sometimes flip back to the start of the trip, new things emerge. Effectively, we are retracing our steps, solidifying the experience as memory - or redrafting it more thoroughly. What we look forward to most is doing this again, creating new recipes inspired by these notes perhaps - and thus, new smell/taste/life memories to go along with them.