The Old Quarter softened at dusk. Shadows hid the grime, and the garish sovenier stands became festive, glittery beacons. Streetlamps spotlit the cafe tables, creating sidewalk tableaux of laughter, loneliness, affection. But the couple walking along the road was oblivious to everything but their own conversation. "You are so lost.".
"Shut up! I know where we're going."
"Uh huh. Like that time in Kerry?"
"That was totally different! Anyway, Kerry's streets are all messed up. That city was clearly designed by an inebriated ding-dong."*
For two days, Sam had been stuck in our hotel room with the plague. Which meant that for two days I got to run around Hanoi solo, bringing food and orange juice back at mealtimes. Or whenever I fortuitously stumbled across the hotel. I'm not that good with directions.
"You got lost on the train! There are only two possible directions to go on a train: right and left."
"I'm not talking to you anymore."
Now that Sam was back on his feet, I was trying to take him to an amazing bánh mì sandwich stand I'd discovered wholly by accident and then misplaced. It was only a few blocks from the hotel, but frankly, I can't navigate an empty room without an EXIT sign. So we were taking the long route. Sam, whose brain is essentially a GPS, might have been teasing me.
(We did find the stand eventually. It's at 25 Hang Ca Street. Touristy, but delicious. Have one for me, 'cause I may never find it again.)
The next morning, we woke with an entire vacation's eating to do and only hours until our flight. So we decided to seek professional guidance. Food tours are a great idea for getting your culinary bearings in a new city. We chose Hanoi Street Food Tour. They do walking tours several times a day for $20.00 a person.
To prepare, we read about street food tours in general. The biggest complaint was hygiene - there was too much of it. This is an odd bone of contention, I know, but bear with me. Many tour companies choose gentrified establishments instead of more authentic street eats, to avoid shocking tourists' sensibilities. But Hanoi Street Food Tours had an excellent reputation, and I hoped to avoid this.
I was not heartened when we got to our first stop, a bún chả joint, and it was as far from street food as a restaurant could be.
But we'd paid our fare and were determined to give this a go. We followed our guide inside.
Bún chả is an iconic Hanoi dish: grilled pork patties with herbs, broth, and a plate of cold noodles (bún). Earlier in the trip, I had dragged an ailing Sam to eat bún chả at a less posh (but no less delicious) establishment. It was a grimy street stand, packed with locals and tourists and serving satisfyingly charred meats. But this food tour version was so disconcertingly civilized I felt underdressed.
Fortunately, things got more lowbrow at our next stop. I reveled as we plopped down on faded plastic chairs around a stunted table. We were right at the curb, elbows to the traffic. The stand served nộm bò khô, dried meat salad, and it was possibly the best thing I had the whole tour.
It featured strips of dried, spiced beef, and slices of sweet Chinese sausage, buried under pickled green papaya and roasted peanuts. I would fly back today for another serving, (especially since I haven't found nộm bò khô, in Saigon yet).
The tour continued for three straight hours of eating. Fortunately, we worked off some of the decadence by walking from food to food.
Outside St. Joseph's Cathedral we had bò bía, a crepe stuffed with sugar cane and dried coconut.
To keep things from getting too healthy, we hit a fried spring roll stand.
This was becoming an endurance challenge, but our next stop was for banh cuốn, rice paper crepes. And I was definitely going to make room for that.
Making the crepes takes skill, as we found out when the cook let us try to lift them off the drum-head steamer. She stuffed the delicate rice papers with minced pork, egg, and mushroom. They came with a side of fried eel.
After three hours, we were stuffed. But no meal is complete without dessert. So of course, we had three.
First we got lime-mint ice cream at a stand along Hoàn Kiếm Lake. It’s the oldest ice cream stand in Hanoi, and the desserts are made with rice milk.
Next, we had traditional chè, a tapioca pudding mixed with fruit like lychees, mango, and jackfruit.
The final treat was cà phê trứng, egg coffee. It’s creamier than a latte, with a dense cap of foam you could bounce a superball off. As with most Vietnamese coffees, cà phê trứng starts with a dark shot of highly-caffeinated rocket fuel. This is mixed with a foamy cream made of egg yolks, sugar, and condensed milk.
The tour was fantastic, and we would definitely recommend it.
We’re also going back to Hanoi this spring, and we hope to track down some of these places again. By “we,” I mean Sam, of course. Though I’m pretty sure I could find that bánh mì stand if I had a detailed map and a compass. Maybe.
*Dear City of Kerry, Sorry about that - I get defensive when lost. It's not your fault I can't handle corners that aren't ninety degrees. You're streets are lovely, and I'm sure your city planners are all delightful teetotalers.