With street food being such a defining feature of Hanoi, it’s no surprise that a variety of tours here explore the world of the 10-inch plastic stool. We’ve checked out a few of the options, starting with Hanoi Cooking Centre (HCC).
HCC was opened in 2009 by chef Tracey Lister, co-author of KOTO: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam and Vietnamese Street Food. Its “street eats and market tour” runs every morning, starting from its cooking centre near Truc Bach Lake. I turned up just before 09:00, as instructed, and waited in the lovely courtyard with the two other participants and those waiting for the morning’s cooking class. While waiting we were introduced to the tea we were drinking and Tracey geared us up for the day by providing an overview of the market and interesting trivia — most meat goes from slaughter to plate in three hours, for starters.
The tour started with a steaming bowl of pho across the road. While enjoying our pho bo tai (rare beef) and pho bo chin (with well cooked beef), our guide, KOTO-trained chef Y, explained the process of cooking the stock. For beef pho, it takes upward of 14 hours to make, so it’s no wonder few cook it at home, instead tucking in at one of their neighbourhood pho stalls.
After breakfast we headed to Chau Long market, a short walk from the cooking centre, pausing along the way for Y to point out and tell us about other street food dishes, as well as stalls grinding flour and selling cooked meats, rice and groceries. Although I have visited Chau Long market many times, being there with an informative guide opened my eyes to what else was available as well as providing an excuse to wander around slowly and take photos. Throughout the visit Y encouraged us to try some of the produce on offer: we ate sticky rice and mung bean buns (like a very sticky donut), cooked pork wrapped in sticky rice and fried grubs from a com binh dan stall.
Market visit over, we walked for 15 minutes or so into Old Quarter. Our first stop was at Ga Tan Mai Huong, for small white and black chickens cooked in a herbal broth. The birds are steamed in beer and soft drink cans and I promise they taste better than they look. It was also an opportunity to eat trung vit long — fertilised duck egg — which really isn’t as bad as it sounds (I went back for seconds).
Next stop was for banh cuon, steamed rice pancakes wrapped around mushrooms and pork or chicken, and served with fresh herbs and a dipping sauce. It’s simple, but delicious. We were also able to watch the chefs up front working, and Y introduced us to cricket oil: an expensive oil extracted from crickets which could be added to the dipping sauce for 5,000 VND a drop. We gave it a go — not to our liking — but turned down the fried crickets.
Despite full bellies, there was plenty more to come. We walked through the heart of Old Quarter to an alleyway overflowing with food stalls. Pushing past motorbikes and barbecue stoves through the lunchtime rush, we plonked ourselves onto a wooden bench and were served bun cha. The pork patties had been wrapped in la lot leaf, making an enjoyable change from the standard, and the dipping sauce was spot on.
We moved on, but not far: a few stalls down we squeezed onto a crowded bench for pho tieu, a southern dish that has migrated north and “been made better in Hanoi”. Comprising pho noodles, cooked pork, peanuts, fried shallots and herbs, and served with a tasty broth, it’s like a porky version of bun bo nam bo. By this time we were struggling to fit more in but we always have room for dessert, right?
At the che stall further down the alley, Y ordered three different dishes: yoghurt with fermented rice, creme caramel with various toppings and mixed che. We each had our favourites and managed to squeeze a respectable amount in. The Old Quarter part of the tour finished with bia hoi and nem chua (fermented pork sticks) next to Dong Xuan market, before we walked back to Truc Bach, stopping for coffee on the way.
It’s difficult to choose a highlight as each stop was both an experience and delicious. Two things overall however made this tour excellent and recommended. Firstly, the range of dishes we tried was great: we stopped at five street stalls, tried a few snacks in the market and drank bia hoi and Vietnamese coffee. And secondly, our guide Y was very personable, knowledgeable and informative.
The tour cost US$55 or 1,160,000 VND, including all food and drink. It’s certainly not something you’ll do if you’re on a tight budget, but it’s not the most expensive tour of its kind on offer, either. At over four hours’ long, it’s relatively good value for money compared with the cheaper, shorter tours.
Note that apart from the pho and the drinks, all dishes were shared, but unless you have the appetite of a horse that’ll be plenty. Three people joined the tour I was on, which was a good number, but they will take larger groups, so there’s no guarantee when you book as to how many people will join.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 30th January, 2015.