Continuing my exploration of street food tours in Hanoi, I booked onto an afternoon tour with Hanoi Street Food Tours, run by Mark Lowerson, of Sticky Rice fame, and Van Cong Tu, the “Vietnamese God“. Bring on three hours of snacking heaven.
Mark has been in Hanoi since 2002 and writing his food blog, Sticky Rice, since 2005. Eleven years in Hanoi has allowed him to amass a wealth of knowledge about street food — the what and the where. Tu is also a food writer and “local hospitality industry insider” with an enormous passion for his country’s food and culture. Together they offer a range of private street food and market tours in Hanoi. My tour was with Mark.
We started our tour in Day Duy Tu Street in Old Quarter at a street stall serving nem cua be: large, square, deep-fried spring roll parcels filled with crab, mushrooms and glass noodles, chopped into quarters and served with a side of bun noodles, fresh herbs and a dipping sauce. While we ate, Mark talked me through the ingredients and the different herbs and we chatted about Hanoi and street food in general. He is clearly very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about food and I was already highly engaged and raring to go.
It was then time for our first sweet stop of the day: cha chanh (lemon iced tea) and a side order of che choui (banana che). I’m a big fan of che and this was a delicious variation, with chunks of banana and tiny globes of tapioca served in a light creamy sauce. That’s as technical as I get, but it was good. My resolve to not eat everything put in front of me started to wilt.
Further up the road we tried banh gio (rice and pork steamed dumplings). Mark told me he’d never particularly liked these but had then found this stall and was converted. It certainly wasn’t the most visually appealing plate of food I’d ever seen, and the texture was unusual in the context of savoury food — being reminiscent of blancmange — but there was something very addictive about it, particularly with a good squirt of chilli sauce.
Next, towards Dong Xuan market, we stopped briefly to try two sweets: well, Mark planned on a takeaway che con ong (sticky rice cake with ginger) but I was keen to try banh troi tau — pretty mini dumplings with a chunk of palm sugar at their heart, adding a surprising and fulfilling sweet crunch to otherwise bland chewiness — and they were definitely worth a go, although I challenge anyone to eat a full portion without being sick.
Continuing our sweet-savoury pattern, we next tried banh tom (shrimp and yam fritters). These blew those I’d previously tried in Tay Ho out of the water. Never again will I eat re-fried banh tom when I can eat freshly cooked, crunchy morsels with a side of herbs and dipping sauce.
All this time we were in central Old Quarter, an excellent area for food where it felt like we were never further than a few metres from a street food stall or fresh food vendor. As we walked Mark pointed out different dishes and ingredients and answered my probing questions with aplomb.
Our next few stops, however, took us out of Old Quarter, though just to the north. I tried young sticky rice cake, traditionally bought for ceremonial occasions; heavenly cafe trung da (coffee with egg, served with ice); banh bao chien (fried steamed buns with quail egg and minced pork) and sua chua nep cam (yoghurt with fermented rice), from where Mark assured me was the best place to get it in Hanoi.
Although I’d tried most of these last batch of dishes before, the ice added an extra dimension to the cafe trung da, the roadside location — our stools were placed under the awning of a pharmacy as it had started to rain — enhanced the sua chua nep cam experience, and the place we visited for banh bao chien was somewhere I went years ago but had never been able to find again (thank you Mark!).
By this time we had been eating for about 2.5 hours and I was well and truly stuffed, but there was one last stop: beer. Due to the rain it was impossible to get a taxi, so we ended up walking back through Old Quarter to Cafe Pho Co, overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake. The view wasn’t as pleasant as it would have been on a clear day, but the beer was a good wrap up to the day — although half a bottle in and I needed to declare defeat.
A market visit is usually involved in Mark and Tu’s tours, so as he took me home Mark showed me a market near my house and introduced me to his favourite vendors. They usually select a market convenient to the tour.
The experience was altogether fantastic — there was not a moment that I didn’t enjoy. The food was varied, unusual and delicious and Mark was an informed, passionate, engaging and very easy to talk to guide. It really was all about the food and that’s how it should be. Reviews suggest that a tour with Tu is just as good an experience, although with a slightly different skew, given his background and rapport with the stallholders.
The three-hour tour costs US$75 per person and as it is a private tour, it’s up to you how many people you go along with. Four is the recommended maximum, in order to be able to fully engage with the street food experience, but more can be accommodated. Although I opted for the afternoon tour, the most popular tour runs from 09:00 till 12:00 — though tours can be arranged at any time of day and for one hour upwards. Details on how to book can be found on their website below.
Editor’s note: Mark is a friend of Travelfish.org having taken us for some kind of fried snackie years ago in Hanoi and, when Sarah got in touch to book this tour, he guessed she was writing for us, so it wasn’t quite as anonymous as the other food trips Sarah has covered in Hanoi.
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