The Pho Report
We arrived in Hanoi after a 15 hour overnight train ride from Da Nang (not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had, but not the worst either.) We pulled into the station a bit groggy at 5:30 am, but Hanoi was already hopping with folks out walking, playing badminton, and jiving to Zumba-like group aerobics in the park. In our neighborhood in the old part of town, the business of food production was well underway with greens being rinsed and meat chopped by folks squatting next to cutting boards and bowls out on the sidewalk. 7:00 am saw us joining the line for a breakfast bowl of beef pho, which we ate sitting on little plastic stools at a low plastic table. We had arrived.
Our digestive winning streak didn’t fail throughout this leg of Southeast Asia which was good because Hanoi had another batch of local specialties we were eager to try. Pho bo (beef) or ga (chicken), the brothy noodle soup, is found all over Vietnam, but has a special place in Hanoi’s street food scene, especially for breakfast. Also bun cha, a dish of grilled pork patties over fresh rice vermicelli noodles served with a sweet, garlic tinged sauce and a mound of beautiful greens and herbs. (I just can’t get over the herbs! What fast food in America comes with a plateful of lettuce, basil, perilla and mint?) For dinner another night we followed a tip and tried mien luon, crispy fried eels over glass noodles. The kids weren’t thrilled with this development, but they ate them. See the world and raise unflappable eaters!
We were pleasantly surprised by another local specialty, egg coffee, which sounds weirder than it is. An egg yolk is whisked with sweetened condensed milk, then poured over coffee, maybe ice. The mixture is creamy and sweet, almost like a milkshake. If it weren’t for the cholesterol I think they could become a habit. As it is, I’m very fond of my daily ca phe sua da, thick iced coffee with a generous drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. Sit, stir, sip, watch the ladies go by balancing trays of fruit or walking bikes laden with flowers or ever more greens.
So much adventurous eating even before we took a food tour! Yes, another food tour! This one was a big splurge with Vietnamese God food blogger Van Cong Tu, who, along with Sticky Rice blogger Mark Lowerson run Hanoi Street Food Tours and would merit it’s own post if I wasn’t short on time. Let’s just say, Tu is The Man when it comes to eating in Hanoi. He led us down lanes, up grungy stairs, wove us past scooters and food vendors. We ate until I thought I would burst. Bits of grilled marinated pork; bun rieu cha, another variation on noodle soup with pork patties and crab paste; crazy black chicken cooked in a Coke can with Chinese herbs, more medicine than lunch; another egg coffee with a chocolate version for the kids and fresh passion fruit juice; bahn cuon, a kind of fresh spring roll with pork and mushroom filling, topped with crispy shallots and served with a dipping sauce that Tu doctored with garlic vinegar, lime and chilis; crispy crab spring rolls, served with vermicelli and herbs; bun oc, another noodle soup with snails, banana and tofu. As we walked Tu pointed out other shops and lanes, assembling an even longer list of the things we should try in our remaining 36 hours (quail glazed with honey, sticky rice with pork, a different bun cha place.) Per his recommendation we went to a restaurant called Quan Kien for our last dinner. How did Tu know I had been secretly regretting not getting a chance to try some of the more, um, rustic specialties of the mountains in Thailand and Laos? Here was our chance. We had crickets, stir fried with kaffir lime dipped in a sauce of salt, lime and chili as well as a preparation of ant eggs served with crispy rice crackers, along with honey glazed chicken and some sticky rice fried crispy in chicken fat to round things (and us) out. A banner day for eating.
I don’t think anyone would ever call Hanoi sleepy, what with 9 million people and 5 million scooters buzzing around like bees. Crossing the street is an art form as there are few traffic lights and the flow of scooters never really stops. Instead you pick your moment and walk steadily, predictably, and let the scooters flow around you like water. We played a daily game of watching to see which scooter driving by had the largest, craziest load (preferably while drinking bia hoi, or weak draft beer at a quarter a glass, at the place on the corner.) As Della observed, “In the States you would tell someone ‘I need a car or truck to carry six crates of beer or a bookcase, I can’t do it with just a scooter’ but here, you would say ‘No problem!’ and rig something up!”
Braving the scooter traffic, we ventured out to see the water puppets, a traditional form of storytelling developed in the flooded rice paddies of the north, which was charming but tricky to photograph for sharing. We took a walking tour of the old part of town with two perky students thanks to an organization called HanoiKids that matches students who want to practice English with tourists like us. We crammed in some more culture with a trip to the Ethnology Museum. One day we divided and conquered with kids and dad going to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and museum, while I took a Vietnamese street food cooking class. When I get back to my own kitchen, I have a long list of recipes to try, but a pot of broth for pho will be at the top.
We took a side trip to Halong Bay, a lovely UNESCO World Heritage area, with thousands of striking limestone mounts popping out of the sea everywhere you look. The pictures in all the brochures and photos show junks sailing around with their reddish sails raised- there must be one day in the year they do that for the photos, because I never saw a sail. Some people cram this trip into a single day, some do it as an overnight boat trip. We elected to be indulgent and take a two night cruise in order to get a little further out into a quieter part of the bay, which allowed us to enjoy the scenery to our fill. We got to do a couple of rounds of kayaking which felt familiar and fabulous, and the kids were very fond of the nightly squid fishing (both were successful!) We were incredibly spoiled with multi course dinners and lunches, as if we hadn’t been eating enough already.
Now we’re down to our last afternoon in Vietnam, and I confess I am nervous for what’s ahead. I like to think we’re not babes in the woods when it comes to travel, but really, any kid on a gap year can find their way around Southeast Asia and Vietnam is a cakewalk! I have to think we’ll be in for a bit of culture shock, as well as jet lag, as we adjust to the Dark Continent. Africa is also the beginning of our last chapter, our final two months of travel. I’d wax on about the bittersweetness of it all, but I have to pack so I can squeeze in one last bowl of pho for lunch!