Not five minutes later down a back alley, that I am not sure how we got to, we stopped before a woman with a beautiful array of fruits displayed over a couple concrete stairs. Some of the fruit we easily recognize and some looked like they were from a different planet. Kevin gets us to try his favourite called mangostein, a purple round fruit which once opened has a white flesh inside. When you bite into the white flesh the juice inside bursts this subtle mango-like flavour; definitely worth a try.
Next, we continued down the alley until coming up to what looked like a mini cafeteria with white tile walls and stainless steel tables; at the entrance a large case of what we later find out to be fried eel. These are not the large chewy eel you may have tried at a sushi restaurant, these are small fresh water eels that have been fried to become a crispy, flavour filled protein to be served with a salad of glass noodles, herbs, cucumber, and a mix of fried shallots and garlic. This is known as Miên Xào and the crisp eel works very well with the soft noodles and fresh herbs. A very satisfying start to our eating adventure!
After that we go literally two doors down where the name and the only thing on the menu is Bún Bò Nam Bô. Bun meaning rice noodle, Bo meaning beef - a simple salad with served with pickled daikon radish, bean sprouts and healthy topping of crispy shallots and toasted peanuts. Again this was a simple dish but so well balanced, sweet, sour, salt, spice and a mixture of textures. Balance is a theme that Vietnam seems to live by.
We walked those first couple dishes off, crossing busy intersections with motorbikes flying past us; a bonus lesson from Kevin on how to cross the street in Vietnam! The next place has been serving their one dish for about 40 years. As we walk into the tiny room the chef, an older Vietnamese woman, is sitting in front of 8 individual burners that are heated by charcoal. Atop each burner is a frying pan with a bahn xeo frying away. After finding a “chair” (aka a small plastic stool) in the back our table is covered with an assortment of goodies; a large basket of lettuce and herbs I had never scene before; a plate with very thin yet pliable rice paper cut in half; a bowl with a clear liquid and one slice of chili for each of us. This meal requires some assembly but that’s half the fun. Less then a minute later, the crispy rice “pancake” filled with beef and bean sprouts hits the table, now we assemble: rice paper, lettuce and herbs and section of pancake. Roll it up and dip in the beautiful dip and try not waste any. This reminded me of a Vietnamese take on a taco and I loved every minute of it.
After we left there and already starting to feel my stomach fill up, Kevin asks if we have tried a Bánh Mì, to which we reply of course. Then he asks if we want to try the best in the city, a question that no one needs to ask. We arrive to a shop surrounded by locals taking their food to go. We go inside and order a Bánh Mì to split. I watch her make this delightful little sandwich on a baguette that is crisp on the outside but oh so soft on the inside. First a layer of pate, then pork terrine followed by some small diced pork that is topped with fresh cucumber, cilantro and sauce. I very much regretted the Hanoi lager as it took up valuable room in my stomach that could have been filled by many more of those delicious sandwiches.
Leaving there full, but not wanting to let on, we luckily stop for a quick dessert break. A food cart on a busy street corner has a grill piled with what I am dubbing a banana rice dog, which is probably not the most appetizing name, however, the dish finished with coconut milk and toasted peanuts is everything you could want from a dessert, warm banana and cool coconut, sweet and a little salty.
After dessert we are ready for another round of dinner. We start by walking through a local market that caters to the restaurants around the city. We tried two non-descript meat balls which Kevin wouldn’t tell us what they were before we finished them. With the last bite in our mouth he says it’s cat, with both our faces turning white and and not being able to swallow, he replied he was joking it’s only seaworms. Great, much better! But honestly it tasted of dill and you wouldn’t have known it was a patty of tiny seaworms.
Then we moved on to probably one of my favourite dishes in Vietnam, bún cha. This spot with four floors was nearly full. It just so happened to be the place Anthony Bourdain shared a meal with Barrack Obama on their last trip to Vietnam. We ordered the combo Obama: 1 bún cha, 1 seafood spring roll and 1 Hanoi beer. Which happen to be the only three items on the menu anyway. What arrives is a bowl filled with an almost clear liquid, daikon, piled with grilled pork belly and pork meatballs. On the side is a plate of vermicelli noodles and a plate full of lettuce and herbs. To eat this beautiful dish you take the lettuce, herbs and noodles and dip them in the liquid and try and get a little bite of everything at once. The sauce is a perfect balance of sour rice vinegar, fish sauce, chilies and sugar made infinitely better by the charred pork floating in it.
After that, feeling beyond full, we move onto the next spot: a guy on the edge of an alley with a couple tiny plastic chairs and a table. The cook then brings over a plate of snails still in their shells. I am given a skewer and a familiar bowl of sweet sour spicy liquid topped with lemongrass and fresh kefir lime leaves. The snails have a unique texture (i.e. hard and chewy) not my favourite though I was glad to try and just as we are getting ready to leave, a bowl of clams that have been steamed with lemongrass and pineapple is set in front of us. By far the best clams I’ve ever had! The liquid in the bottom of the bowl could have been made into a cocktail and I would have happily finished it.
Next Kevin wanted us try the prawns at a place around the corner. This spot had tanks filled with live crabs, fish and prawns. The prawns were grilled whole over charcoal and was the first seafood in Asia that was cooked completely to death. After peeling and a quick dip in our new favourite liquid, delicious! It was a nice end to the seafood section of the tour.
Finally, our second dessert, which neither of us could finish, consisted of 3 sticky rice balls stuffed with mung bean, coconut and black sesame respectively.
We arrived back at the hostel 6 hours after we started, more full then we have ever been in our lives. An amazing evening where we learned a lot about Vietnamese culture and although we ate a countless amount of food we only just scratched the surface of endless amount of dishes Vietnam has to offer. A challenge I have accepted and since then have found myself walking down back alleys ordering items that I have no idea what they are, and loving every minute of it.
Until next time,
Chef Blake Bjornson