VIETNAM. Hungry? You will need to be! Seven locati...

VIETNAM. Hungry? You will need to be! Seven locations over three hours for under thirty-five dollars.

Some of the best food in Vietnam can be found on the streets – eaten quickly at roadside tables, grab and go vendors, and local restaurants. This is where you find the most authentic Vietnamese dishes. Territory Taste Magazine embarked on a Street Food Tour in the heart of Hanoi.
Vietnam is one of the hottest destination spots in the world for food seekers. Tourist flock to photograph markets, attend cooking schools and enjoy the flavors of Asia at it’s best.
My husband has recently accepted a commercial aviation contract in Vietnam, based in Hanoi. For us getting a feel for the local food was a necessity as much as a food journey as we begin commuting between Hanoi and Darwin.
The locals know that the streets offer a huge array of food at small outlets with limited menus for under $2.00, so with hardly any Vietnamese language apart from basic greetings, we set out to explore.
HISTORY AT A GLANCE Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the country’s second largest city by population. The population grows at a rate of 3.5 per cent annually and currently sits around 7.7 million people. Hanoi is 1,760 km north of Ho Chi Minh and situated at the top on the country.
From 1010 until 1802, Hanoi was the political centre of Vietnam. The next 200 years saw the largest impact of change and destruction through invasion, war and occupation. Starting with the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, the imperial capital of Vietnam was relocated to Hue in the Central Coast. With a change of capital, Hanoi was largely defenceless and invaded by the French in 1873. From 1883 to 1945, the city became the French Indochina centre for the region. The French influenced architecture in Hanoi building churches, public buildings, and luxury villas. It was in this period that French influence appeared in Vietnamese cuisine with the introduction of crusty bread and crepes.
From 1940 to 1945 Hanoi, as well as the largest part of French Indochina and Southeast Asia, was occupied by the Japanese. In 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed North Vietnam as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In 1946, the Vietnamese National Assembly made Hanoi the capital of the Democratic Republic. From 1954 to 1976, it was the capital of North Vietnam, and the capital of a reunified Vietnam in 1976, after the Vietnam War.
2010 officially marked 1,000 years since the establishment of Hanoi and with that milestone comes a rich tapestry of culinary traditions. Many of Vietnam’s most famous dishes, including the national dish, Pho are believed to have originated in Hanoi. Pho has been named as one of the Top 5 street foods in the world by Globalpost. Two varieties dominate the Hanoi scene: Pho Bò which is beef and Pho Gà made with chicken. These dishes are your everyday, every meal get out of jail free card for street eating in Vietnam. Territorians look forward to weekend market soup for breakfast so this is a great way to start your our exploration.
We started our food tour at Kim’s Tours at 11am with Gorgeous and funny Miss Moon. Lucky for us we decided to skip breakfast and headed into the Old Quarter because it started with a massive spread of Bún Chà which is a dish consisting of charcoal roasted pork served in a sweet/salty soup with rice noodle vermicelli and fresh herbs, and is by far the most popular food item among locals and our favorite dish of the day.
Nom Bò is another great dish which is a shredded papaya salad with cooked beef, dried beef jerky topped with crushed peanuts and a sweet tangy dressing. I could eat this everyday and not get tired on the freshness and light feeling after a meal.
Moving onto the French Quarter we dined on steamed pancakes called Banh Cuon which are made from rice flour and more like soft rice paper rolls than a pancake. It’s memorising to watch them making the pancakes and flipping them one after another. They are served filled with fresh ingredients and a sweet dipping sauce.
You can’t do a food tour in Hanoi without sampling spring rolls, pillow cake, donuts and dumplings washed down with an ice cold beer or ‘happy water’, is the Vietnamese equivalent of pub food. We blindly followed our guide ‘Miss Moon” up a narrow set of stairs passed a busy stacked kitchen to a small dining area with small stools and wooden tables. It was packed. By now Greg is totally in his happy place, I’m heading towards a food coma and our guide was smiling saying our food baby was coming along nicely!!!
Fresh fruit from street vendors is a welcome sugar hit. Freshly cut pineapple, and lychee’s still on the branch will set you back 30 – 50 cents and are available everywhere. The odd juice outlet is around but you have to hunt for them and there was not as many as I expected.
Next stop was to sample a Mien Tron or glass noodle dish. It was a small bowl of everything delicious. Vietnamese fish cake, glass noodles and greens tossed with a oyster and sesame based sauce. Glass noodles are a transparent noodle made from a starch such as mung bean. They are higher in protein than rice noodles and in Vietnam they are about 10 x more expensive. China is the primary producer of glass or cellophane noodles as they are also known. China is the country of origin and influence for this dish.
The food tour pushes on. We roll out onto the street and take in the city sights with the opportunity to ask all those questions of a local that you really want to ask. When do kids start school? How old do you have to be to get your licence? What’s the average wage? What country are most of your tourists coming from? What do you think of Australian travellers? Has anyone died of over eating on your tour before? And just when you are about to explode Miss Moon proudly announces that we are now going to try a very special Vietnamese desert.
Com (green sticky rice) and Coconut ice cream. One of the origins of Com can be traced to Vòng village, 7 km west of Hanoi Old Quarter. The story behind the dish is that the village was faced with a severe starvation and since the rice crop was not ready for harvest, residents had nothing to eat. One hungry farmer tried preparing the unripe grains of rice by roasting the rice in a clay jar and smashing it to remove the husks via many complex steps. They produced a delicious sweet green sticky rice, called Com.
The stories behind the food and the explanation of how the dishes are made, were they are influenced from and how they are eaten is totally worth the tour price. however by now we were wishing the food would actually stop appearing.
But no… the tour went on.
Our final stop was to try Banh My and egg coffee. Banh My is a delicate crusty bread roll with shredded meat and fresh greens. A Vietnamese Subway. The bread is light and fluffy because it is made with half wheat flour and half rice flour. Baked fresh everyday this is a basic street food that ranges from 80 cents – $1.50 for a meal.
Because the tour takes you on a progressive walk amongst the bustling streets, you are distracted by retail shops clustered together in rows. Shoe street, carpet street, handbag street, button street, toy street all displaying wall to wall retail goods. In between and on every corner are street vendors, small restaurants (some have small plastic stools for 8 people max).
Coming to the end of our tour we are starting to work out what the menus mean, Bo (beef) Ga (Chicken) ect. Tiny spaces with limited offerings and most specialising in one particular dish. Pho, Bun Cha, Banh My and it’s much the same all over Vietnam. In the Old Quarter however you will also find Egg Coffee so it’s worth a try. It was invented in 1946 in Hanoi Old Quarter. Most Vietnamese line the bottom of a cup with condensed milk and pour the coffee on top which is how Vietnamese coffee is still served today. However during the war there was a shortage of milk so an enterprising barman used a whipped egg as a substitute. It doesn’t taste of egg – more like vanilla – and while the coffee is like a smooth cappuccino, the egg part is surprisingly light-tasting and not at all eggy. I did ask for the recipe but it got lost in translation and I have a feeling it’s very tightly held so I suggest you go there and try one.
So after seven locations, three hours of very interesting dialogue and personalised guided tour, that brings an end of our street food feast.
I recommend anyone do this at the start of your Vietnam holiday because it will change the way you experience food while you are in the country. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way to appreciating new places and food flavors. I also recommend reading up and learning a little bit about the history and basic customs prior to going because this will help understand where the various influences come from.
Part of what makes Vietnam so interesting is the complicated history but also the way that the history of the country deeply intertwines with its food. From the influence of the Chinese, to the French, to the Japanese and the Vietnam War. The dishes that are present today are a reflection of the people who invaded and those cultural dishes steeped in tradition that have survived unchanged for a thousand years.
Vietnam is a country I feel I will visit many times and never grow tired of the vibrant food culture. There is always a small lane way, roof top venue or tiny courtyard to explore. Summed up in a sentence, the Vietnamese culture embraces you and the food is next level.