You can tell a Southerner from a Northerner by the way they eat their pho. Vietnam’s most well-known noodle soup dish was born near Hanoi, and northerners can be quite particular about how it’s served. Here, it’s all about simplicity. Pho bo is beef noodle soup (as opposed to pho ga, which uses chicken). In the south you’ll find a heaping plate of bean sprouts and fresh herbs served with your soup, along with fresh chilies, lime, chili sauce and sometimes hoisin. This is blasphemy to a northerner as they prefer the stripped-down version of lime, fresh chili, chili sauce and vinegar as accompaniments. No abundance of greenery or sweet sauces here to disguise the true flavor. I personally LIKE the accoutrement provided with southern pho, and most of all I like meatballs in my soup (pho bo vien), which I couldn’t find in Hanoi. Again they keep it simple with rare steak and brisket as the typical meat inclusions. But to put the true north/south food differences to the test, we took another street food tour. All in the name of research, of course.
Sheila’s husband Zach and daughter Mikaela had joined us in Hanoi, so we hired Tu from Hanoi Street Food Tours to lead us through the winding streets of the Old Quarter. He was super knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the dishes of his home country.
The first stop was for bun rieu cua which is a crab, tomato and pork soup. It was so amazing that Tu had to tell us to stop eating or we’d be full before we made it to our second stop. The pork was barbecued over charcoal right next to the soup stand and slid on top of the bowl. Herbs and lettuce were served on the side, as is often the case with Vietnamese dishes. The crab is actually in the form of a paste made by crushing the meaty flesh. And if you’re a slow eater (although I don’t know how you could be with something so delicious), not to worry; your bowl will be topped off with a hot ladle of broth to keep it steamy. This was one of my favorite dishes in all of Vietnam. I had it twice, but would’ve eaten it more often if it were served past 10am!
As part of our walking tour, we also sampled the following…
Coke can chicken- Some of these chickens are naturally black and stuffed with Chinese herbs before being shoved into an aluminum can for steaming. It was much smaller than your traditional chicken, but tasted just like its bigger brother. The black color was just a little strange!
Pho Tiu- This different spin on pho was downright delectable. The woman behind her stand started with hot noodles followed by a ladle of three different liquids, then topped off with sliced pork, crushed peanuts, fried shallots and fresh herbs. It’s much less soupy than traditional pho, but the liquid that does exist is sweet, salty and rich. Truly amazing for $1.50/bowl.
Fried shrimp fritters- Small shrimp were nestled into a wet batter before being deep fried. They were kind of greasy and not a favorite of ours, but we tried them!
Sea worm cakes- Apparently these are a seasonal specialty, so I had to try. Again, kind of greasy, and I was so full at this point, it wasn’t worth pushing down.
Egg coffee and beer- Egg yolks are frothed with sugar and dolloped on top of hot coffee, kind of like a cappuccino. The result was surprisingly rich and delicious. We all liked this one. The egg beer employed a similar technique and was a little less delicious, although fun to try!
Che con ong- Sweet rice cakes flavored with fresh ginger. Omg, I became obsessed with these and bought them multiple times. I fear I will dream of them when I’m gone. Sticky rice is mixed with a caramelized sugar to produce a golden brown color. They are flavored with fresh ginger and sprinkled with sesame seeds to produce a sweet (but not TOO sweet) and spicy treat. Brilliant.
Another delicious northern dish is bun cha- noodles with barbecued pork and a slightly sweet soup with slices of green papaya. This should not, however, be confused with bun oc, which I ordered when they were out of bun cha at a food stall one night. Turns out bun oc is snail soup, and not nearly as tasty. Oopsy.
But enough about food… let’s switch to drinks! The bia hoi is Hanoi’s version of a pub. Fresh beer is served on tap at ridiculously cheap prices. “Fresh” meaning there aren’t any preservatives so it needs to be drank quickly. Not a problem when it can be found as cheap as $.20/glass! Granted it’s not the best or strongest brew available, but if you just want to linger and people watch, it offers a very affordable way to do so. Just make sure you have a strong bladder. Food at bia hois is also generally good. Small plates of spring rolls, barbecue pork, stir-fried veggies, deep-fried tofu, etc. can be munched on, making for an economical evening. In the Old Quarter there’s Bia Hoi corner where several hot spots can be found in one area, resulting in people spilling onto the streets. That is, until the cops come and all the little plastic stools are quickly moved back onto the “sidewalks”.
No, we didn’t JUST eat (and drink). We also visited the Ho Loa Prison Museum (a.k.a. The Hanoi Hilton), which just happened to be right around the corner from the apartment we stayed in. Actually, most of the prison was cleared to make way for our high-rise, so we actually slept where Senator John McCain was held during the war! Crazy.
We also swung by the Temple of Literature, which was Vietnam’s first national university, built in the 11th century. It is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars. The architecture is well-preserved and the courtyards are quite beautiful, providing an ideal backdrop for college graduation and wedding pictures. We encountered several groups gathering for photo opps.
Wandering around the Old Quarter occupied our days as well. The heartbeat of Hanoi lies here on its small crowded streets where you can buy anything from clothing to caskets, repair your motorbike, get a shoe shine, eat soup in a crowded alley, sip iced coffee on the sidewalk and bargain for mangoes from a strolling saleswoman. This is where most tourists stay, and it’s easy to understand why. Everything you could possibly need is within walking distance. But there’s a price to pay for this convenience. Horns are LOUD and crossing the street requires an equal serving of bravery and calm. Traffic rarely takes a break and there are no signals or stop signs at most intersections, so you just need to take a deep breath and go… steadily…without stopping or making any sudden movements. Motorbikes and cars will gauge your speed and maneuver around you. It’s an artful dance; a non-verbal agreement between pedestrian and driver where looking them in the eye conveys “don’t hit me”. Usually it works, but not without elevating your blood pressure. Perhaps this is why Vietnamese are so caffeinated- you need to be alert at all times! Driving the streets of Hanoi employs a similar approach, but with additional layers. More on that in my next post.
As a break from the noise and chaos of the city, we took an overnight trip to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about four hours east of Hanoi. More than 3,000 limestone formations dot the waters, making for a spectacular seascape. The weather was overcast and hazy during our excursion, augmenting the surreal nature of our surroundings. We stayed overnight on a boat that took us around part of the bay, stopping to visit a cave and a beach, as well as an opportunity to kayak. While the activities were nice, we would have been just as content to cruise around the bay, sitting on the boat’s top deck and admiring the beauty around us. A trip here is on almost every visitor’s itinerary, and boats seemed nearly as plentiful as the islands themselves, but not without reason: the scenery is unlike anywhere else in the world. Simply stunning. I guess that goes for a lot of the country. While it’s not the unspoiled destination it used to be, more people are discovering Vietnam’s natural beauty, rich culture and unparalleled food. And well, who can blame them?