Street food delights of Northern Vietnam
The second part of my trip in Vietnam took me through Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, and I decided to focus on food even a bit more by taking an official street food tour and a cooking class. (I did both with Hanoi Cooking Centre, which is pricier than other places but worth it) I was able to see an incredible amount of food this way that I definitely wouldn’t have been able to find without an expert guide leading me into back alleys of Hanoi.
We started off the morning with a pho breakfast. The pho comes with these fried doughnut type things that you dunk in it. They looked like they would be yummy but they were actually pretty bland and you really had to dunk it in the pho to give it any flavour.
I got some chicken pho, which was served with liberal amounts of fresh herbs and lime on the side. It seems like it might be a bit of an odd breakfast, but it’s hearty and delicious, and the broth was perfect.
Next, we went to a Banh Cuon station, which consisted of a lady working with machine-like efficiency to produce the thinnest rice crepes I’ve ever seen in my life. The lady on the left then filled them with a mixture of pork or chicken and would roll them up. I could have watched them do this for hours – they were that good.
The finished Banh Cuon which of course has more fresh herbs on the top. These were so addictive. If I can find a Vietnamese restaurant anywhere else in the world that serves this, I will be so grateful. I’ve never had anything like it before and it was the perfect mix of super light outer shell and hearty inner filling and had such great texture. Delicious!
We then went to another street food alley to test out some other delicacies…these were not my favorite. They were these prawn cakes that you dipped in the sauce and wrapped in a fresh lettuce leaf. I don’t like fried things that much but these would have been ok had they not had the entire prawn (like, shell and all) in them – it was just a biiit too crunchy for my taste!
These were incredible though. Barbecued pork on wooden skewers was grilled on a tiny grill in the alley and they served with more fresh herbs. (The emphasis on fresh herbs in Vietnamese cuisine is fantastic.) On the right are some fried spring rolls, but they were fat rather than thinly rolled and didn’t look like any type of spring roll I’d seen before.
Here was how the above were served – the pork was taken off the skewers and put in a fish sauce broth with vermicelli noodles on the side – you took a piece of pork with the noodles and piled it into fresh lettuce and herbs to eat. The spring roll is on the right cut up and it was unbelievably good – seriously the best spring roll I’ve ever had.
So Vietnamese people are not really into dessert (they don’t eat any chocolate?!?!), but they like to have the above as a snack anytime of day, and this is about as sweet as it gets. Basically, there are a bunch of stands around various streets where you point at a bowl and get that spooned into your own bowl. The bowls above consisted of some of the following: jackfruit, tapioca balls, coconut, mango, corn (???)…
So you choose all the flavors you want and then they pour some condensed milk in and also give you a bowl of crushed ice on the side, and you put the ice in the bowl and spoon it up. It looked really weird and I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I actually kind of did. I mean, I’d take a chocolate chip cookie any day over this soupy bowl of weird stuff, but it was certainly interesting!
One of the other nights, I searched the streets near my hostel to find some street food and found this incredibly crowded place with only Vietnamese people at the tiny plastic tables out of the street, so figured I’d give it a shot. Turns out it’s a very famous sticky rice place – you basically order a bowl of sticky rice and they put various things on top of it – I just got some boiled chicken on top of mine but I think you can get eggs and pork and other things (I really had no idea since the menu was not in English). They serve it with a side of cucumbers and it certainly was the best sticky rice I’ve ever had. It was incredibly filling and the side of cucumber salad was fresh and delicious. And of course, the entire meal was 3 dollars.
When I did my cooking class the following day, my guide insisted on getting some of these silk worms at the market to show me that in fact I could eat and enjoy bugs. I was VERY skeptical, to say the least. But the Vietnamese eat these bugs all the time and apparently they are an excellent source of protein…
But she put them on a plate and I had to try one. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad and had I not known that I was eating an insect, I may have had more than one. But because I did know, I just couldn’t have more.
We made some delicious things – in the front is a banana flower salad, and in the back are seafood spring rolls and caramel pork. I liked the banana flower salad the most by far – it’s a lot like a green mango or green papaya salad (has a similar fish sauce dressing and has some prawns and pork in it) but the banana flowers add a wonderful texture and flavor. The spring rolls were ok – as I said I don’t like fried stuff that much so wished we could have made fresh rolls, but I did like the seafood mixture inside. And the pork was great because the caramel sauce was the perfect mix of sweet with the saltiness/fattiness of the pork. Yum.
For dessert, we made this soupy thing called Che – it was basically a mixture of black sesame seeds and peanuts pounded to a powder in a mortar and pestle, combined with coconut milk in a pot and simmered for a while. I know it just looks like a disgusting black mess but it was honestly delicious. One of my favorite Asian desserts that I had on the whole trip!
Of all the food I ate on the trip, I’d have to say what I ate in Vietnam definitely won (as much as I love Japanese food). The variety was so incredible and I felt like even with everything I ate, there were still so many interesting street foods that I hadn’t tried! Each place in Vietnam brought new tastes and experiences and I hope to get the chance to go back and try even more food there someday. Vietnamese food is about so much more than just pho and banh mi, and I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to experience so many aspects of delicious Vietnamese cuisine!