Hanoi is a jolt to the senses. It welcomes you in with its intoxicating smells, exotic and strange sights. At the same time warning signals go off, cautioning you to hold the place at a distance. There are the dense traffic with an endless sea of motorbikes seeming to follow absolutely no observable rules and the endless rows of people asking you to stop and look at whatever it is that they are selling. And then there are the wonderful vaguely familiar odors from the street vendors that beckon you to try a taste, but leave you hesitating and questioning what is actually on offer. Is that chicken, beef, frog or even dog? In Vietnam they have it all. And by the time we left, they also had us – we were completely won over.
One of the things that we loved best about Vietnam was the street food. This was particularly true of Sean, who likes to say “You know me, I’ll eat anything.” Brave words in Vietnam, and he was given ample opportunity to eat those words along with many many other interesting delicacies.
Within a short time of arriving in Hanoi we joined a Local Life Street Food Tour with Buffalo Tours (one of their Vietnam Tour options). We tasted things that ranged from the tame to those things that only, well, someone like Sean the adventurous eater, would be comfortable nibbling. And honestly, some of the things he gobbled down surprised even me.
We got the evening started by stopping by the street market to pick out some of Vietnam’s exotic fruit. Many of the fruit was new to us and it was a deliciously sweet introduction to the local life street food of Hanoi.
Like most soups in Vietnam it was served with extra condiments on the side. We waited on the small, squat plastic stools that surround every street vendor and beer corner restaurant in the city.
I enjoyed the soup but I’ll admit the texture is something that would take some getting used to. But the best part of this tasting was the huge smile that the vendor (who has been making this soup for all of her adult life) rewarded us with after we learned how to say “Thank you” in Vietnamese to her. Interesting how this small thing connected us to the experience just a little bit more.
Next we sampled a fried spring roll at the evening market where many locals were shopping for fresh meat, produce and seafood (along with sampling some of the same street food we were enjoying).
Then we stopped to try skewers of pork grilled with a sweet spicy chili sauce grilled over charcoal. This was my favorite bite of the evening. The marinated pork, and perfectly cooked to order – tangy, tender, and delicious, especially with the extra spicy sauce added just before it was taken off the grill.
At this point we joined the crowds of people enjoying some of Vietnam’s favorite beverage – fresh beer. Huge crowds of locals actually spill out onto the streets each evening to drink a glass or two (or more), each of which run about 30 cents US. Learning the price made Sean like it even more. We paired the beer with fried pork balls and pork skin steamed in banana leaves, which we learned are standard drinking snacks at what are known as “beer corners” throughout Hanoi.
From here, things got a bit more adventurous when our guide asked if we wanted to try baby quail. And of course, Sean did.
Next we headed off a street vendor that was serving up a selection of barbecue options that were grilled and then finished cooking on a mini grill on each table. We selected some bacon wrapped mushrooms, beef, salmon, bok choy, french bread slathered with honey, and a whole frog. Well, the frog was just for Sean, and – yes, while I sat in stunned amazement, he ate the whole thing. Ribbet!
The last bit of the evening was also unusual, not for what it was, but where it was served. In order to find it, we strolled along the lake after the guide expertly ushered us across yet another Hanoi road mobbed with scooters. As we learned, when crossing the street you find your moment and set out into the swarm of traffic, being careful to walk in a straight line and making a mental agreement with yourself and the motorist that you will continue moving until you reach the other side. Somehow if you do this the rider will move around you and you will have mastered the zen of street crossing in Vietnam. My personal strategy was to cling to Sean’s arm and just try my best to keep moving and not to look. That seemed to work too (or I’m sure I’d be writing a very different story).
Once across the street the view of the lake was a nice re
ward. We made our way along and entered what seemed to be a parking lot. Here there were dozens of scooters parked in front of a vendor selling ice cream – in just one flavor – coconut. Our first notion of the communist nature of Vietnam. Everyone is treated equally, and while you may not have a lot of choices, at the end of the day, you will not be lacking. And in this particular case, the choice and the flavor was really, really good.
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