2am in Hanoi
It's 2am, Hanoi.
The kind of conditions ideal for countering the gluttony of the festive season, but the cuisine here won’t allow such fanciful notions. Street food occupies literally every kerb and property frontage in Vietnam’s capital.
Stepping out amongst the swarms of Vespas and other lesser mopeds, which have far less style & appeal, traversing down the main arteries of this bustling city is a life skill the locals have mastered long ago.
Ironically kerb-side appeal is not the forefront of every Vietnamese restaurateur. Most restaurants nestle between the kerb and telegraph poles, strangled in a nest of wires, reflecting the rice paper wrapped spring rolls, fighting for their own space with which to entice both the Hanoians and tourists alike. The constant buzz and yo-yoing headlights of the passing bikes, provide the soundtrack and strobe lighting effect for your dining experience. A non-stop attack of the senses.
Tables here are mostly ‘PepsiCo’ endorsed, and from 1975, and are more suitable for the dining rituals for a toddler, at only 14 inches high. The 'restaurants' previous clients’ dinner brushed to the floor, to make way for your vastly more important arrival and time spent spending your Vietnamese Dong. Megaphones appear to further announce your presence or maybe it's simply more post-communist propaganda.
Pride here begins with the sourcing of the ingredients, the success in the abundance of flavour. It's survival on the efficiency of being served.
London would describe this as a 'pop up', but this is no passing fad, this is evidently food culture, a way of life.
For as modest as the restaurants are, the fayre is varied. Dishes of shellfish, salmon and trout, to a selection of meat cuts that even a Parisian butcher may have disregarded, (namely chicken feet & brains) skewed, whole frogs (the Parisian didn't think to use whole reptile previously) all marinated. The corn on the cob, banana and bok choi, would keep any mum happy, safe in the knowledge their child is getting sufficient vegetable intake.
Offerings are scandalously cheap when compared to ‘Western’ prices, but this is only an added bonus, as the food is prepared lovingly.
Paraffin-fuelled stoves illuminate the kitchen, the visual cooking display a delight, and would command the label of chef’s table. No premium applied here.
Our waiter is eight years old, at a guess. The restaurant manager, attentive, serene, beautiful and calm.
Despite a lack of drinking water & refrigeration at most restaurants, fear not. Blind faith, plus an abundance of chilli, lime & garlic will keep you safe.
As Peter Kay said ' the buffet is open'!
'Calm in the Chaos'
Leaving urban life in the rearview, the Western friendly protein of chicken and beef, become scarce. As such, vegetarian food takes centre stage, albeit through necessity rather than choice. Protein, if available, turns to the more readily accessible goat, from the lush pastures of the national park. With this being Vietnam, street dog is also always an option, if an oft unpalatable one.
The designer mongrel (more commonly referred to as a labradoodle), is back home, a million miles away from the Vietnamese who would see him in a totally different light. He’ll be 'chillaxing' on the sofa, disapprovingly watching Sky, still miffed he didn't receive a designer jumper for Christmas, like those adorned by the K9 mutts that accompany the celebrities he watches on Sky Atlantic. However, should the rascal dare partake in the destruction of my personal items again, a trip to the area that sits just north of Tam Coc will be inevitable…
'Get off my Sofa'
Despite the obvious and stark cultural differences, that see dogs as nothing more than a meal, one must admire the basting skills of the Vietnamese cooks. The skin crisp and golden brown. I've seen chefs not even achieve this with pigeons, in bubble baths of thyme, butter, bay leaf and garlic.
Continuing towards Nha Trang via Hue, the food continues to pack a punch. Bold flavours, allied with great depth and variety. Hints of the souths sweet tooth become more noticeable. Perhaps reflective of the economic rise, growth and a new addiction to 'western' sweet, E-number saturated convenience food, or even an acknowledgement to the past, of American soldiers drinking cola and chewing gum in between their brutal battles with the Viet Cong. Either way, the combination of textures (deep fried noodle, grated peanuts for example), the sweetness of the sauces, combined expertly with spices and broths, is truly breathtaking.
Imagine Bruce Lee at the 1964 Long Beach Karate Convention, and the famous one inch punch demonstration, developed from Wing Chun. Food from Hue to Hoi An reflects this, but one quarter inch short, it makes its move. A devilish potency and burst of flavour from the herbs, grown in abundance in the region, that simply knocks you off your chair, Bruce Lee or no Bruce Lee.
Food here, could aptly be described as Jeet Kune Do.
'The Mermaid (Nhu Y) Restaurant
2 Tran Phu St
Traveling south from Hoi An, the food literally goes south, and judging by tooth decay, in addition to rising obesity, the wet & sugary rot of Vietnamese cuisine, is rotting from the bottom up.
Awesome Peanut Sauce
100g peanuts, preferably unsalted
100ml condensed milk
200ml coconut milk
Szechuan pepper- add to taste
Small amount of chilli flakes
Blend all the above together, pour into serving bowls
Drizzle honey and season generously with large flakes of salt, do not stir, as the sweetness and saltiness, varying as you dip, adds interest. Simple yet divine.