When I first meet Kelly, the receptionist at Icon 36 Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, I had no way to know she would become the precious guide to my Hanoi culinary journey of Vietnamese food. But she did, and since her first recommendation, I have followed her advise every single night to a different restaurant, a different eatery, a different dish, and discovered that I love Vietnamese food!
Let me take you to this culinary journey with me:
Bun Cha: Vietnamese dish of grilled pork and noodles originating from Hanoi. It is served over a plate of white rice noodles and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce made of garlic and chilli.
Nem Ran: seasoned meet, mushroom and dice vegetables rolled up in rice paper sheets, then deep fried until crispy and golden brown, and served chopped up in pieces.
Well, the first evening recommendation by Kelly was a real treat! I followed my fold-up map of Hanoi Old Quarters to reach 1 Hang Manh, where a delicious combo of Bun Cha was waiting for me…
Bun Cha is a dish you can get anywhere, from upscale restaurants to down-to-earth pop-up street stalls. 1 Hang Manh has apparently the reputation of being the number one Bun Cha institution. It is often busy, with slow, unappealing service, but boy, is it good! And the price is right (60,000 Dong – 3 Euro), yes, as a full serving of Bun Cha, Nem Ran, a full dish of row herbs and a Beer Hanoi sets you for 5 euro!
Pho Bo: a bowl of noodles and chopped scallions, ruby-red beef cooked for a few seconds.
Can you just imagine my expectations when I met Kelly again the day after and she said: do you need another recommendation for tonight? And without waiting for my answer, she took my map and scribbled a few Vietnamese words with those funny accents, and the direction to take in order to reach 49 Bat Dan Street in Hanoi Old Quarter. There, I was to enjoy a serving of Pho Bo…
Pho Gia Truyen local eatery may not look like much from the outside. Visualize a few fans, old paintings, a handful of communal tables and a few stools, with a ‘sit where you like’ policy. But the hulking slabs of brisket suspended from hooks and a giant cauldron puffing out fragrant clouds of steam are the real attraction here. And these put together with a bowl of fresh noodles and soup produce an amazing dish: Pho Bo.
Locals enjoy this wholesome, protein-rich stock and meat, and are known to accept queueing forever for a seat and a bowl of the yummy soup. And, as I have had the pleasure to discover personally, there is no talking while everyone eats this marvel of dish. Now you know… And at 50,000 Dong (2.5 Euro) you cannot really ask for more.
Bun Mien Ngan: a delicious and warm soup with glass noodles, bamboo shoots slices, gourd and duck meat.
This time I was a bit of a naughty boy and fell asleep in my room for a short nap that became long, so when I walked down to reception at 9,50pm, a disappointed Kelly announced that the choice she had in mind must have been already closed. But Kelly is not a girl to be messed with, so she quickly gave it a thought and found a great alternative: Binh Minh, an eatery just around the corner from the hotel at 23 Bat Su serving Bun Mien Ngan. The soup was warm and filling, a good treat for a fresh evening when the breeze threatened rain at any moment. The corner shop was closing, but Kelly ordered for me and went as far as adding all the necessary bits to be had with Bun Mien: rice vinegar, spicy sauce and fresh springs of mind. I was a happy man! The bill came to 40,000 Dong, just under 2 Euro.
Xoi Yen: a Vietnamese version of sticky rice, some with corn some with saffron some with both, which is served in a bowl and traditionally topped with a variety of toppings including shavings of lotus root, roasted garlic, pork paste, cinnamon pork, roasted pork fat, Chinese sausage, the usual slices of cucumber in rice vinegar and other variety of meat.
I love food, and Kelly now believes me! I had been on a long tour that day and Kelly knew I needed to eat filling food, and that is why she sent me to 35b Nguyen Huu Huan. There I found a double shop called Xoi Yen, which is also the name of the food they serve. They have a big and lit neon light outside, above the main entrance, so you cannot really miss it. Being my first time, I ordered the varied version of Xoi Yen, which comes with a bit of all the available toppings. This food can be consumed for breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack. The bowl looks small but it can contain an unbelievable amount of food, as I was to discover.
The rice was perfect, with the consistency of mashed potatoes, and the meat was fresh. The only downside is that this eatery is right on a main road, so you will have to endure people walking, dogs roaming, bikes bicycles cars and busses filling the constant jam and making their horns sing incessantly. Food cost a mere 50,000 Dong (2.5 Euro) and they have a Hanoi Beer with the odd quantity of 450cc that costs only 15,000 Dong, or about 70 cent of Euro… Xoi Yen is eaten on low stools over low tables, which for Vietnamese people is normal practice.
I read my words again and I look at the pictures, and I feel I am still there eating all the delicacies that Hanoi offers. Then I realize that there are so many local eateries and stalls that to try all local food I would need to stay here a month or over, so it won’t be this time. But there is one thing I am quite sure of, I will be back one day to continue my Hanoi culinary journey.