In Hanoi, you’re never too far from the exhilarating action that buzzes on the whole day. And in my book, it’s the gastronomic action that draws you in the most. It happens mostly on the streets, spilling over onto every inch of the sidewalk, and with all manner of edibles for your culinary pleasure.
‘Pho‘ (say ‘fur’), or noodle soup, is, of course, the most common. In fact, it’s the mainstay of Vietnamese cuisine. Pho Bo, Pho Ga and Pho whatever… pork, chicken, beef and duck being the main draws. As for the noodles — koay teow, beehoon and a translucent variety are the most common. Whatever your choice, they are mostly all delicious. After a week, I was a self-declared Pho connoisseur. I had some bad ones though, but I also had some superb ones.
My favourite was a little corner stall in the Old Quarter near the guest house I stayed in. It’s main item was Pho with generous pieces of duck meat, laced with thinly-sliced, crunchy bamboo shoots. Complemented by lethal chillis and Vietnamese tea, nothing could be more fufilling …especially the end of the meal — when you’ve just slurped in the last strand of noodle, spooned off the last bit of soup from the bottom of the bowl; and the tannic finish of warm, yellow tea the perfect neutraliser of whatever oily aftertastes there may be left.
All this while, cars and motorcyles are zipping by just a few feet away from where you are sitting on a low stool — and women peddlers in their familiar conical hats, hurrying by with their wares on 2 baskets balanced on a bamboo pole; peddlers on bicycles loaded with so much goods that, from the back, only their feet can be seen, calf muscles straining with every pedal stroke…
As if to maintain an inner balance, the Viets have another dish called Bun Cho, or skewered barbequed meat, to provide a smokey contrast to the clear, soupy Pho. The fragrant smoke that wafts up from little BBQ pits on virtually every corner fights for the olfactory attention of passers-by. Enjoy it straight off the pit if you like or in the weirdest combination of all — pieces of the burnt meat swimming in a bowl of overly sweet soup, accompanied by rice noodles that you dip into for taste. I didn’t like this one though …
When Vietnam’s French colonial masters left for good (after their humiliating defeat at the infamous Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1953), they left behind some very endearing legacies — their architecture would be chief of these (think French windows); coffee, naturally; and, that most delectable one of all — the humble baguette.
I had my fill of these and I never quite tire of it when I was wheeling through Vietnam and Laos. The fillings, are of course, what make it delightfully tasty. One memorable baguette sandwich I enjoyed while walking the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter turned out to be a heart-attack inducing version – with strips of pure lard (I didn’t know it was lard then, but I did wonder why oil was dripping down my hand from the warm confines of the sandwich) together with fried eggs and leafy greens. It had the unmistakeably yeasty smell of freshly-baked bread … and it was heavenly.
Drifting from street corner to street corner, I had my fill of food and drink. I also drank copious amounts of Vietnamese coffee – sweet, rich and sometimes so thick you could stand a spoon in it. Hot or with ice, it made no difference – I was in caffeine nirvana. Brewed the Vietnamese way, using a small metal percolator that dripped ever so slowly, Vietnamese coffee stands on its own in taste and aroma. It’s definitely not for casual coffee drinkers. This is one instance when thin is not in. Espresso lovers will quickly develop a fondness for these brews.
Cycling around Hanoi, evading the onslaught of trigger-happy motorists, taking in the sights — one would invariably work up a healthy thirst. Water was fine and usually did the trick but nothing I had ever imbibed, especially after a few kilometres in the noonday sun, could compare to the golden brew the Vietnamese call bia hoi.
Bia hoi isn’t a brand. Rather, it’s a term for freshly-made draft beer. Three major breweries in town make bia hoi: Hanoi Brewery, Viet Ha Brewery and South East Asia Brewery. But, if you happened to spy the containers that dispense this delectable liquid, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was made at the back of the shop. They were nothing fancy – just big, battered metal drums with a tap at the base.
I still remember the first time I tried it. It was after dinner and I passed by a sidewalk establishment that was crowded to the brim. There were no empty tables, and they were all locals — red-faced, loud and boisterous in their speech; and animated in their gestures. Practically everyone had a glass of bia hoi in hand.
I sat down on an empty seat behind a girl working the tap of the bia hoi barrel; caught the eye of a waitress and pointed at the bia hoi dispenser’s direction and then held up straight one forefinger. A cold glass of bia hoi was quickly served.
It looked promising; in fact, it looked more like a super-light lager, with a nice rich head. I took a sip. It was light, crisp, fresh, very palatable and very, very smooth. I was impressed. But what really floored me was the price – 3,000 Dong – or RM0.60! No wonder they run out of bia hoi way before the patrons run out of conversation topics.
Another great thing about bia hoi is its low alcohol content — about 2-3%. You would have to drink quite a few glasses to lose your sobriety. Well, I wasn’t complaining. As I said, what could be better (and cheaper) than a glass of refreshingly tasty and chilled beer that was low in alcohol to cool you down? Of course, I can’t vouch for the Aussies who seemed to drink bia hoi like it was water … well, it probably was water to them.
Rows of plastic chairs would line the front facades of these 3 stalls, and when chillin’ hour was high (usually after dinner) they would enthusiastically spill over into the street. Once, when I was chatting with an American couple, the police enforced the law on obstructing traffic; and amidst the shrill blasts of police whistles, everyone would get up, beer in hand, and squeezed as legally as possible onto the sidewalk. Of course, when the police left, everyone moved right back where they were before.
So much for respecting the law. One more bia hoi, please!