I‘m slurping pho noodles and fuelling up before I visit the Cho Hom Market. Welcome to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam where almost the entire population seems to cook and eat on the streets. Whole families sit down to eat a meal comprising about 10 different dishes, perched on kindergarten stools around a low plastic table on the footpath. I’ve joined the club.
The city’s six million population gets around on five million motor scooters. The cacophony is intense. Hanoi is a gritty, dense, intoxicating mix of traditional and modern jostling for space. It’s dripping humid in summer and bone-chilling cold in winter. I’m there in winter and buy a real, not faux North Face jacket on the first day for $A50. At 5deg C, it’s a must have.
My guide to the food of Hanoi is Daniel Hoyer, an American living in Vietnam. I’ve written an earlier post about Daniel’s entertaining take on Vietnamese coffee. He’s passionate about Vietnamese food, and northern Vietnamese food in particular. The food in the north has its own style – it’s salty, sour and bitter. Food is sweeter and spicier in the south. Spicy condiments are on the table to add as desired. In the south they are incorporated into the dish. The focus on freshness, and food cooked quickly and served just as fast, makes Vietnamese street food low risk for Western palates. Vietnamese shop daily. The stallholders often mark produce prices down towards the end of the business day so they can start fresh the following morning. Apart from fried food, Vietnamese cooking uses little oil – just a few drops.
“Street food is pretty damn safe,” Daniel says. “Freshness is a hallmark of Vietnamese food. People shop daily. Vietnam is one of the safest street eating places in the world because it’s all made so fresh. They can eat all day and stay lean,” says Daniel, who is quite trim himself.
The best time to visit Cho Hom Market is in the morning or later in the afternoon, as many stalls close for lunch. The ground floor is all edible and a few things I can’t identify or want to ever put in my mouth, while there’s a fabric market with rivers of cotton and silk in the floor above. Keep your purse tucked close to you – it’s packed with people and the area is prone to pickpockets. If you’re going there by rickshaw, negotiate the price before you step aboard. I make the mistake of just jumping in, and the driver tries to rip me off when I alight. My fault – I had been warned. There’s a dog market in Hanoi too, but no way on this earth will I ever go there.
After walking the Cho Hom Market we squat on kindergarten furniture on a busy street, drink crisply chilled Bia Ha Noi (Hanoi beer) and at a long communal table we tuck into roasted clams, greens steamed with garlic, the ubiquitous steamed rice, rice noodle puffs with bok choy and mushrooms, corn kernels coated in a light batter and flash fried, and rice rolls with greens and braised beef. Total food cost is about $A10. Beer is extra. While in Hanoi, I stayed at the feminine and rather glamorous Hotel de l’Opera, which was opened by Oscar-winning actress Kristin Scott Thomas. I’m going back to Hanoi soon. Two of my more tenacious cousins are moving there, and I’m looking forward to squatting on little plastic stools with them and slurping noodles, or drinking elegant cocktails at Hotel de l’Opera. Traditional and modern, all in one place. Love it.
- For foodie tours, contact Daniel Hoyer, Hoang Minh Travel Company: 5 Hang Bac, Tel (84) 73066996 www.welleatenpath.com.
- His book Culinary Vietnam is available at www.amazon.com
- For tours of Hanoi, call Exotissimo World Travel, 24 Tran Nhat Duat Street, tel (84) 3828 2150. Their guides speak excellent English.