Ghillie James explores the foodiest city in Vietnam — Hanoi! From summer rolls to hot egg coffee, she has the lowdown on where (and what) to eat in the capital
A trip to Vietnam never ever disappoints when it comes to food. Arguably the tastiest recipes in Asia are those produced in the endless choices of eateries – from fine dining to street-side stalls found around the country. My recent trip to Hanoi was a gastronomic experience from beginning to end. So many different places to try and SO much variety!
It’s a city where you are just as likely to see a gentleman in a business suit crouched down on the side of the street catching up on the day’s news drinking his green tea (bought from Grannie’s thermos on the side of the road), as you are to see the same gentleman feasting on a luxurious afternoon tea at the historic Metropole Hotel. The French colonial influence cannot only be seen in the architecture around the city but also in the food. Stalls selling little pastries and Banh Mi (a local baguette made with rice flour, filled with pate and pork, coriander and chilli sauce) are found dotted about the city.
Vietnamese cooking is simple when it comes to ingredients and yet complex when it comes to balance. Sweet, salty, chilli and sour are the four flavours carefully combined to make the fabulous dressings, curries and stir-fry sauces in Vietnamese cuisine. Some of these ingredients are added during cooking – lime leaves or a dash of fish sauce to season a curry. Some added just before eating – a scattering of fresh chilli or a squeeze of lime to round off a bowl of steaming Pho. Herbs are used in everything – mint and coriander especially.
My trip was a girls’ getaway and Hanoi was chosen for its proximity to Singapore (tigerair, VietJet Air, Vietnam Airlines and Singapore Airlines all offer direct flights), its shopping (tablecloths, bedlinen and knock off North face jackets to name a few) and food! We stayed at the aforementioned Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, in the Hoan Kiem district, which has a list as long as your arm of dignitaries and celebs who have stayed there (even Brad and Angelina).
There’s a choice of the historical wing, with smaller rooms but bigger character, and exquisite antiques galore, and the newer, brighter Opera Wing, which offers better prices but slightly less charm. Breakfast was amongst the best hotel breakfasts I’ve eaten, with everything you could possibly ask for. Boasting fruit smoothies, homemade croissants, pastries and sourdough, crispy bacon, eggs cooked just as you like and even Vietnamese Pho, should you wish to eat Asian food for all meals of the day! All beautifully prepared with the highest quality ingredients. I particularly liked the daily specials on offer, which included baked eggs and eggs Benedict.
You can get around town on foot (nip to the lake side first thing for a chance to join the ladies of Hanoi taking their daily exercise – ballroom dancing!), or jump in a taxi (cheapest), on a bike (most exhilarating) or in a foot pedalled tuk tuk (slow but a great way to really see life in Hanoi).
We were lucky to catch food expert Stephanie Nguyen on her home turf, who sweetly offered to give us a whistle stop food tour of the restaurants of her childhood, which still remain her favourites. Born and raised in the city, she moved to Singapore a year or so ago and now offers fabulous cooking classes to expats and locals keen to learn all about Vietnamese cooking.
Our morning began with a wander to the Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda built in commemoration of the 13th century military leader Tran Hung Dao, who was renowned for his bravery in the battle against the Yuan Dynasty. It is reached via a beautiful scarlet red wooden bridge to the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. It is also home to the shrine of an enormous turtle (yes, you read it correctly), an animal sacred to the Vietnamese and Hanoi residents in particular.
Next, a trip to the top of Café Pho Co, with a wonderful view of the city and lake below (via about three tiny staircases). This was our chance to try Ca Phe Trung Nong, or hot egg coffee, famous in Hanoi for good reason. A combination of egg yolk, condensed milk and strong Vietnamese coffee, it’s rather like a half made mousse – think rich, thick, sweet and unctuous (not for the faint hearted or those lacking a sweet tooth!).
Then it was on to try Banh Cuon from a street seller nearby. The steamed pancakes were prepared in front of our eyes and were filled with a delicious combination minced pork and dried mushrooms and served with dipping sauce and a handful of fresh herbs.
I turned down the opportunity to try fertilised egg, which was on offer just along the road (Stephanie’s daughter loves them), and instead photographed the flower seller watering her cart full of blooms which were strapped on to the back of her bicycle. Stephanie also pointed out Café Lam – perhaps the most famous of the original Hanoi art cafés: the owner has taken payment in the form paintings and built up an enviable collection over the years!
Next up was the café where Stephanie hung out after high school most days – Long Vi Dung, at 23 Ho Huan Kiem Street. The difference between my childhood and hers suddenly became very apparent as she described the healthy snacks of fresh spring rolls and papaya salad that she would munch (as opposed to my scoffing of 6 slices of white toast and marmite and a cup of builders tea whilst watching the late afternoon showing of Neighbours on TV). The food I ate in café Long Vi Dung is some of the most delicious I have ever tried, and the taste of the papaya salad is something I hope I will always remember.
Our last stop was to try green rice ice cream at Kem Trang Tien. Not a glamorous experience, but fascinating to see the locals hanging out there, having their daily fix of these freshly made lollies (around since 1958!) that use young rice. The flavour was delicate and slightly grassy (but in a really good way!) and the cost? Just 49 cents!
To me this morning of wandering and eating sums up the best Vietnamese food you can get – simple, fresh, homemade. Made the same way for centuries and barely changed since Stephanie was a girl.
Stephanie’s Fresh Vietnamese Spring Rolls
Ingredients (Makes 8 servings)
8 rice papers
Romaine lettuce/ mustard green leaves
4 lettuce leaves
200g of cooked rice noodles
A handful of coriander leaves
A handful of mint leaves and local basil
1/2 carrot, peeled and very thinly sliced
8 cooked peeled prawns, halved lengthwise (or you can use steamed belly pork/smoked duck breast/ fried tofu or sautéed mushrooms)
1 bowl of cold water
For the dipping sauce:
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice/vinegar
5 tbsp water
1 clove of garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 tbsp finely chopped coriander root
1/2 tbsp finely chopped fresh chili
To make dipping sauce:
Mix the water with the sugar and lemon juice in a bowl. Add the fish sauce and mix well.
Taste and check the balance of the mixture and adjust to your own taste. Then stir in the chopped garlic, chili and coriander.
To make the spring rolls:
Lightly moisten the rice paper by dipping it into the water bowl for 1-2 seconds.
- Place the rice paper on a flat plate or a cutting board.
- Put 1/2 lettuce leaf in the centre of the rice paper. Add 1/8 of noodles on top of the lettuce, then coriander leaves, basil and mint leaves and some sliced carrot.
- Lay 2 pieces of prawn in front row with the cut side downwards.
- Roll the rice paper halfway into a cylinder, press down and fold it tightly.
- Fold 2 ends of the paper over the filling and continue rolling until you complete the cylinder.
- Repeat with the remaining ingredients to make other 7 more rolls in the same way.
You can cut the roll in half and serve with the sauce. These are best eaten freshly made but will hold for an hour or so in the fridge, between lettuce leaves.
Stephanie Nguyen can be contacted at [email protected] or by phone at (+65) 8798 4052