Glorious Food

It is our second official night in Hanoi, and Peter and I are thrilled. It’s a surprising feeling of exuberance, considering that today officially marks five months on the road, and our most recent stop – Kathmandu – left me wanting to curl up in a ball and never leave the hotel.

Part of our happiness has to do with the vivacity of the city itself. Rivers of motorbikes flow through the streets, making getting across town a stressful, potentially suicidal activity. There’s a bit of the sense of anarchy that can be overwhelming and exhausting. But it’s outweighed by a sense of vivacity and excitement that’s infectious. There are stalls on every street corner where people sit on tiny plastic stools, chewing on sunflower seeds and sipping beer as they watch the traffic go by. Ancient trees push out of sidewalks, covered in roots that seem to be dripping down their trunks. Guys on mopeds linger everywhere, trying to convince you to let them give you a ride, and women in conical hats sell fruit from scales that dangle from poles stretched across their shoulders.

But the thing that so far has made it great – and which I feel is going to continue to be one of our favorite parts of this country – is the food. Vietnamese people care about their food. They care about it a lot. They also have fantastic raw materials – fresh fruits and vegetables, great seafood, and a cuisine that emphasizes seasonality. And, though perhaps it’s un PC to say this, they also happen to have been occupied by the French. (I don’t support colonialism, but if you were able to choose your occupier based on their food, they sure as hell beat the British.) There are baguettes here, and strong, good coffee.

Peter at our cooking class. If this is not the definition of "perfect husband," I don't know what is.

The reason for our current euphoria, however, has to do with a restaurant called Quan An Ngon. (It’s at 16 Phan Boi Chau, should you want to find it.) It was recommended to us by a Swedish woman I met on the plane and oh, please, if you come to Hanoi, you must go. The premise is street food – a sort of one-stop shop for many of the deliciacies you can find sold in hole-in-the-wall shops around town. The seating area is a large courtyard with white sheets draped over it to keep out the rain, and around the edges are numerous open-air kitchens, each specializing in a section of the menu (which is the thickness of a J. Crew catalogue) and labeled by a sign painted on a steamer basket.

We were overwhelmed by the choices, but managed to narrow it down to four things: mango salad with seafood, steamed shrimp in coconut juice, grilled squid with chili sauce, and whatever dish was our waitress’s favorite – which turned out to be Vietnamese pancakes.

It took about four minutes for the first dish to arrive, the mango salad. It was a mound of sliced green mango, crunchy and only slightly sweet, topped with cilantro, tiny red flakes of chili, shrimp and squid. Peter took one bite and actually exclaimed in happiness. (I believe his exact words were, “It’s a taste explosion!” – and he wasn’t kidding.) The combination of spiciness and sweetness, the crunch of the mango and the softness of the squid, and the overnotes of the herbs, were perfectly combined. We took a cooking class earlier today (at a school called Hidden Hanoi, which I also recommend) and our teacher had told us about how important balance – referred to as the yin and the yang and defined as a blend of salty, sour, sweet and heat – were to Vietnamese cuisine. This dish nailed it.

Spring rolls from the cooking class. Why do I think we'll gain weight here?

Next up was my favorite, the Vietnamese pancake. It was a plate of rice paper crepes, a pile of fresh lettuce, mint and basil, and some sort of crispy fried thing combined with bean sprouts and sauteed egg and shrimp. It looked great but neither of us had any idea of how to assemble it. Not to fear. Our waiter, seeing our confused looks, whipped out a pair of disposable plastic gloves from his apron and expertly rolled the ingredients together into a tight, cigar-like tube and handed it to me. Oh. My. Goodness. Crunchy, salty, sweet, and yet somehow refreshing, thanks to the herbs. I’ve had Vietnamese pancakes several times before, but never like this. What’s more, the entire plate cost $1.50.

The squid were perfectly grilled; the shrimp came draped around the edge of a whole coconut, filled with juice. For dessert, we had another recommendation of our waitress, something called che suong sa hot luu – described as “jelly, water chestnut, tapioca pearls and coconut milk.”  It came in a juice glass and was an icy, milky concoction with an odd combination of green gelatinous crunchy things, strips of black sweet bean, a thick sweet yellow paste, and red balls that looked like pomegranate seeds. It looked like someone had thrown up a Christmas tree into a glass – but it turned out to also be delicious.

The ingredients for our dessert, which were mixed up in coconut milk.

We walked back to our hotel giddy and full, with fingers that smelled of sweet fish sauce and garlic and charcoal squid. Even better? Our four dishes, dessert, beer and water came to about fifteen bucks.

I love it here.

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