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!