We’ve arrived at Hanoi’s century old Dong Xuan wholesale market on a dreary sodden Sunday afternoon. But the smile on Master Chef Mai beams like South China Sea sunshine. She picks up a handful of rice, rubs it between her fingers then pours it into mine. Then she scampers away to another nearby stall, picks off an herb leaf, pinches it and holds it to my nose. “Breathe,” she commands.
Mai walks this market like she owns it. She knows the wholesale vendors from her time in grade: a decade as sous chef at the storied Metropole Hotel in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, four years of executive chef positions in Europe and Thailand; and now a university cooking instructor and master chef at Hanoi’s Delano Hotel.
I walk along with Mai, intrigued by the butchers and fish mongers chopping, gutting and scaling curbside. But Mai is more interested in the bedrock ingredients of Vietnamese cooking—the chilies, the shallots, the four dozen varieties of rice, and always the herbs. She picks and pinches and chews Vietnamese coriander, basils, mints and perilla. We touch and taste and smell. Always smell. “Breathe,” she repeats.
All the while, a brisk mobile trade is underway literally at our feet. Motorbikes, their two stroke engines putt, putt, putting in neutral gear, cruise to a momentary halt, long enough to transact a purchase. The buyer never leaves the vehicle. The vendor never rises from the characteristic squat. A lively negotiation takes place. I step back in anticipation of fisticuffs. “Are they angry?” I ask Giang, our translator and guide. “No,” he assures me: “Only disappointed”.
We’re hungry now. The BW is being sensibly cautious. I, however, am ready to plunge recklessly to death by street food. It’s a thing here in Vietnam. But I resist the temptation to sample sandworm fritters frying in a skillet set over a portable gas braiser. If I chillax on the food, I’ll face less pushback on the Scotch. Johnnie Walker Gold flows like purified water here. Life is all about choices.
Gingerly (sic), we sample a single fried spring roll. Then two types of sticky rice. One is colorful and slightly sweet. Another is warm, and gooey, flavored with pork and onions and herbs. This gelatinous dumpling is ideal as a take away breakfast or as an anytime-of-day food, says Giang. He too is starting to salivate for the main event of dinner.
But first a stop on “Beer Street” for….uh, beer? Indeed. Once, it was only “beer corner”. But Vietnam is getting more popular every year. So now beer rates a full street: Ta Hien Street. Try the draught, cold cold cold.
Giang says we can’t drink beer without a snack. I don’t argue. He orders up the talons: Chan Ga—chicken feet to the uninitiated. I’ve tasted my share of soup broths made from these extremities. But I never imagined gnawing on them over a cold one. Yet here we are.
The BW has been picking politely. But she’s getting impatient for the gourmet restaurant dinner she supposes is at the end of this foodie parade. I think you know where this is going. Like President Obama’s culinary denouement in Hanoi with Anthony Bourdain, ours ends at a hole in the wall Bun Cha shop. Mai picked this one because she knows it is clean and the hogs raised for the roast pork served here are organically fed. If this is the clean part of town, please don’t show me the alternative.
But when Mai digs in hungrily, we all follow without hesitation. The vinegary Bun Cha broth is slightly sweet and there is plenty of chopped garlic, cut lime, red chilis, cilantro and lettuce to customize it to individual taste.
It’s dark when we slurp the last rice noodles from our bowls. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is rising to full end-of-the-weekend crescendo. This is our last night in Hanoi and so we bid farewell to our new friends Mai and Giang. Mai invites us back to cook in her home next time around. And the next morning, Giang, texts us a selfie while dining at his favorite Hanoi restaurant: KFC!
13 Replies to “Hanoi Street Food”
Seriously! Where did everyone go? It’s dinner time! Did the JWG get edited out?
Me tinks not git whole picture.
I am now smiling. That style of market was more like what I knew so many years ago. I love the fact you have Master Chef Mai. Oh, the stories she could tell….. I was always fascinated by what they used and cooked and made it taste good. Thanks but no thanks- I’ll be with Natalie and pass on the Chan Ga…. but yes to beer and scotch. No wonder we all drank. lol
I hadn’t thought about the street doughnuts as being new. I get them at A Dong in West Hartford on the weekend. They are soooo good. Now I am hungry… maybe I’ll steam some shu mai to satisfy the taste buds.
Carry on and have a scotch for me. Okay, have two or three.
Molto pittoresco e anche buonissimo, fatta eccezione per i vermi e i piedi di pollo!
Sono così felice che vi state godendo questa avventura esotica.♡
This and the others are a great read – like I’m right there with you.
piedi di pollo! My new favorite expression!
I hope you didn’t get Uncle Ho’s revenge; thought u were very brave to eat street food. As I know how they wash the dishes on the street. Quite an adventure you both r having, nice touch having a master Chef take u around, hope u r bringing back samples.
Natalie hope the shopping is good! Jill
When Fred writes, I realize that I’m still learning what it means to be a reporter. Grateful to be invited on this journey. Wishing you tight deadlines… we want more!
I hope there is not too much goup on the food for my sisters sake!!! That salad bar chicken is probably looking a lot better now LOL!
We try to avoid the word “goop” here in VN because it is too close to…..well, you know. That said, we’re loving it all, street food, seafood, and more.
i love how she commanded you to breathe and smell the herbs. creating memories for your senses.
WOW, What a wonderful Adventure you both experience, you both deserve it ”Food For Thought” love every moment of it. Thanks for sharing it with me
Love always Maria
Great descriptions. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to try some of those foods, except the zeppole like donuts!