Passion Points: Food/Wine
In Hanoi, like in many Asian cities, life revolves around meals and there’s a busy street food scene, but the Vietnamese have refined and perfected the art of around-the-clock snacking: there are dishes served exclusively for breakfast, lunch and dinner (only a tourist would eat phò bo, the flavorful breakfast soup for lunch or dinner; ditto the banh mi sandwich). There are dishes served only at certain times of the year, like fried river worms, a delicacy only in season from mid-November to mid-December. There are even dishes reserved specifically for men and women. Of course, it’s always a personal choice whether or not to indulge in street food. More than one Western ex-pat told me concerns about hygiene and the wide use of MSG in the food prepared in the thousands of street stalls all across Vietnam’s cities.
One way of experiencing Hanoi’s culinary bounty is by exploring with Hidden Hanoi, whose charming guides lead you to their most trusted food stalls and offer a vivid introduction to the city’s eating scene. The company, headed by two Hanoi locals, offers wonderful walking tours of the Old and French Quarters, but what it really excels at are street-food excursions. An, the charming young woman who co-owns Hidden Hanoi, took my husband, Julian, and me on a lunch tour. We kicked off the tour with a steaming bowl of bun cha nem, a delicious soup served with grilled pork patties, crusty spring rolls and a variety of herbs and crushed peanuts. The women who prepared the dish for us were sisters, explained An, and they have been in business in this small side street in the French Quarter for decades. The tour continued to an outdoor stall manned by an 80-year-old woman who dished out a delicious dessert of dumplings, honey, coconut milk and black sesame. This sweet concoction served as an example of food traditionally reserved for women. An giggled, saying that if Julian were Vietnamese, he would never hear the end of his eating “girl food.”
Our last stop was a food stall inside a local market, where we sat wedged between stalls heaped with shoes and fabric. My 6-foot-tall body folded onto the tiny stool, barely off the ground, I had a brief moment of Western worry when a green papaya salad heaped with fresh cilantro arrived (every guide book warns of eating uncooked vegetables). Then, two locals with an adorable two-year-old girl sat down opposite us and ordered a steaming plate of fried chicken parts. When it arrived, the little girl immediately picked up a glistening piece of meat and began sucking it vigorously. She gave me a huge smile, showing three tiny baby teeth, as if to encourage me to dig in. I did and the salad turned out to be delicious: a perfect balance of spicy and fruity.
It was experiences like this one, when I was able to cast aside my own preconceived notions and settle into the moment with an open mind that Vietnam seemed to become most accessible—to open up in all its colorful, flavorful beauty. Besides walking and street food tours, Hidden Hanoi can also arrange cooking classes and, for the very motivated, Vietnamese language classes. The tours, which vary in length, mostly cost $20 per person. (84 091) 225 4045; www.hiddenhanoi.com.vn.
Read our in-depth destination report Hanoi
Read about great local Vietnamese restaurants in Hanoi
Read a member postcard about a trip to Hanoi
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