Hanoi on arrival
I woke up numb not realizing what time of the day it was. Divya and I were so tired after a stupefying flight from Delhi to Hanoi, with a long stopover at Kuala Lumpur, that the lack of energy clouded the excitement of being in a new country. A brief slumber, post check-in helped us rebond ourselves. However our stomachs growled a tiger’s roar in hunger and in anticipation of wholesome food. Good, nourishing food had eluded us for some time. I wasted no time in consulting Trip advisor to pick a place for our first dinner in Hanoi. After an easy ready time we packed our bodies in layers and wollen to walk in what seemed like a clear crispy winter evening, from the window.
It was February. Hanoi was chilly, cloudy and there was a smatter of steady drizzle every few times. The sun was barely out in the day. The winter chill seeped into our bones.
We picked ‘Exchange Cafe’ from Trip advisor’s choicest list with no particular reasoning. The restaurant was located in the financial district on the other side of the Hoan Kiem Lake about 30 minutes by walk from our hotel. Our Hotel was located in the busy touristy area of Hang Dong, part of the old quarter, not very far away from the city’s downtown. So we decided to walk, soak in the new city on foot. The streets look third world, akin to the business districts of Indian metros, but the motorists are better behaved. Traffic is less chaotic than Bangalore, our home town in India and jaywalking is ok. We negotiated through the many hawkers, plentiful walkers to our destination, aided ably by Google maps. What a blessing that app is! Not once we lost our way or stopped to ask for directions. Hanoi city center was an ocean of foreign tourists, striding all across us. Mostly Europeans, Indians are rare visitors to this part of the world.
Exchange Café is set in a European style Bungalow built in 3 levels, on the Ngo Trang Tien street. The place smells of wood, lemongrass and passion. It’s run by a sibling duo – brother and sister. After a bit of browsing we decided to take the table opposite a dummy fireplace, in the hope that the unused hearth would give Divya the illusion of being in a warmer place. She is anti-winter, sulking silently for sun and summer and a Vegetarian. So Vietnam being cold, chilly, rainy and an exclusively meat eating country didn’t qualify to be a comforting environment for her.
But given her open approach to life, there would be no problems; only solutions! The sweet smiling waitress seemed rather amused that D was vegetarian. ‘Vegeesetables’(that’s how she pronounced vegetables, much to our amusement)were not much on the menu. Even the soup broth is either chicken or pork stock. Contrary to what Wikipedia tells you about Vietnam being a ‘vegetarian friendly’ destination given its Buddhist influences, it’s not. Unless you are a Satwik hippie who can live with raw/boiled vegetables and slain taste buds!
Before I tell you about the food at Exchange Café, here are my generic observations of the Vietnamese cooking
1. Unlike curry cuisine the North Vietnamese cooking is virgin and simple. It is unarguably among the healthiest cuisines in the world.
2. Mint, fresh vegetables, fish sauce and lemon grass are used extensively with meat (lamb, frog, pork, beef, chicken, and fruits from the sea – ‘fruit de la mer’)
3. The soft kaleidoscope of colors on the plate plays a big role in making the cuisine savory. Good food is a treat for all your senses.
The first sip of the clear tofu/chicken soup we slurped longingly felt like elixir for our by now hollow and deprived guts. It was fairly well made, even though the quantity was too little. We ordered for simple, safe local food. The vegetarian Vietnamese spring roll, wrapped in translucent rehydrated rice paper and stuffed with Juliennes carrot, lettuce, cabbage, mushroom, fresh coriander & ripe red chilly was filling and satisfying. The entrees also lent themselves to much relish. We had ordered at the recommendation of our hospitable waitress Vietnamese Style Shrimp Stir Fry with jasmine rice. The flavors from the fresh & juicy plate of shrimps and the aromatic gusto of the lemon grass didn’t disappoint us at all. My stomach felt better and I could feel energy roll back into the veins. The waitress was sharp and noticed Divya make sour face over a Pina colada and was kind enough to not charge us for it. They obviously took customer delight quite seriously.
The food, the ambience and the experience was something both of us approved and appreciated. We walked back with renewed agility, oblivious of our return to the restaurant and the friendship that would be forged with Mai, one of the owners of Exchange café in the days to come.
Food / culture in Hanoi
Hanoi has a very vibrant ‘eat on the pavement’ culture. Most shopkeepers after shutting shop, spread a mat on the pavement, put out tiny portable stoves/grills, cook dried sheets of stinking squids and hot noodle soup into a bowl and eat with a pair of chopsticks, granting themselves a private time in a very public space. I suspect most retail store vendors (clothes, accessories) live in the premises they rent. On the side alleys of commercial districts you will see mini size plastic tables and chairs (the size that would seat 10 yr olds) all occupied by the local and tourists eating the steaming hot Pho or its ilk. It’s common to see well dressed corporate office goers having their afternoon meal from the pavement vendors, squatting on plastic chairs under white awnings. Eating out of their white china bowls. It makes for an aesthetic ‘busy Asian street side’ picture. Asian because of the sheer number of people you’ll see on the roads and the systemic method in its visible madness. It’s also common sight to see very tall angular European men and women seated comfortably on those baby plastic chairs and enjoying pints of Hanoi Beer or some Pho at dinner time. (Hanoi Beer and Tiger are some of the local popular brands.) It’s a great platform for tourists to meet and blend with the local people, local culture and local food! Divya and I were enticed by the idea, but the epicure in me wasn’t ok with pavement seating and street cooking. Especially when the smell (stink actually) of dog, frog, pork meat was rife in the air. No I wasn’t put off by the smell at all. The gourmet chef in me was a tad worried about hygiene and the quality of meat. Especially dog meat. Hanoi had many restaurants that offered dog meat. Being a dog lover and having had pets at home with whom I’ve been deeply attached with, the idea didn’t hold forth much fancy. Being in the gourmet food business I suppose has done this to me – my experimentative palate is always wrestling with a critical mind about the ingredients and the procedure of food making. As a result I have an argumentative stand on how much I can push myself with tasting anew. But truth be told my tongue wins over my mind most times, but not this time!
We had an opportunity to sit on one such baby stool, though much later in the trip on our visit to La Cai town below the hill station of Sapa (North west Vietnam), bordering Vietnam and China. Around the border gate we sat before a lady that served Divya a local sweet made of Tofu, at the behest of our tour guide, Soan. It was a supposed local delicacy, which Soan walloped with much relish, in a flash. I didn’t dare to venture, given my aversion to sweets and the taste didn’t go down Divya’s throat either. The sweet is called, memory willing, tao tho. It looked inviting like a perfectly set curd – a smooth white surface, even like glass.
We also on a couple of occasions tasted local toddy; they call wine, made out of rice extracts. The taste was very crude, acrid and odorless. We also saw a version of ‘lamb toddy wine’ – the whole body of goat stuffed into a bottle of rice wine. This was in ripe tribal infested countryside, below Sapa valley. There was a willing reluctance to taste it!
There were days when eating was a mere formality – given that there were so many other things to do, see and explore. So mindlessly we sought to tickle our tongues with Thai fast food, pizza or just coffee shop junk. Food in very few places appealed to us, leaving us craving to bury our taste buds in a bowl that would leave us wanting more. Alas! That moment only came far and few in between in the ten days we spent in that country. Which is why Café exchange, with its soulful food remained very dear.
Hanoi has a very rich night life. Divya and I would go gallivanting around down town after dinner to find a place to park ourselves in for a drink. Some shady looking park inns, blaring tasteless English pop, visited by young foreign tourists, are cosmopolitan melting grounds. It’s an excellent place to meet interesting people from around the world and start igniting conversations with. When on travel, strangers are ingredients for fixing those missing elements in the jigsaw. They fill the people’s touch you are robbed off when in an alien country, which is perhaps why you bond with them that much more fiercely. On street pavements on a couple of occasions we found interesting musical gatherings – Young Vietnamese and foreign national men and women huddled together strumming a guitar and singing famous English rock numbers. Music indeed has no language.
Pho, their all famous dish, (a full meal by itself or consumed as soup) is made differently in different parts of the country. Basic Pho is a clear stock or broth of poultry/ beef and cinnamon, ginger. Added into it are a whole bunch of things starting from lime juice, tofu, coriander leaves, bean sprouts, green onions (spring onions) shreds of chicken or beef or pork belly. The spice can be enhanced with some ripe red chilies. (Warning: the potent red things burst in your mouth like atom bombs if you add a pinch too much!) Rice sticks or glass noodles are a standard ingredient. The best Pho we had was at the countryside hill station of Sapa. The ingredients in the Pho were fresh with no additives like MSG (which we found out, much to our disgust, was used in some places in Hanoi as taste enhancers). The nourish of the countryside ingenuity was unmistakable at Sapa. And we didn’t miss an opportunity to have it everyday religiously for breakfast – a big china bowl of hot steaming pho, exuding a natural herbal aroma. It was panacea in the frosting Sapa weather.
I was keen on taking back with me some locally acquired culinary knowledge. I wanted to learn the local technique, the typical blend. All cuisines have orthodoxy to it. If you know that, you can get creative with your dish without compromising its authenticity. I found Tracy Lister, a gourmet restaurant owner, through Google. An Australian expat, Enterprising Tracy was taking a half day long cooking lessons of Vietnamese delicacies that also included a tour of the local market. I decided to take it up. We walked up to the local market, all the students – a small group of eclectic tourists – chaperoned by Tracy. I was deeply impressed by the cleanliness of the market, even in the meat section. There wasn’t a spell of foul stench coming from anywhere. And the meat and the vegetables, were Fresh and inviting. So fresh that they could be coming of a homegrown kitchen garden.
An English speaking Vietnamese cook took us through the cooking of a 3 course meal. The
session was rather uneventful and unimpressive except for one incident. I ate the embryo of a duck, out of a steamed egg! This is how it unfolded. At our consent Tracy bought a couple of eggs at the market that had the embryo in it. As the cooking session was in progress the egg was steamed, cracked opened and out came a tender baby meat in the shape of a miniature duck. It’s a supposed aphrodisiac and a delicacy. The meat was tender and disappeared in my mouth!
We ate all the dishes we cooked, the students, sitting in a sunny corner on the first floor of the restaurant – enjoying some wine and the fruits of our labor, bonding as strangers.
We walked back, not much excited about the learning but delighted at the cameo of the sun, enjoying re-connecting an estranged relationship with it. Also, missing in bits the bright tropical spring that would be unfolding parellelly in Bangalore!
Yours truly Chef. Vikram