As I meander through Hanoi’s alleys and up its major streets, smells of spice, beef broth, and the ubiquitous nuoc mam (fish sauce) waft in the air, commingling and then disappearing to let another new aroma take its place. It’s relatively calm at breakfast with office workers absorbed in their bowls of pho and then pausing to gaze at their coffee drip, drip, dripping into their cups before hieing off to work. This street hum reaches a screech around midday with the lunch crunch before tapering off around mid afternoon for that second cuppa (coffee). It’s impossible to go hungry in Vietnam because food is everywhere. And it seems to follow me too. There are many women – always women, though I’m unsure why – carrying heavy loads on the back of their bicycles, but most often on a don ganh, a yoke. Nothing more than a bamboo pole with baskets slung from either end and lifted onto the shoulder, I see women ferrying everything from longans to noodles to portable kitchens. Oftentimes they’ll stop when they need a rest, but most often they’ll set up shop when a customer waves them down. Who says you need four walls and tables to feed the masses?
But for those who do, there’s the little “ca phe” (café). Deep and narrow with about as much space as a two-car garage, ca phes open out onto the street, much like the ones in Paris. I see some that have regular sized tables and chairs, but the majority seem to have put their money on the mini versions.
Two streets in particular – Pho (street) Hang Hanh and Trieu Viet Vuong — are so laden with ca phes that I won’t be surprised if the coffee is already sluicing through the water pipes. So thick is the air with the scent of freshly ground beans that I feel I can cut through it with a stick of sugar cane.
And speaking of sugar cane, I have myself a glass of its juice. In the scalding heat, it’s a refresher. Funny, but it’s not as sweet as I remember it from my childhood; and it’s got a slight lime-y taste to it. But it’s good nevertheless. Bun cha lunch
Though my mom warns me to never, never eat food from the street lest I risk getting Hepa A, B, and C, my food loving spirit wants to get into the spirit of Vietnam’s street food. I stop at a little sidewalk stall for some bun cha, which is nothing more than grilled pork served with cold rice noodles and a basket (literally) of herbs. It’s only available in North Vietnam (Hanoi), with much less frequency in the South (Ho Chi Minh,
etc). It’s also only served at lunchtime.
Good bun cha depends on two things: First, the nuoc mam. There’s a skill to gauging the right amount of vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, etc. just enough to balance the smokiness of the pork and enliven the herb accompaniments. The other factor is how the meat is grilled. It requires searing heat and should be almost black on both sides. Bun cha wouldn’t be complete without one’s own personal herb hedge. While eating in Vietnam, I realize that I’d have to be a botanist to recognize all the green and purple leaves put in front of me. But they make the meal. With my bun cha, the resonance of the mint, basil, dill, peppermint, and sawtooth coriander contributing their crunch with the smoky pork, the soft noodles, and the multi-nuanced nuoc mam is electrifying. As travel writer Richard Sterling puts it, “…the resulting product tastes like none of its constituent flavors, yet more than the sum of its parts.” I alternate dips of the cold noodles in the nuoc mam with cha gio (spring rolls), fresh from the fryer. Excellent. Cooling with a cooler I pass by this fruit stall more than once before deciding I really want to try it. The smell of avocados and condensed milk is more than I can bear. A corner stall set up with little stools offers only one thing, a medley of fruits dolloped with condensed milk and a nap of evaporated milk. A small plastic container of crushed ice is given to me as I settle down on a stool, my knees practically hit my chin. And there I sit under the scalding sun, eyeing the locals and watching how they do it. Most just spoon the ice into the glass and add more as it melts. I follow suit and enjoy the resulting coolness and sweetness that runs through my now overheated body. The various fruits – avocado, dragonfruit, watermelon, pineapple, papaya, longans, and langka — mixed with the milk gives a different flavor in each mouthful. After just two days in Hanoi, I’m starting to have a profound appreciation for condensed milk.
As is the case with many of the best eating places in Vietnam, aesthetics are really a non-issue. Sidewalks and floors are dirty and looking down, I see the feet of people walking by. Barely six feet from where I sit-squat, is the restaurant’s trash can, now overflowing; and right in front of me is a ten year old boy washing the glasses of the customers before me with a bottle brush and a single bucket of water. My inner hygiene angel is screaming at me to get out of here: “You’ll get SICK, I tell you!” But I stay put. This is Vietnam and I’m living the experience. What’s the point of traveling if I only eat what I’m used to? And no, I don’t get sick the next day. Food lovers have iron constitutions.