My travel mates and I arrived on a flight from Kuala Lumpur at a brand new airport. After some brief border security and a US$100 cash fee, we were in. Vietnam. A history of colonial rule, fierce revolution, the setting for many of my favourite films and books, and a reputation for fresh, spicy, delicious food.
We made our way via unlicensed taxi to the Hanoi’s old quarter – where the action was. There were people pruning power lines (!?), street vendors pulling carts, and a sea of scooters. The footpath is not a footpath, it is a parking lot for scooters. The road is for scooters. How do you walk anywhere? The answer is carefully, but we quickly learned that the mass of motorbikes behaves like a fluid; as long as you move predictably it just flows around you.
It seems like, in the old quarter, all socialising, commerce and eating happens on or within meters of the street. We had our first dinner in Hanoi sitting on shin-high stools, at a knee high streetside tables, barbecuing okra, baby eggplant and spring onion with beef and pork on a foil lined hot plate. Salt, pepper, chili and lime juice made a deliciously simple condiment for dipping (Muối Tiêu Chanh).
The next day, Phở Bo (beef noodle soup) for breakfast, Bánh Mì for lunch. The Bánh Mì was, just casually, the best sandwich I’ve ever had. The pillowy baguette seemed to take a dig at the French colonial period by improving on its most famous food. The char siu style barbecued pork is influenced by a long history of trade with China. It’s like eating a delicious museum.
But you can’t spend too much time being amazed in Vietnam, you’ll get nothing done. So it was time to clear the head with a market tour and cooking course run by New Day Restaurant. The market was peaceful – no scooters allowed – and our guide simultaneously ran a gastronomy of all the stalls while she picked up ingredients for the cooking course. We saw freshly butchered pork and beef, frogs, squid, river fish and poultry all either alive or too fresh to need refrigeration. My absolute favourite was the Chao Ga, a type of rice porridge soup topped with fresh coriander, chili, caramelised onions and ground chicken.
The cooking course, with our bubbly tour guide and her head chef, was great fun and provided some good perspective on the common belief the Vietnamese food is the healthiest in the world. We learned that the classic fresh rice paper spring roll is vastly improved by a trip to the deep frier, which is the custom in Hanoi. The dressing for the papaya salad was thickened by about half a cup of sugar. Meh. Delicious always comes at a cost and I think I will choose delicious over healthy any day of the week.
The night before leaving, we were sitting on another tiny stool and enjoying a 20 cent cup of Bia hơi, (fresh brewed beer, varying in alcohol content and widely hailed as the worlds cheapest beverage). Suddenly there bloomed a street talent contest. A stage was hastily constructed and minutes later scores of school aged kids were belting out pop tunes amongst the boozed up tourists. And so, if I had to describe Hanoi in two words I would say beautifully baffling. The street vendors, the propaganda, the power lines, the scooters, the war history, the communism, the police, the stories and the food, it would take me months to understand even a block of it. Although everyone I met was quick with a smile and keen to help me learn, I arrived a tourist and will always be a tourist. Check it out if you haven’t been baffled in a while.