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Hanoi and Halong Bay (Southeast Asia, Part II)


Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I just spent over a week in Vietnam, but I’m still unable to pronounce phở properly.  That, however, did not stop me from starting my visit out with a nice, big steaming bowl of rice noodle soup with beef.  We arrived just before lunch, so we had phở bò for a midday meal.  As we soon discovered in traipsing through Hanoi, however, the Vietnamese do not limit their noodle soup intake; they sit on small plastic stools and consume it at street-corner stands morning, noon, and night.

Soup-slurping isn’t the only activity undertaken in public space in Hanoi.  The city’s tall buildings and crooked, narrow streets, and the presence of open-air butcher stalls and streetcorner barbers gives the city a deliciously hectic Old World feel.

Exhausted by our first day of dodging motorbikes and viewing pagodas, Shanti and I made our way to Highway 4, a restaurant with a couple of locations in Hanoi.  The place was mostly populated by Westerners, but it was recommended by a number of sites and guidebooks, and boasts local specialties like son tinh rice wine.

And also crickets fried with kefir lime leaves and pork belly.

This cricket went into my mouth soon after this photo was taken.  It was pretty delicious, as anything doused in that much pork fat should be – the crickets mostly just added crunch to the salad.  I was unable to finish the dish, not because of the bugs, but because it was so porky.

After this adventurous start, I kept things mild with a sweet, tangy chicken in tamarind sauce.

Shanti, however, upped the ante and got a snail hot pot.

The next morning we woke up late and wandered out to tour the city’s Old Quarter.  We started at Hoan Kiem Lake in the city’s center, and toured the temple on an island there.

For lunch, we stopped for bún chả, one of the nation’s other signature noodle dishes.  I was so wild about this that I absentmindedly wrote “delicious” in place of “dishes” in my first draft of the previous sentence.

At the restaurant where we got bun, a lot of locals were ordering something wrapped in banana leaves.  I was curious so, with some pointing and grunting, I managed to secure a couple; turns out they were nem chua – cured pork steamed in banana leaves.  Pretty tasty when dipped in hot sauce.

We continued wandering the Old Quarter after lunch, marveling at small temples and old houses evidencing French colonial influence.

For dinner, we decided to check out one area in which that French influence is definitely still felt: cuisine.  We went to La Badiane, Hanoi’s most-recommended French-Asian fusion restaurant.

 

Here is Shanti with the ridiculously oversized menu.  We decided, by the way, that she will appear here, Gael Green-style, with her face partly hidden by food and menus.

Apologies for the lack of pictures, and for the fuzziness of the ones posted; the restaurant lighting was on the romantic side.  You can, however, see my eggplant rolled in Parma ham above, and Shanti’s crab remoulade below.

And the trio of creme brulees with which I finished.  The meal was delicious and the flavors well-balanced, but the whole fusion thing kind of felt weirdly 90s/early-00s to me; what a jaded New York jerk I’m becoming.

The sights the next day were, however, fresh and new, and included West Lake to the north of the city’s center.  Here we came across another use of public space: fishing.

And also roasting caught fish.

At the botanical garden south of the lake, we found few flowers and an absolute overflow of brides.  I swear, half of Hanoi must have been taking wedding pictures there that afternoon; we saw a dozen brides if we saw one.  Women were changing under umbrellas next to soft drink stands from streetwear to white gowns, from white gowns to traditional red ones.  It was fabulous.

Our next stop was less festive: Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  Apparently if you go between the hours of 8 and 11 AM, you can view the great leader’s embalmed body.  We decided to forego that and stick with the facade.

For dinner, we went to Quan An Ngon, a kind of food court, where the restaurant has uniform seating and a single menu, but the food comes from individually operated stalls arrayed around the perimeter.  We started by quaffing some of the local brew, Bia Ha Noi – served on the rocks, Vietnamese-style.

I insisted on trying Hanoi specialty xôi xéo, a steamed glutinous rice dish topped with fried mung bean shavings.

We had more sticky rice products, in the form of bánh cuốn, steamed rice crepes – filled here with pork and shrimp.

We’ve all had Vietnamese summer rolls; these, however, had cured salt pork and pork skin in addition to the usual glass noodles and shrimp.

We hadn’t had beef in a while, so we ordered beef sauteed with salt and chili.  It came with a lime-peanut dipping sauce, so overall it was salty, sour, and a little hot.

Everything on the dessert menu was intoxicatingly foreign, so we ordered a couple of things to try.  Below: honey-soaked rice flour cakes.  The honey was very mild, and the cakes were a little like mochi.

Walking further toward the wild side: coconut milk dessert soup with peanuts and mung beans.  This was less sticky-sweet, totally new to me, and totally yummy.

After this meal, we headed south on a bus for a one-night cruise on a luxury junk in Halong Bay.  If you wind up in Vietnam, do not pass this up; the scenery is stunning – it’s the kind of place where every picture you take will be practically postcard-worthy.

The meals were also multi-course and delicious.  I could do a whole post with pictures of seafood, but I’ll content myself with posting these fried prawns for the sake of brevity.  They were awesome; I totally went all-out and sucked the good stuff out of the heads.

After the cruise, we had one last night in Hanoi.  And one last meal.  For that meal, we hit up famous fish restaurant Cha Ca La Vong.  As you can see, they definitely have a set specialty.

Here’s the full fish spread: they sautee the fish with tumeric at your table, and bring a heap of greens (scallions, etc.) which you add yourself and cook down.

Then you put it all together: tumeric fish and sauteed greens with chili vinegar, peanuts, Thai basil, and room temperature rice noodles.  I’m totally making this one at home.

I’m actually writing from Cambodia right now; I’m drinking a beer post-Angkor Wat.  I’ll hopefully be tossing up a post in the next few days on Saigon, the Mekong, and my time here at the Angkor temples.  A teaser (totally my new Facebook pic):