One of the first things you’ll notice about Hanoi, Vietnam’s bustling capital city, is how much of their lives take place in the 7 or 8 feet of space between the crazy street traffic and the storefront doors. The sidewalk is not only a gathering place for friends and family – but also a space for family dinners, motorbike parking, merchandise tables, portable restaurants and kegs of Bia Hoi. Littered with small, colorful footstools and sassy Vietnamese women rocking matching pajama outfits..the sidewalk is the focal point of the city…especially in terms of food.
I will note that all this makes walking on the sidewalks quite difficult.
After a suggestion from a fellow traveler, Alyssa and I decided to “splurge” and sign up for a street food tour of the city. $26 for 3 hours of a guided walk through the Old Quarter’s many food stalls, markets and cafes, with stops along the way for sampling. The tour was nearly private, with only 4 of us in total, and was one of our best experiences in Vietnam so far.
Our guide Twa, a Hanoi native, was able to color the tour with some really interesting insight into Vietnamese culture. (For instance – when a man and woman marry, the wife is supposed to follow the husband which in many cases means moving in with him…and his parents..until they die.) He wasn’t a passionate foodie or chef though, so the tour focused more on food in a cultural sense rather than in terms of flavor combinations and cooking techniques.
Twa explained that a typical Vietnamese meal consists of steamed rice, fish or chicken, tofu, and a vegetable. Traditionally, this same meal is then eaten as leftovers for breakfast and lunch the next day (we found the same to be true in rural Thailand as well). Typically it’s jasmine rice that’s eaten, as sticky rice (grown predominantly in Thailand) is reserved for special occasions only.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get try any food like this – because it’s not generally what you’ll see on the streets. People in Hanoi have been moving away from the traditional rice meals, as eating out becomes increasingly popular. Pho shops everywhere are packed, the rise of noodles a sign that the economy is doing well. Noodles, more expensive than rice, are a quick and popular alternative as schedules change and people want to grab a quick bowl before heading off to work.
For the sake of time, drive-through seemed to be another popular option! Even for market purchases.
On the tour, we were guided through the spice, produce, fish and meat markets.
We sampled some street food items along the way, such as:
“Spicy bread” aka Banh My Cay (baby baguette filled with pate, cucumber, chili sauce and fried onion)
Steamed rice “pancake” (cooked similarly to a crepe, a rice wrapper is filled with pork and mushroom, and topped with fried onion and cilantro) – accompanied by some deliciously zesty sauce
Bia Hoi – the street’s lifeblood it seems, the “daily beer” is a lager sold for 8,000 dong (~$0.25). It’s good only for day, and the kegs often are tapped before nighttime.
Apparently drinking by yourself is looked down upon…so Bia Hoi outlets tend to be a social event, accompanied by food and friends. You’ll see them at all times of day, congregated on the sidewalk around little plastic tables and baby stools, laughing and drinking and toasting. Seriously, some of the men start at 7 am.
Now for the weird. Vietnam is known for having some bizarre foods. They’ll eat every part of the animal- and of any animal. We tried duck heart (tasty!), pigs breast (chewy), and frog (may as well have been chicken)- and witnessed plenty of tongue, ears, hearts, worms and eels as we wandered the streets.
We stopped at a street BBQ joint- where we tried frog, pigs breast and ducks heart- among other things. (Check out my other post for more on communal BBQ).
One Vietnamese delicacy which I’m not sure I’m on board with is dog, enjoyed only on special occasions. While I don’t have a picture of the dog – you can be thankful for that- it’s roasted on a spit over a fire, just like a pig roast. Another delicacy are eggs with a nearly full grown embryo inside. About 5 weeks before the egg is to hatch, they boil it (10 minutes or so), cut in half and enjoy. Apparently you can hear the bones crunch as you chew.
It was nice having someone to lead you through the narrow alleys and winding streets of the Old Quarter – for I fear we would’ve gotten lost on our own. The street names change from block to block, as each street was named after thee items that were sold there or the trade offered. For instance, one block sells predominantly silk (above), another washes motorbikes, one street is all spices, another fish and seafood.
The strangest thing is that even though most eating and action happens on the street, you won’t notice trash cans – anywhere on the street. Evidently when the city has put garbage bins out, they are quickly destroyed by the shopkeeper who’s store they’re in front of…for fear that the eyesore will hurt their business. So they gave up on that.
We did our tour through Urban Adventures- but there seem to be a lot of options to choose from! I think spending a little more could be worth it – and would assure you that your tour guide can talk deeply about the food and its history. For us though – this was perfect, and we were able to ask lots of questions.