Ben Lerwill gets a taste of the roadside stalls and cafes in Vietnam’s capital city
Mealtimes could well be the only moments of the day when residents of Vietnam’s capital city pause for breath. Hanoi is unremittingly hyperactive; an endless sense-smash of swerving motorbikes, woozy heat and pavement hawkers. But when it’s time to eat? That’s when the serious business of the day is conducted — assuming, of course, that you know where to go.
“It helps to have a bit of bravado about you,” says food blogger Mark Lowerson, a Hanoi resident since 2002, as he leads me down a cramped, scrap-littered alleyway in the Old Quarter. Around us, pots clatter, meat spits and steam billows. Naked bulbs dangle from awnings, and tiny plastic stools — most already occupied — are clustered at different cooking stations. The swirl of smells — aromatic broth, coal-fired grills and heady herbs — is intense.
“If you’re shuttled around mediocre tourist restaurants, you’ll leave Vietnam thinking ‘well, the food was OK,’” Mark tells me. He gestures for me to sit in front of a lady cooking up strips of pork at a poorly lit counter. Heaps of greens, shallots, limes and red chillies are piled by her side. “These are the kinds of places you need to be coming to,” he says.
Hanoi’s street food scene is legendary, but don’t expect extensive menus. The vendors tend to be highly specialised, doing just one dish but doing it extremely well. Some work out of permanent street kitchens, others set up makeshift stalls in the same daily locations. Many only cook for a few short hours each day, and their English is generally non-existent. But they do things the right way, eschewing decor, extra staff and bumped-up costs for what really matters: providing a memorable feed.
Touring the city’s backways for a few hours with Mark, we sample a searingly good spread of street dishes, all of them knocked out for a dollar or two apiece: crab spring rolls, snail noodle soup, papaya salad, fried banana tapioca, fermented rice with yoghurt. The ingredients are powerfully fresh and the taste combinations near-perfect. Even the colors are bright and inviting. It’s hard to stop eating.
“Our tours always go to five or six of about 40 places that we really rate, in and around the Old Quarter,” says Mark. He arranges these food walks with another local blogger, Van Cong Tu, and their tours come highly recommended, not least if you’re going to be in town for a few days and need some inspiration for mealtimes ahead. Group sizes are usually capped at four. And the best advice I can give: arrive hungry.
We finish the afternoon in a tiny cafe, indulging in one of Hanoi’s more curious concoctions, egg coffee. It’s essentially a shot of the black stuff topped with whisked egg, sugar and milk. The result is simple, strong and effective — a very Vietnamese pick-me-up. Then it’s back into the maelstrom of the streets, where motorbike drivers maraud in their thousands in the knowledge that, come dinner time, the streetside grills will be fired up again.
A half-day street-food tour organised through Inside Vietnam Tours costs $84 per person.