Eat, Drink, and Travel in Vietnam: Hanoi
Fleeting glimpses and a short trailer of the introductory food trail to Vietnam released by Black Swan Journeys were enough to give me serious FOMO. So, when they announced their new trail I shared the link with my friend, Prarthna. And it was as simple as that…
Me: “Let’s do this!” Her answer “Let’s!”
On the fly, decisions were made, and we signed-up for ‘Finding Pho in Vietnam’. Personally, travelling for me is going beyond ticking off the ‘what’s hot?’ list. ‘Travel is a route to self-discovery’ is not just some philosophical hogwash. It is about learning how you react in certain situations, to certain people and how you as an individual add to the whole experience. I love experimental food, yes – the kind Vietnam is fast gaining a good reputation for in the travel circuit – but let’s not kid, I am no running contestant for competitive eating challenges. So, in my case, it was imperative that this food trail offered more than just food, and Black Swan Journeys’ itinerary promised so much more.
Our 7-day trial was to cover the entire length of Vietnam, and we started up north with the capital, Hanoi, also known as the city of lakes. No sooner had we reached our hotel, we eagerly stepped out in what visibly looked like chaos to ‘foreigners’, but not us – there is nothing foreign about vehicles jumping signals, motorbikes zipping through what’s considered as ‘non-space’, back in India. We were ‘cool’er embracing the first throes of the chilly winter, and all set to sample Hanoi’s famous street food.
Sidewalk outlets have these low (like real low with bare minimum ground clearance) plastic tables and stools strewn on footpaths. Pumped with holiday adrenaline, the group of five of us decided to kill it when we first stopped to try the beef and veggies stuffed pancake called Pho Cuon – only to realise we overkilled it.
With bellies nearly full, we moved on to try dried pork salad, Nom Bo Kho, at another corner outlet few blocks away. Now, this is unique stuff that literally packs a punch of sweet–pungent freshness of herbs and green papaya and spicy crunchiness of the dried pork and toasted peanuts.
I sampled only little though, wanting to keep room for what was in store up ahead. The vendors are not the friendliest souls, they mean business – take your food, don’t linger and make room for my next customers. If that is not intimidating, then not knowing to communicate adds to the dilemma, and I couldn’t thank enough to have a friendly English-speaking guide, Duyen, who not only fed us food but some local trivia too.
Next on the list was Banh Mi, a baguette like a crusty sandwich that comes with pork, crunchy pickled vegetables, and a generous dressing of different punchy, zesty sauces. This definitely looks like a French hand-me-down to the Vietnamese. The last bit was the highlight of the evening – Egg coffee! Sounds weird, but tastes oh! so delicious!
Any tourist looking for Café Giang is as likely to succeed as a muggle looking for Diagon Alley. Just like the place, the recipe of Ca Phe Trung is a closely guarded secret. Prarthna tried her best to observe the woman at preparation station, but even our sneaky camera angles didn’t do us any good. The soft heavy velvetiness of the yolk blends with the bitterness of the Vietnamese coffee and sweetened milk, and that’s all your mind wants to remember long afterwards.
Day -2 HANOI
Early mornings in Hanoi make you forget the crushing traffic when life rolls out in slow motion. The muffled buzz of morning market right outside our hotel woke us up, so Prarthna and I decided to explore a little. It was a riot of colours and aromas – fruits, vegetables, flowers and meat vendors lined the street which on the previous evening was just that – a street.
People were busy with their daily drill – so busy that they couldn’t spare a moment to click pictures with the travel-struck tourists (us). Leaving them to do their job, we walked to Hoan Kiem lake, which was a stone’s throw away from our hotel. It is a postcard-perfect lake all replete with a rickety red bridge leading to a small temple and the scenes that unfold are what travelogues are written about – locals doing Tai chi, an old man praying outside a shrine, and vendors with carrying poles.
The reluctant us headed back and when we turned the corner, POOF! the hotel street was just a street again… no sign of the morning market!
We were scheduled to have a meal at a local’s place that day, but before heading there, we needed to pick ingredients for the meal. Now, the local market is not for the faint-hearted – though very clean and no sign of stench – you are most likely to find plenty many creations of God on display… One can literally choose to wear black! We picked our ingredients and after a brief walk around Truc Bach lake, we went to our host’s home.
Duyen introduced us to our hosts Hoang and Yen, who like most locals couldn’t speak English. The tea served to us worked as a conversation starter… at least in my head. I was trying to figure out, why would anyone (me) drink two cups of what seemed like the most bitter tea, and why would anyone (hosts) serve that as a welcome drink? I figured out later it was probably meant to be a palette cleanser, for every dish that followed was delicious. Yen showed us how to make some mean Nem Ran (fried Vietnamese rolls), and kohlrabi vegetable salad. The homemade rice wine flowed and so did the food. Much of the humble warmth of our hosts reached us through their food and smiles. With my limited Vietnamese vocabulary (Thanks, Team Black Swan for the ‘Good to know’ list) I attempted to thank Yen and Hoang for the wonderful morning well spent.
Next on the list was Imperial Citadel which had been the residence of monarchs of several dynasties. Most of the structures marking the different dynasties were destroyed. Many archaeological excavations in 2000’s have unearthed remnants of gone by eras. The French influence is evident in some existing structures and they make for some picturesque photo-ops, so obviously Dr Prarthna Jagtap, our always eager for a perfect click, the unofficial photographer on the tour, was unstoppable.
Later, the Citadel was used as military headquarters by North Vietnamese, and the museums within the walls proudly carry the scars of the American War. We could feel Duyen’s pride and reverence through his impassioned retellings of the war history. This place has a cool underground tunnel almost 30 feet below the ground, where meetings were held and also used as shelter during attacks.
That day, Citadel and the Temple of Literature (temple dedicated to Confucius, which we visited later) were even more click-worthy because of the graduation ceremony that was in progress. These formally dressed students humanised the two attractions which otherwise enjoy a relic status.
I knew about Vietnamese cuisine being the biggest draw for tourists but wasn’t aware of the booming beer culture in Vietnam, and that is what we were to discover on our beer trail later that evening. The fun bit was when we ditched our passenger van and rode pillion on a moped – undeterred by the chill in the air.
My rider, Hien – a college student – and I hit it off right at the outset. Again, not easy… the ubiquitous language barrier. But, Hien skipped the customary ‘What’s your name?’ and his innocuous faux-pas with his first question won me over.
Our convo went like this:
Hien – What years old?
Amused Me: ____ yrs. and what do you do?
Hien: Student Engineer. Where from in India?
Hien: Ahh! like Hanoi, Capital.
Me: No, New Delhi like Hanoi. Mumbai like Ho Chi Minh.
Occasionally, he spoke about the lakes and gardens that we passed by and also how he would love to travel after he graduates.
The location picked to kick-off the beer trail couldn’t have been any better. We sat at a sidewalk corner, sipping our first sips of Saigon beer, watching the orangy – hues of the evening soaking the Truc Bach lake. And the strangely delicious cheese egg yolk cake doubled our excitement as we moved further to a rather basic outlet right next to Habeco beer factory. There was nothing basic about the draught beer we had there. Bia Hoi is probably one of the best beers you could try in Vietnam. We didn’t have a great view like the Truc Bach Lake to amuse us, but when you are travelling in a group, there is always enough entertainment… must add, none provided by the malnourished frog fritters which a fellow traveller wanted to sample.
Next halt, we tried crafted brews before heading to KOTO, our dinner pick for the night. Now was one of the countless times during the trail that I mentally thanked for the meticulously curated itinerary. Duyen mentioned one must make reservations months in advance to get a table in KOTO… that made us curious. The food was delicious, the ambience was nice enough, the location couldn’t be better with it being bang opposite Temple of Literature… still couldn’t see what made it so special.
Way back in the 90s, the Australian Vietnamese owner of KOTO (short for ‘Know One Teach One’) decided to start a training school for disadvantaged youth to provide skills and means to earn their own living. The trained staff runs the restaurant now and also, some of the proceeds from the earnings go to the training school. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Duyen said, “Bill Clinton ate here”.
This just goes to show food goes beyond taste buds; it can make an impact on more than just your waistline!
On that spirited note, we ended our stay in Hanoi. Loaded with memories, apart from the comical picture of tourists sending a mental prayer while crossing the busy streets, we geared up to lap-on the wondrous beauty of Ha Long Bay – our next destination.