Friday, January 10, 2014

Bountiful Tastes

If you've ever been curious about Vietnamese food outside of pho and spring rolls, this is the photo-heavy post will hopefully prove helpful! Warning - it is quite long, as it documents nearly everything that we ate over our five day trip.

Throughout the trip, we mostly ate at little hole-in-the-wall places or roadside stalls, trying to get a better perspective of authentic cuisine. We looked for where plenty of locals were eating, and we followed our noses. This meant lots of "no frills" dining - cheap food, limited selection, fast but minimal service, questionable hygiene - but it probably also meant trying the best tasting food! 

Our first meal was a delicious plate of stir-fried noodles in a thick gravy, topped with plenty of tender slices of beef, called pho xao bo. "Bo," as we quickly learned, means beef. 

We also had to try pho, the most widely known Vietnamese dish, noodles in a clear and fragrant broth topped with chicken or beef. The chicken version (pho ga) is usually lighter, while the beef creates a heartier broth.  

The food is ridiculously cheap, even assuming that vendors hike up prices for tourists. A big bowl of noodles costs around $2-3. The beer (bia) is also famously affordable, anywhere from 25 cents to $1 for a big mug or bottle. 

We found lots of finger foods and snacks available at the large night market, open on weekend nights. I'm not sure how Vietnamese this is, but I found a stall with a guy flipping chocolate pancakes and waffles, and topping them off with chocolate syrup and fruit. I tried a chocolate pancake, which tasted as expected. Other vendors at the night market sold various fried items like potato slices on a stick, and fruit drinks. 

On the way back from the night market to our hotel, I came across banh bao! There are vendors parked around various corners with a big pot full of these steaming goodies. Very reminiscent of the Chinese bao, these are steamed buns filled with various meats. The outer dough was slightly sweeter than the Chinese version, and the cute shapes are different than the standard Chinese bao. 

There's a quite famous beef pho place on 49 Bat Dan, just one block over from our hotel! Pho is commonly eaten for breakfast, and the good places can easily run out of food before 10am. When we hurried over one morning, we found ourselves waiting in a long line with locals.  

Aren't these prices amazing? $1 is about 20,000 dong. 

The line moves rather quickly, as people eat hurriedly before rushing off to the day's work. This is not a place to linger over your meal - you pick any open spot among the cramped tables, and gulp down your steaming bowl of noodles alongside strangers. There's a pleasant communal energy of people just enjoying the food, so it doesn't feel awkward. 

Banh mi is another famous Vietnamese dish - a French baguette stuffed with various fillings such as egg or meat, vegetables, mayonnaise or pate. Little roadside operations, like in the below photo, can quickly put together a delicious sandwich for a hungry passerby. 

We ordered a banh mi pate to share. First, the guy fried up an egg into an omelette. Then he stuffed a fat and crispy baguette with the egg, some cilantro leaves, and a thin smear of pate. The combination of flavors and textures was quite delicious - I burnt my fingers and tongue shoving down the banh mi!

Still curious to try more Vietnamese foods, and eager to have some local opinion on the matter, we booked a food tour with an organization called Hanoi Kids. We met two fantastic college students who took us around to their favorite places and taught us more about Vietnamese cuisine. 

Some of the things we tried included fermented pork, which sounds a lot more intimidating that it actually is! Out came a plate of fried pork pieces, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. I can only liken it to a chicken nugget.

My favorite dish of the whole trip must have been this beef salad, called nom bo. Fresh vegetables, marinated in some sort of sweet and sour dressing, are topped with slices of beef and jerky, and the whole thing is sprinkled with herbs and a handful of roasted peanuts. 

We also tried a unique dish called bun cha. Each customer gets a bowl of soup with pickles and pork patty pieces, as well as a plate of rice noodles. You mix a bit of the noodles at a time with the soup and eat.  

The tour brought us to a hidden cafe along the eastern edge of the Old Quarter. In order to get to the cafe, we entered a narrow doorway from the street and walked along a dimly lit alley. The cafe serves a Hanoi specialty, egg coffee. An egg is beaten into a sweet, whipped concoction, and poured over strong black coffee. Though it sounds weird, it tastes rather like eggnog! There was also an egg beer, which replaced the coffee with beer - changing the drink to a nightcap rather than a wake-up call, I suppose.

One last notable food adventure - on a street known as BBQ Chicken Street. Along this street, located a bit further west from the Old Quarter, various vendors grill chicken on large grills and baste them with a sweet and sticky sauce. There is only chicken, but so much chicken! Chicken feet, chicken wings, chicken thighs, etc. 

On the side, they served a grilled and honey-coated banh mi! Deliciously sticky and messy. 

So we definitely ate our fill in Hanoi. It's a great environment to try lots of different foods because of the density and proximity of all the options. Hygiene for street food isn't the best if you have a sensitive stomach, but I was fine, despite trying salads and fruit. I hope to remake the beef salad here if I can find the ingredients.

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