Most popular during the cooler months
Lau — pronounced something like ‘low’ — is perhaps one of the most popular dishes in Hanoi, particularly in the cooler months. It’s a similar set up to that seen in other countries in the region (I recall a particularly good experience in the Perhentians): a pan of simmering stock is put on a gas stove on the table and diners cook their own beef, chicken, fish, noodles, veggies and so on. It’s a very social meal, fitting perfectly with Vietnamese eating culture.
It’s widely available around town, including at bia hoi joints; the place on Hang Tre I mentioned in my bia hoi post was doing a roaring trade on my last visit but there are a couple of places where it’s dominant — “lau streets”, if you will.
Nearest to Old Quarter is Phung Hung, on the western edge of Old Quarter, where at least half a dozen places vie for attention. It’s also near to Food Street, which has a few lau options also.
Slightly further afield, but definitely worth the trek — although I’m biased as it’s my home — is Truc Bach. Running along the northeastern edge of Truc Bach lake, Truc Bach street is lined with lau restaurants, all with tables and mats set out along the lakeside. Plenty of places, many with higher seating, are located along the parallel street, Pho Duc Chinh.
One thing to note about streets lined with lau restaurants: they can be hazardous for drivers. Seriously. It seems that the restaurants’ marketing approach comprises their staff jumping out into the street in front of oncoming vehicles and trying to pull potential diners into their place. Fortunately of course the traffic moves slowly in Hanoi, so I’ve not seen any injuries, but I try to avoid driving along said roads at peak lau dining time. Which is the evening, so you know.
Back to the lau. The menu choice depends on the place but usually you’ll have a choice of one type of meat/fish, or mixed, or whatever the specialty of the area is — frog (ech) is widely available here for example. You’ll be served a platter of thinly sliced protein, along with vegetables and a block of noodles, usually the yellow, egg variety. Either drop the food into the stock and wait for a few minutes while it cooks, or use the slotted spoon to hold meat or fish in — it saves chasing it around the pan. Usually people eat the goodies then finish off with a bit of stock – drunk out of the bowl, not with a spoon. Have a look around and follow the trend but there’s not really a wrong way to do it as far as I can tell.
One other addition I experienced in my first Hanoian hotpot was unfertilised eggs. They were cracked into the stock and poached. I ate it, yes. Would I again? Probably not. But you can read more about that delicacy over on the Saigon blog.
As for price, sometimes you can order a certain sized portion and share it between however many people you are, other times they will bring enough for everyone and price it accordingly. It’s difficult to give an estimate as it depends on location, ingredients, how hungry you are, and so on, but budget for around maybe 150,000 VND per person. Make sure you check the price first, particularly in the touristy parts of town.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 28th January, 2015.