HANOI: CROUCHING DOWN FOR PHO WITH UNCLE HO
Hanoi was cold. Damn it was cold, about 10o which, to someone coming up from Singapore and dressed in shorts, thin cotton shirt and flip-flops came as a bit of a shock to the system.
Fortunately, my shivering journey to my guesthouse was a short one and I was soon changed into something altogether more suitable and out eating my first of many restorative bowls of steaming pho.
My experiences of Vietnamese food to date had been limited to London’s mix of Viet-Chinese offerings on The Kinglsand Road and some better examples in Melbourne.
My first taste of the real stuff here in Hanoi showed me that I had been sipping pho, through a glass darkly to this point. A mound of flat noodles topped with a broth and slivers of herbs is finished with a small portion of protein (either chicken or beef) before being served for you to spike with chilli and lime as your tastes require.
It is one of those dishes that you can actually feel your body thanking you for as you eat it, particularly when you are crouched on a small plastic seat at a roadside stall shivering from an unseasonal cold spell courtesy of weather sweeping in from China.
That’s true of the food of North Vietnam in general. It may lack the high profile public image of its Thai Neighbours, but it is good and it is very cheap which helps to explain the huge numbers of backpackers who use Hanoi as a base to explore the region eking out their budgets on meals the cost of which would not buy you a daily paper back in London
I don’t agree with the wisdom that a version of a local dish served by a toothless old crone from a shabby stall is better than its equivalent served in a higher end restaurant. I don’t believe it simply because it is not true. Often the restaurant version, cooked using better ingredients and prepared to order gives you a tastier and less bowel challenging experience of local food.
However, in Hanoi, I would have to say that my most memorable experiences of classic favourites such as the pho, nem (spring rolls) bun cha (small pork patties) and bahn my (a Vietnamese sandwich served in their crunchy, airy baquettes) came when I was squeezing my ever increasing butt into a plastic chair designed for a small child.
All of these are washed down with the local “moonshine” beer Bia Hoi which is poured straight from the barrel for about 10p a glass.
For all that, the highlight of my trip came when I signed up for a day’s cookery school at the grand old Metropole Hotel, another famous colonial hotel known for playing host to Charlie Chaplin when on his second honeymoon of many, inevitably to Noel Coward who stayed at just about every grand hotel in the region and, most impressive of all, Graham Green when he was writing meister work “ The Quiet American”
The course began with a tour of the local Cho 12-19 Market where our guide and chef explained showed us the bewildering variety of ingredients from which local cooks can choose. She also took great pleasure in showing us the stalls selling crispy dog ,which did not particularly bother me having seen it, and indeed eaten it, in China.
The course itself was more demonstration than hands on, but well worth the money as we saw 6-7 classic dishes being produced including banana flower salads, skewers of chicken marinated in turmeric and lemon leavers, fish steamed with herbs and more Nem cooked in the three Vietnamese styles. The course included eating not only the food we prepared during the day but a belly busting lunch from the hotel’s extensive and impressive lunchtime buffet. All of which made the £30 cost seem pretty good value even if it did equate to the price of all of the rest of my eating in the city put together.
There is relatively little stir-frying in Vietnamese cooking, particularly in the North where steaming, grilling and deep frying hold sway. Despite that, the use of hundreds of types of herbs and vegetables and small amounts of protein make this one of the freshest, healthiest and most delicious countries I have visited on my journey to date.
With The Philippines to come in all its deep fried porky glory and, after that India, it is probably no bad thing to give my body a bit of a break.
Next Stop Manila
P.S - Anyone for Fanny Ice Cream?