The city felt overwhelming. Along with two children, We had our hands clasped tight. We hurried through narrow streets, negotiating corners with relentless motorbikes and food carts loaded to the brim with crops and livestock. The chaos unfolding before us seemingly weaved through a complex pattern of unrelated sounds before morphing into a coherent symphony of vibrance and dynamics that has been the heartbeat of this 1,000-year old quarter in Hanoi.
Hanoi Old Quarter is an intriguing neighborhood. We strolled and criss-crossed through ancient streets and narrow alleys interspersed with a mix of modern civilizations, heritage houses and monuments with reminiscence of Vietnam’s colonial past.
The sidewalks were dotted with an unorganized mix of modern coffee joints, old local specialty stores from silverwares, textiles, handicrafts and a chock-full of local food fare and street vendors laying out their bountiful fresh harvests.
Led by an experienced food guide from Ha Food Tours, we zapped through eight locations and eight local eateries within a span of three hours. An authentic culinary journey deeply rooted in Vietnamese culture and history “à pied” (on foot), we explored Hanoi’s old world charm through food.
Pho (Beef/Chicken Noodle)
A comfort food for Vietnamese that originated from the North, Pho (pronounced as fuh) is a steaming bowl of noodle soup, slow-cooked in rich broth with slithery noodle strands and tender beef.
Pho’s origins can be traced back to influences from the Chinese and French. In the past, the rice noodles and spices used in preparation of the Pho were imported from China. The French popularized eating red meat during the colonial days. As the dish gained popularity and spread to the South during Vietnam’s civil war, the dish evolved with the infusion of additional ingredients becoming what is commonly served today.
Northerners eat their Pho simpler, crisp and pure with less ingredients. Fewer cuts of meat and smaller slices of ginger layered on top the soup served without herbs and bean sprouts. The Southerners love to indulge their decadent Pho in sweet and spicy style layered with a dozen over ingredients from soy bean paste, tender beef slices and sometimes Chinese rock sugar. They are usually served with basil, bean sprouts, herbs, chillies and lime as condiments.
Pho’s origins have always been divided and strongly debated. But it is indeed the Vietnamese who blended the Chinese, French and native influences to make Pho uniquely Vietnamese.
Bun Cha (Hanoi style vermicelli with grilled pork)
This dimly lit local eatery, furnished with wood furniture, old style posters and menu boards plastered all over the wall felt like the opening of a time capsule dating back to the 1980s. Here, I had my taste of what has came to become my favorite Hanoian dish.
Bun Cha, light and refreshing, consisting of rice noodles, and charcoal grilled pork marinated in its own fats with garlic and shallots. As it turns out, it is also the same dish that was highly popularized when ex President of the United States, Obama visited Hanoi.
Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich)
Everybody loves a good sandwich. The Vietnamese are no different. Bahn Mi is a cheap and popular snack for the locals. Originated in Saigon with French influence from the country’s colonial past, Bahn Mi is simply warm crusty baguette combined with the rich flavors of meat, tartness of pickles and zingy tastes of herbs and fresh vegetables created by the Vietnamese.
Like Pho, Bahn Mi is also one of Vietnam’s popular culinary exports exploding in popularity all over the world particularly, in the United States and Australia, where Vietnamese immigrants fled to after the fall of Saigon.
Ca Phe Trung – Vietnamese Egg Coffee
Humbly tucked in a quiet lane, We arrived at a local coffee joint. Small and unpretentious out-of-the-way kind of place. We walked through a dark walkway before arriving at a steep spiral staircase leading us to an open hall on the second floor. The cafe’s nostalgia time worn patina furnished with Vietnamese style low stools and tables is renowned for their Ca Phe Trung (Egg Coffee).
The beverage is brewed from a combination of chicken egg yolk (when milk was scarce in the past), sweetened condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee powder, butter and cheese and the recipe has remained the same since 1946. The magic in the formula lies in the right amount of egg yolks and coffee. As odd as this sounds, the egg coffee tastes heavenly! This place is indeed a gem.
From tasting Banh Cuon (steamed rolled pancakes), Kem (deep fried spring rolls), Kem Xoi ( Vietnamese ice-cream) to the famous Pho, Ha Food Tours has brought us to street food eateries tucked away in Hanoi’s secret alleys, most of whom have been serving up delicacies to generations of Vietnamese that have stood the test of time. There is really no better way to experience Hanoi’s life, history and culture out of the corner of our eyes than food. Not without a great food guide of course!