Monday, May 20, 2019

Wild Food Tour on the Streets of Hanoi, Vietnam

I'll call it yesterday but "days" have lost meaning after our 24 hour flight to Hong Kong.

Having been eight friggin hours delayed, Cathay Pacific had a table set up outside the gate to help people get rebooked. The flight to Vietnam we had reserved, however, was not with Cathay Pacific. So Cathay would not help us, nor would the airline we booked our next flight to, and so we were screwed.

I made the gate agents give me this certificate saying that the flight was delayed. I didn't really expect it to give me any advantages but I guess it's a nice souvenir.

Back in the main departures area we tried to get help from the Cathay help desk. They also told us to screw off. It was especially annoying because the captain apologized for the stupid long delay about 40 times, then when it came time for them to actually fix the problem they'd created for us... it turned out they were only theoretically sorry.

I was amused by the signs in Hong Kong International Airport for both drinking water and hot drinking water.

Well the first order of business was to buy a new set of frigging plane tickets, for $1200. That was a bummer but at this point it was spilled milk. Our hotel was already booked in Hanoi, and we had adventuring to do.

Next we popped over to an airport lounge for some free refreshments.

These marinated hard boiled eggs were not good, but now I know. Now I know.

Hong Kong Airlines had a pretty low bar to clear. Don't trap us on board for 8 hours and then fly us to Japan instead of Vietnam. Then they would win the game.

What if I die?

The one thing lifting my spirits at this point was all of the dong references I would soon be able to slip into conversation.

Finally we made it to our destination: Hanoi, capital city of Vietnam.

We traversed the Nhật Tân Bridge (or Vietnam–Japan Friendship Bridge) to get from Noi Bai International Airport to Hanoi. It was colorful.

It was not very difficult for Hanoi to blow my expectations out of the water. As an American about 95% of the images I've ever seen of Vietnam have been from during the Vietnam War, known around these parts as the Resistance War Against America. Having such a low bar in my head meant everything here felt extra awesome.

When both us and the driver got out of the cab to fish our luggage out of the trunk the car started rolling down the street. Well, this was going to be fun.

At the Hanoi E Central Hotel the Lay's were in an unfamiliar package and I needed to sit down. I was overcome by all the culture shocks.

A central reason that we were annoyed by all of the travel delays was that they blew up our Hanoi food tour plans. We had really been stressing about missing the tour, which we'd already paid for, and were trying to contact the tour company to see what we could do about it. The company regretted to inform us that since we'd missed our group tour time that we would have to book a private tour. We braced ourselves waiting to find out what that was going to cost us, on top of having to buy a new plane ticket. Drumroll.... $5. Upgrading to a private tour cost $5 for both of us. I thought... I could get used to prices like those.

Our guide, Luke Tran, was waiting for us in the hotel lobby when we checked in. We essentially ran upstairs and splashed some water on our faces before hitting the city streets. I assume I smelled fantastic. It's times like this when I'm glad that I'm doing these crazy things now. There may come a day when I have a peg leg or something and I can't travel for two days straight, rest zero minutes, take zero showers, and then trek all over a city cramming my face with food.

Our first stop was Net Hue. I guess Hue is a city in Central Vietnam and this was that style of food. As I just stepped off the boat and had no idea what Northern Vietnamese food style was like either, that information didn't mean anything to me.

I had to stop and check out all of the dishes of stuff that was visible before I took a seat. Vietnamese restaurants always have a lot to look at.

The menu had a fun introductory page in sweet, sweet English:

"Hue is the Imperial pearl of Vietnam, with Huong river, Ngu mountain, with the warmest and nicest people of the Earth and their urge to give you everything Hue's culinary has to offer, with their own traditional recipes.

If you have had the chance to visit Hue, you must haven't forgotten about Hue's culinary that is harmonious yet bold, dishes that are sophisticated yet idyllic, and dish decoration that is beautiful yet so simple and pure.

Carrying our deepest love for the Imperial City, Net Hue restaurant brings the most authentic taste of Hue's culinary to Hanoian foodies through many vermicelli dishes with the most savory sauce, through simple wraps and rolls that are so simple to make yet packed so many flavors, and last but no least, we can't forget Hue's sweet soup desserts that will melt your heart.

We as the Net Hue restaurant are happy to have the honor to bring you the essence of Hue cuisine, and we hope that you will love this Imperial City with the sincerest heart.

Sincerely yours, 
Net Hue Restaurant"

Nem lui was listed on the menu as "grilled ground pork with lemongrass" but that description was insufficient to say the least. Lucky for us we had a guide, because there was a whole process to doing this right. The mission at hand was to make our own little spring roll type wrap with the plethora of ingredients before us. The first step was to get a little sheet of rice paper and then pull the lemongrass skewer out of one of the ground pork guys.

Our dude then proceeded to ram a small slice of pineapple up the hole the skewer left.

Then came adding on the thin strands of rice vermicelli, lightly pickled strings of carrot and green papaya, cucumbers, herbs and a new addition to my mouth: trai va, a type of green fig that I believe had also been pickled. It was tricky to add all of those delicious things in small enough portions to then do the cigar rolling at the end. If you failed at this part then it made dipping them in the various sauces a lot more difficult. I think one was peanut based and the other was fish sauce. All of it was great.

The whole "let's cram 74 flavors into one dish" style was definitely a change of pace for me but it worked well.

It was good but we were both wincing a little at how much handling of the food was necessary. I washed my hands but I have to assume they are still dirty.

I was highly amused by the several "how to sit on a toilet" signs I kept seeing in the restrooms.

Walking between the different restaurants was almost as fun as the restaurants themselves. There was a lot of life happening in this city. 

Food tours are just the best thing ever. There's no way I would have seen a quarter of these places on my own. And even if I had found them there would be little to stop me from ordering the chicken strips at a place that's famous for beef. The next place was the sort of joint that I never ever would have found. A fun thing about this restaurant was that the family lived there. A couple of the family's teenagers were sitting outside staring boredly at their cellphones.

I could see where they slept from my table. I thought that was nice and intimate. The retro Coke ads were a nice touch as well. One thing I learned from the Coke prices on the menu is that in Vietnamese chai is bottle and lon is can.

We were here for the bun cha, which was kind of like a meatball and pork belly soup that you dunked lettuce and noodles into... just eating it was like conducting a small orchestra. There were a lot of things going on. Theses people do not play when it comes to fresh herbs. Just with this one dish there was lettuce, cilantro, mint, and perilla. At this point our dude told us an enlightening story about how the Vietnamese picked up the yin and yang philosophy of balance during the Chinese occupation and then applied those principles to their cooking. He said that's why there's often so much mixing of things going on: hot and cold, wet and dry, sweet and savory, and so on.

And how wholesome is it that the condiments are a bowl full of fresh limes and a bowl full of peppers? No bottles of goop from a factory somewhere on the table like in the US.

But there was no time. On to the next place!

Hee hee

Long Vi Dung's sign advertised Nom Thit Bo Kho in giant letters. Let's see what all the fuss is about, shall we?

Nom Thit Bo Kho's translation of dried beef salad ended up being pretty apt.

Pretty much every outdoor restaurant we went to was rocking these tiny plastic chairs that I expected to break everytime I sat down.

Look at this beauty. There was wet beef, dry beef.. lots of beef. The dried beef was just like beef jerky. Underneath this meaty mountain sat crunchy green papaya and an assortment of herbs. There was a generous sprinkling of peanuts on top to round it out. 

The roads in Hanoi were excellent but the traffic.. oh man. Motorbikes were everywhere and they seemed to simply ignore traffic lights. There was lots of honking. Every crossing of the street was a low grade risk of your life. If you waited for a gap in traffic you'd wait forever. And traffic was not going to stop for you. So the thing to do was just walk into the street at a steady pace so the cars and motorbikes could zoom behind and in front of you while you walked. While in the US it's like beaten into us to always "look both ways", here it was almost better to not look. It would only freak you out. Maybe always being an inch away from death in Hanoi makes the food taste better?

We mixed in a little sightseeing at Hoan Kiem Lake which is literally Lake of the Returned Sword. I'll let Wikipedia handle the legending:

"According to the legend, in early 1428, Emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when a Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui) surfaced and asked for his magic sword, Heaven's Will. Lợi concluded that Kim Qui had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local God, the Dragon King (Long Vương) had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against Ming China. Later, the Emperor gave the sword back to the turtle after he finished fighting off the Chinese. Emperor Lợi renamed the lake to commemorate this event, from its former name Luc Thuy meaning "Green Water". The Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) standing on a small island near the centre of lake is linked to the legend. The first name of Hoàn Kiếm lake is Tả Vọng, when the King hadn't given the Magical Sword back to the Golden Turtle God (Cụ Rùa)."

Anyway enough of that. Who's hungry?

Pho is like one of two Vietnamese foods that I'd heard of before coming here so it was nice to be able to give it a try.

The chicken and noodles soup was good but was definitely an understated taste compared with our previous mini meals. Mr. guide man showed us a trick where he squeezed the limes not directly into the soup but into a spoon, then tipped the spoon against the side of the bowl in order to strain out the seeds. The guy was a pro.

The Hanoi philosophy on power lines was very similar to their feelings on traffic.

A walk down a dark alley gave little peeks of Hanoi life. We walked past this guy doing his dishes outside.

This lady's little meat skewer street stall might have been my favorite. She was super cheerful, and the fact that she was standing right there skewering meant that we had a little opportunity to chat. I asked, translated through tour dude, how long she had been in the meat on a stick game. She replied: forty years. 4-0 years of heating up stick meat on the street. Crazy.

This was our first chance to actually make a choice of our own so I didn't want to blow it. I picked the stuff on the far right because she had the most of it and some of it was already warming on the grill. I had a sense that this was the popular choice. It was something we wouldn't usually eat.. skin or tripe or something, but it was fine.

Lydia on the other hand, thought she was too good for mystery chunks and picked what she thought was shrimp.

But it was something else formed into the shape of a shrimp... it may have been vegetarian. I can tell you for certain one thing that it was not: a thing that tasted good. Lydia tried to get me to finish these mystery lumps for her but I politely declined.

There was banh mi on delicious bread. It showed a little bit of Vietnam's French heritage.

I learned some more important Vietnamese key words: pho bo is the beef soup while pho ga is the chicken.

We passed a storefront with some snakes and other freakshow animals sleeping in booze. I asked Luke if he liked this sort of thing and he informed us that snake liquor is a remedy for old people. Young people drink snake blood liquor. #YoungBlood

Last but not least we headed to a dessert spot.

We just got this menu dumped on us. It was full of exciting looking oddities front and back. How to choose??

We really couldn't go wrong with this sticky rice with coconut ice cream. It came topped with both fresh and toasted varieties of coconut on top.

We also got the banana pudding which I liked less. It was like someone chopped up bananas, put them on their cereal, then removed the cereal.

There's a hot pink New York Steak restaurant across from the hotel.

I was ready to sleep for about a week.

Back at the hotel I watched the last episode of Game of Thrones. I couldn't wait until I returned to St. Louis because social media had become a pit of spoilers and villainy.

I’m likely carrying 5 foodborne illnesses at this point, but it was worth it.

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