When Karen Shinto and I arrived in Hanoi, it was close to noon. After the hour or so ride to our hotel in the Old Quarter, we were famished for lunch. By the time we got into our room it was around 1:30pm. I was somewhat skeptical about finding a good lunch because people take early lunches in Vietnam and it’s easy to get lost in the Old Quarter. The streets are crowded, laid out like a maze, and their names change every few blocks. I had visions of us getting lost and being hangry.
Karen had been to Hanoi before, right before she styled my first cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. She hadn’t been back since 2005 and was eager to go with me. This was my third time to Hanoi. Saigon is more familiar to me but somehow, perhaps because my parents are both northerners and raised us on their northern Viet palate, I relish the Hanoi food. It’s often rustic and pure, not overly fussed up with ingredients. Delicate and balanced. I was eager, excited and willing.
So Karen and I headed out into the Old Quarter in search of a late lunch. I was looking for a pho joint but the one I wanted to try was closed. We wandered around the corner and I began to worry. It was close to 2pm and who the heck would be eating or serving lunch?
Karen walked at a fast clip with resolve; she crossed the streets of Vietnam without fear. I had to try to keep up with her, despite not knowing where we’d find a good meal.
Then I noticed that 2pm is about when a lot of the female food vendors take their breaks. A gaggle of them along with some office worker types were seated at a corner eating bun cha, a local specialty of grilled pork submerged in nuoc cham dipping sauce and served with bun round rice noodles, lettuce and herbs.
“Let’s eat where the women are eating,” I said to Karen. Approaching the bun cha vendor, I gave a respectful nod as a greeting. We found a couple of seats at a table and ordered a classic Hanoi meal of bun cha.
But wait, they also had fried cha gio rolls, which in Hanoi are called nem ran. In years past, I’d order cha gio in Hanoi and received quizzical looks because I hadn’t used the proper local term. This time, they knew exactly what we wanted. I was glad to see a relaxation of the regional food fight in Vietnam.
The fried rice paper rolls were delicious, filled with pork, mushroom and crab. Rice paper in Vietnam is wax-paper thin so the rolls fried up lightly and crisp.
As we ate on our plastic baby chairs, a cook started grilling more pork. She rigged up an old pot filled with charcoal and lit it on fire. An electric fan that had been used to cool customers was repositioned to fan the charcoal flames.
Once the coals were ready, the cook returned and squatted nearby to cook up the meat. Nothing fancy and it all happened fast. The fragrance was amazing, the embodiment of street food cooking and eating.
For a good bun cha to come together well, the warm pork needs to be submerged in a bowl of nuoc cham dipping sauce. The meat absorbs the sauce and the sauce absorbs the meat juices. The ladies cooked in smallish batches to turn things over at a decent pace and keep it fresh. That’s why it was such a darn good lunch.
Later on our trip we went to a bun cha spot in the Old Quarter that is beloved by tourists. The pork was so precooked that it was cold and lifeless. I should have lobbied to find our lady on the corner.
After the bun cha lunch Karen was full but I wanted a sweet snack or palate refresher. We bought fruit from one of our fellow bun cha customers who was a vendor; her oranges weren’t enough for me. I wanted che sweet soup. It’s very Vietnamese to pause for a little che snack in the middle of the afternoon. By then it was 3:30ish and were wandering.
Once again, I applied my theory of looking for where the women eat. There was a group gathered around a che vendor who busily filled orders as she presided over her various ingredients – cooked legumes, cooling grass jelly, lotus seed, tofu, sugar syrup, and ice. She operated at the front of a sewing shop.
I paused to watch her gracefully work in an orchestrated fashion, wielding ladles to fill tall glasses (sit-down customers) or plastic cups (to-go customers). Karen was snapping photos and it was getting awkward for me, standing there doing nothing.
One of the customers, an older, well-fed woman said to me, “Miss, you should try some. It’s good.” She pointed to a very low plastic stool next to her so I sat down.
“Do you come here often?” I asked her.
“Not regularly,” she said. “I was going by [on a motorbike], and decided to stop for some. This is old style che. It is filling and good. Not too much starchy tapioca stuff like the modern places. I like it.”
“What are you eating?” I asked her.
“Some of everything,” she said. “You can order whatever she has today. Or just order a glass with everything.”
“Chè thập cẩm?” I asked, using the term thap cam which means an assortment of things.
“Don’t order it that way. You may not truly get you everything,” she quipped. Then in a motherly fashion she advised me to order chè với đủ thứ (sweet soup with everything you got).
Very clear communication in Vietnam ensures that you get the food that you want. The kind, straight-up woman had by then finished her snack and quickly left, pointing to her stool for Karen to take her place.
Karen and I sat on our low baby stools for a few minutes. The vendor ignored us at first as if she didn’t know what to do with us, how to handle our business. I don’t look Vietnamese with my crazy hair and all so she may have thought it funny that I was able to speak the language. But then I place our orders for the works.
“To go?” she asked, assuming that we wouldn’t want to eat from a glass.
“No, from a glass,” I said, figuring that if she suspected us of being hygienic foreigners that she was likely keeping a pretty clean business herself.
She spooned ice into two glasses and then went about adding a spoonful of this and that, finishing with some fresh coconut. Karen surprisingly ate hers up. I was gleefully happy.
It was our first afternoon in Hanoi and I got to have quintessential eating experiences, all because I decided to lunch with the ladies of Hanoi.