Hold the greens

Frozen yoghurt on bia hoi corner, Hanoi Old Quarter

This post is about the food I have eaten in Vietnam rather than about Vietnamese food in general. My food range is far more limited than the dishes Vietnam offers as I am a fairly squeamish eater in a country where just about every part of just about every animal is consumed. So I haven’t tried duck broth with congealed blood, for example, or snake, or dog, or those breakfast boiled eggs with the chick  cooked inside.

For a takeaway breakfast I prefer banh mi trung (literally bread egg). It’s a crusty bread roll filled with an omelette cooked while you wait, plus a smattering of picked vegetables, what appears to shredded dried fish, and chilli sauce. Not bad at all.

Bun cha is a common lunch dish. The main ingredients are barbecued pork and pork patties in a broth that’s sometimes served hot and sometimes cold, also often accompanied by fried spring rolls (nem). There’s usually a side-bowl heaped with lettuce and herbs. They add some green stuff to a dish that is otherwise meat and rice, but there’s a widespread view among foreigners that they make you sick. I have also been told that many locals have the same view, and certainly at the place I frequent many leave the greens bowls untouched. I regretfully decided to follow their lead since seeing bowls of the leftovers, potentially picked over by various sets of chopsticks, tipped into a big plastic bag for re-serving to other diners.

Pho bo (beef noodle soup) is a Hanoi specialty. There are supposed to be 24 ingredients in classic pho, including spices, although I would have trouble identifying that number in my pho haunt near work, where a bowl costs 17,000 dong (A$1). A restaurant chain here is called Pho 24, after the number of ingredients. It’s a much more upmarket venue for sampling pho -no squatting on small plastic stools at small plastic tables – and is also two or three times the price – all of 42,000 dong (A$2.50).

Its website  gives a rundown on pho and its ingredients. Did you know, for example, that one of those ingredients, star anise, contains shikimic acid, which is used in the production of  Tamiflu? Now you do.

Pho ga is the chicken version, which I sometimes have for lunch in the tiny restaurant across the road from my home. It’s like many such places in Hanoi: one dish is served, in a “restaurant” that’s actually a family’s front room and adjoining pavement. After lunch everything is packed away until the next day. This family’s pho ga always comes with tender chicken breast – no gristle, bone or fat. It’s a pick-me-up in a bowl, all for 15,000 dong (A85c), followed by iced tea for 1000 dong (A6c).

However, pho is a little on the bland side, like a lot of the food I have tried in Hanoi. The cuisine is “subtle”, say the guidebooks. Fortunately there are jars or bottles of chilli sauce on the tables in many places so some zing can be added that way.

Bun rieu dau phu is spicier. Bun rieu is a soup with rice noodles, crab meat, tomatoes and, in this version, fried tofu (dau phu). It’s reasonably hot already without the addition of extra chilli sauce – although I usually do add some. The place I go to serves shredded lettuce in a side dish, for the strong of stomach. I ate litres of the stuff in Hanoi’s short but chilly winter.

Dessert? Frozen yoghurt cafes are popping up all over the place. My favourite one, Yokool, is situated on one corner of a busy crossroads in the Old Quarter that’s known as bia hoi corner by foreigners. It’s named after the outdoor bars on the other three corners, which sell bia hoi (draught beer) and are very popular with backpackers. At Yokool you choose the frozen yoghurt (such as blackberry, blueberry or strawberry), which is piped into a tub, and then the toppings – nuts, sweets, chocolates and chopped fruit. Then sit in the window and watch all Hanoi go by.

To find out about the Hanoi dishes consumed by a far more adventurous eater check out the popular Sticky Rice food blog.


1 Comment

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One response to “Hold the greens

  1. meredith

    Sounds great Jeannie – no yoghurt frozen or otherwise when I was there in 1994. But I would definitely beware of the greens along with everything else! Hopefully better now but stomach problems were a major health problem for the locals let alone the foreigners.

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