“Vietnamese loooooove to eat! We eat, 5, 6, 7 times a day! And then we karaoke!” boasts our street food tour guide Thuy with a mischievous grin. Seb and I tuck into to our first meal of what seems to be a promising day of gustative exercise in Hanoi. Seated on tiny plastic stools in this bustling street-food café, we study the bun cha in front of us: double barbecued pork belly and meatballs floating in a peppery broth with green papaya slices. A large platter piled high with freshly washed herbs and lettuce appears, as does individual plates of skinny white rice noodles. We get cozy with our chopsticks and listen to Thuy’s instructions.
“Now you add your flavor as you like: garlic, chilies, and lots of greens to make it digest. Then noodle. Then eat!” She has sweetly accented voice and an obvious enthusiasm for food. “After, we make exercise before we eat again,” meaning we’ll have a wander around the neighborhood market stalls before more tasty local chow. I could get used to this sport – more flavorful than going to the gym, anyway.
The street food scene in Vietnam, and more specifically Hanoi, is well established and a welcome treat to us. My mouth was already watering on the bus from China reading descriptions of sweet and spicy spring rolls, thin rice pancakes rolled with mushrooms, stir-fried plates of beef with lemongrass and chili, ‘rubbish rice’ (rice piled high with a variety of meats and veggies), fresh-cooked omelets, pure fruit smoothies and of course the famous pho, a slow cooked spice-laden broth with flat noodles and beef that smells more fragrant and restorative than any chicken soup for the soul. The Vietnamese know how to get the day off to a good start – they eat pho for breakfast.
The thing that strikes me most about this cuisine, and what Thuy tells me allows locals to eat up to 7 times a day without becoming obese, is the incredible freshness. Fresh produce is acquired at daybreak from the wholesale market and tossed if it starts wilting. Everything is cooked to order and the thousands of street food stalls or vendors on the side of the road usually only prepare one or two types of dishes. Portions are reasonable – just enough to keep you satisfied until some savory smell tempts you on the next street. They’re light-handed with the oil (especially compared to southern China, where we’ve just been) and heavy on herbs and greenery. Peppermint, coriander, and lettuce share the all-you-can-eat plate of seasonings with more exotic looking sprigs like chocolate mint, Thai basil, lemongrass and wild betel. Plenty of garlic, chili peppers and tiny green limes are available to customize each dish to your liking.
Clouds of steam rise from giant aluminum pots as squatting women ladle out noodles or fat white dumplings. Everything begs to be tasted. Now that our stomachs have somewhat acclimated to the ‘exotic’ cuisine in the Far East, we are indulging as much and as often as possible. The tingly-spicy smells of soup or the grilled meat on the barbecue smells inviting and my initial apprehension of upsetting our Western stomachs has all but disappeared thanks to our guide’s sage (if not somewhat obvious) advice for travelers: eat where you see lots of locals. For the Vietnamese who eat out often, they’ll return to the freshest and most delicious places in town, and we should follow suit.
If their karaoke abilities are anything like their cooking skills, we’re in for another Vietnamese treat tonight.