I first tasted the sour, sweet, savoury and fragrant cuisine that is Vietnamese food in Song Que restaurant on the Kingsland Road in east London. It was there one dark and resolutely grim Shoreditch night that my palate was ignited by the herbal deliciousness of grilled beef wrapped in betal leaf and soft shell crab tempura with chilli and garlic. I was sold. Instantly. Downstairs below the restaurant by the toilets, hidden among makeshift walls of Tupperware and cardboard boxes, a small Vietnamese man was asleep on a bed – the pictures from a flickering television lighting up his face. He was literally living, breathing and sleeping his family’s restaurant. Ever since that night I’ve been fascinated by the idea of travelling to Vietnam and tasting this incredibly resilient and optimistic country’s varied and vibrant cuisine at first hand, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past week.
I landed in Hanoi, where, after meeting up with my long-lost pal and Singapore Rough Guide updater @Gemtakina, I joined local photographer Dave Lemke to record an audio slideshow for the Guardian’s travel section on street food in Hanoi. There was a lot of ground to cover, because, like a lot of things in Vietnam’s capital city, the best food here happens on the street. From women crouching on the sidewalk with tiny little stoves and woks, to the street kitchens with huge bubbling vats of steaming stock and its various cafes and patisseries (a legacy of the French occupation) – people are making, selling and living food everywhere you look. You can’t move for pho (pronounced fur) shops where you can slurp on Hanoi’s signature dish – the long rice noodles and thinly shaved rare beef swimming in fresh bowls of hot, sour stock, seasoned to a tangy sharpness with hunks of lime and given added crunch and heat by handfuls of bean sprouts and chillies.
It’s at night though that the streets really come alive, and the cool and surprisingly progressive young Hanoians drive around the town on their mopeds and gather in their hundreds to sit on tiny little plastic stools (not really even big enough for one of this writer’s hefty buttocks) and drink coffee, beer and rice wine, chomp on sunflower seeds and slurp on sua chua thach – a floral, creamy, sweet dessert drink made with yoghurt, candied fruit and cubes of jelly.
From Hanoi we travelled to Halong Bay – one of Vietnam’s most impressive natural wonders – an expanse of calm emerald water from which huge limestone towers rise. The drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay is about three hours but you can lose yourself in the scenery and catch a real glimpse of rural life in Vietnam. Miles of rice and paddy fields, lush greenery and rural architecture stretch before you and out in the fields, local people in the famous conical hats are bent double, harvesting the crop from the sodden, misted land and gathering the neatly planted herbs and salad so integral to Vietnamese cuisine.
We boarded the Jewel of the Bay junk (the only painted boat in a sea of dark wooden vessels) in the Halong Bay seaboard and were greeted immediately by the delicious smells of the boat’s tiny kitchen cabin. Lunch was my idea of heaven – small sea crabs lightly boiled and served simply with just dishes of sea salt and chunks of lime. Sucking the fresh, nutty white flesh from the crab shells as the huge limestone plinths loomed outside was an experience I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Next came a bowl heaped with salt and pepper squid – not the heavy, rubbery deep fried stuff you get in England but soft, buttery-light morsels of fresh and delicious calamari. Banana flower salad was the accompaniment – a traditional Vietnamese dish of finely chopped banana flower with grated carrot, fish sauce and chilli vinaigrette and crushed toasted peanuts. Crunchy, piquant and deliciously fresh!
But it wasn’t just the food on the boat that was exceptional – the company was too. We met a fantastic couple called Ravi and Rob from London who shared their tales of the market food at the Mekong Delta, but it was Olly, a sixty-something German man travelling alone, who stole the show with his unforgettably emphatic rendition of Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ up on deck – complete with the famous thigh slapping dance moves. I’ll leave it there for now – but watch out for the street food slideshow and some location blogs from the Spectator Scoff! website.