One of the things I was really keen to do in Vietnam was try some street food. So on my second night in Hanoi, I joined a street food tour. And I’m so glad I did, it was a brilliant night and ended up being one of my favourite experiences in Vietnam.
After meeting our guide Thian, a cheery Hanoi native, and the rest of our group, we headed to a large wholesale market nearby for baguettes filled with Vietnamese paté. The baguettes are a tasty and popular snack, combining Vietnamese flavours with the classic French baguette. Having devoured the baguettes, we had a quick look around the market, which sold all sorts of food, including more varieties of dried mushrooms than I knew existed and dried fish including squid.
We came out the other side of the market, where there were a number of streets filled with food shops, as well as a couple of women selling flowers from their bicycles. A policeman was sitting at a table in the middle of the road keeping an eye on all the vendors. We wandered around the shops, fascinated by all the food stuffs on offer. There were shops selling spices, onions, fruits, nuts, pulses and more, and each vendor specialised in a particular food stuff – the onion vendor, for example, just sold lots of different varieties of onion. Outside the shops, women were sitting on the street in front of buckets preparing their produce, throwing their scraps onto the street.
We stopped to try some local fruits that Thian had bought from one of the vendors – pink dragon fruit, which is sweeter than the white variety, and jack fruit, which had a slightly banana-like flavour. I’d never had jack fruit or pink dragon fruit before and the juicy flesh of the dragon fruit was a revelation and I spent the rest of my time in Vietnam seeking it out.
We headed further up one of the streets, passing vendors preparing and selling meat (all parts of the animal, including the intestines, tongues, ears, feet and so on). The streets used to be home to only the one trade and so were named after the trade they represented – silk street is one such example. One of the streets we passed was the paper street and its shops sold Christmas decorations of every kind, including tinsel, santa suits, lights and more.
Our next stop was Banh Cuon Gia Truyen for banh cuon, a super-thin steamed rice pancake filled with mushrooms and topped with coriander and fried shallots that you dip in a dipping sauce before eating. All I can say is they were really good and didn’t last long.
We continued on to Thai Dat, an outdoor barbecue place that sells textiles by day. We sat on little stools in the middle of the street with a cooking pot on a small table in front of us. Everything went in this pot – frog, chicken, pork, beef, corn, aubergine, cherry tomatoes, pak choi, even sweet, honey-covered bread. We then dipped the food in a mixture of dipping sauces, including chilli sauce, tamarind sauce and kumquat juice mixed with chilli and salt. Everything was delicious and we washed it all down with a cold Hanoi beer.
As we continued our tour of the old town, Thian pointed out a Vietnamese hearse, which was adorned with ribbon, a rosette and a statue. He then took us up onto a railway line that snakes its way through the city, hidden from the streets below. I was blown away by the railway line as people were living on either side of the tracks, without any barriers separating them from the trains. We walked alongside the railway line, amazed as the locals (including children) hopped across the tracks. People were hanging their washing outside their homes right beside the tracks and there were even restaurants that opened out onto the railway line.
We carried on along the track when Thian suddenly announced a train was coming. We quickly hopped off the narrow path onto someone’s porch as the enormous train came whizzing past at breakneck speed. While we were all acutely aware we were walking beside a railway line, I’d just assumed that small, slow trains used the tracks. I certainly hadn’t realised that massive, rapid locomotives were passing through. We were all dumbfounded as to just how close we had been to the deadly train and were left in no doubt as to how dangerous it was to live right beside the railway line.
Jaw-dropping experience over, we continued through the old quarter until we reached a tiny dessert place, Hoa Beo. Again we crouched down on little stools as we ate our pudding – a selection of seasonal fruits (strawberry, mango, dragon fruit and so on) mixed with condensed milk, coconut milk, cubes of coconut and water chestnut jelly, and four-to-five tablespoons of ice. The dessert was sweet and delicious, especially the water chestnut jelly.
For our final destination, we stopped at a secret rooftop café, Café Pho Co, that overlooks Hoan Kiem Lake. We had to walk through a silk shop to reach the café, where we discovered a ton of scooters parked inside the entrance. We then headed up a series of rickety staircases to get to the rooftop. It was a relaxing little hideaway and we were here to taste Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is a cup of coffee topped with a foaming mix of condensed milk, egg yolk and sugar (above) and I had to give mine a good stir before drinking it as the mixture had separated. I don’t like coffee, so I can’t say I enjoyed it, but the foamy mixture was drinkable enough, if rather sweet. The hideaway café was an unexpected delight and a great end to a fantastic, whirlwind tour of Hanoi’s food.