The Ideal Eating Experience in Hanoi

A day in the life.

The Ideal Eating Experience in Hanoi

Hanoi has the most singular method to get dinner. It starts by stepping out of the hostel, an impossibly narrow Paris-style terrace, into a cacophony of smog and scooter horns. With a thick humidity hitting my face, I look up and delight. The inconsistent culture-mashing architecture, borderline anarchic roads, stalls set up on any spare street space; this city does what it wants.

I observe the jig-jag roofing adorned with shrubs and satellite dishes, long glass windows, ornate doors, and stone passageways that no doubt lead to a bar or coffee shop, a local secret that’s cheap and wonderful. It’s the Old Quarter - a thriving hub of old and new; hot in temperature and energy.

Life here is out in the open, loud and present. Old ladies balancing baskets of pineapple and lychee by a stick on their backs. Shops open to the world, dedicated to specific items such as bird cages or rice cookers. The most sensuous are the traditional medicine sellers, storing jars of dried fruits and various animal parts. I smell a combination of some exotic spice with the incense from a nearby temple. The latter is an opportunity for quiet solitude a needed respite from the mayhem of the street.

The area is walkable, with gentle density and the sense of being lived in. But the real joys are discovered in the tiny alleys, where greenery is allowed to blossom, and are sometimes quite enough for an elderly gentleman to have a short snooze. Things hang from French-style balconies. It's a place for walking for walking's sake.

The aim is to get to a place that seems as far from a traditional western dining experience as possible. This is not out of novelty, but because I’ve been here long enough to know that what the Vietnamese sacrifice in fancy furniture, they gain in bombastic food.

I judge a food culture by the ubiquitousness of quality. You can eat well anywhere in the world if you're willing to pay. In some places, however, food is so ingrained in their culture that it's almost impossible not to be satisfied. Everyone and their aunt knows how to cook the staples, which have been honed and refined over multiple generations. You can't argue with that kind of implicit wisdom. Vietnam is one such place where you're just as likely to be blown away by an old lady working at a stall the size of a small washing machine.

Ideally, I want to be sitting on a tiny plastic chair on the side of the road, knees up to my chest. I want to be raising my voice over the sound of exhausts so my companions can hear me. I want to be rubbing shoulders with tired but happy looking workers. The beer should be served into a plastic cup from a keg with a rubber tube, 5,000 Dong each (17 pence).

If I’m alone, all I need is to raise one finger to the waitress, and within a minute arrives a bowl of noodles, a small ramekin of chili and garlic, and a massive pile of leaves on a silver plate. I have learned from watching the locals eagerly digging in; I grab the chopsticks, take a generous helping of leaves, and soak them in the soup, letting the green mix with the noodles, meat, and fat.

Pho is the Vietnamese staple; mine has a Mediterranean vibe, with pungent tomatoes, plenty of garlic, and snails. It has a lifting spiciness. I get flushed and down the cup of Bia Hanoi. It’s intoxicating.

Next is to people-watch for a while, observing local families virulently discuss something or other. Then to pay, and try not to be amazed by the price for the 99th time. Then finally to wonder again how it might be feasible to live here forever.

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James Michael Smith

Writer, film-maker from the UK.

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