It's 1.45 on a rainy afternoon in Hanoi and we are on the cusp of a spiritual experience. Outside, in the city's wonderfully chaotic Old Quarter, bikes whizz by, splashing puddles, and people hurry past the window clutching brightly coloured umbrellas. Inside this busy little restaurant on Ma May street, a no-frills but perennially popular establishment called New Day, my wife and I are about to have our first proper taste of Vietnamese food.
We have been looking forward to this moment for years. Living in London, we are regular visitors to a strip of Vietnamese restaurants along Kingsland Road in the east of the city. There, we’ve enjoyed some memorable dishes – sea bass with fish sauce and mango at Mien Tay, soft-shell crab and lotus-stem salad at Viet Grill – but we always felt we were missing out on the full experience. To truly understand Vietnamese cuisine, to savour the real deal, you’ve got to make a journey to the source.
Our flight to Hanoi arrived early – 6.30am – and on the 45-minute taxi ride in from the airport, we watched thousands of commuters flock citywards on motorcycles. By the time we’d crossed the Red River and plunged into the narrow streets of the old town, the city was wide awake – but we were exhausted from the overnight flight so we continued on to our hotel in the French Quarter and slept until lunchtime.
Now we were ready to begin our culinary adventures. At New Day, in a fit of enthusiasm, we ordered half the menu and, before long, our table was groaning with food: fresh salads, seafood soup, noodles with beef, soft-shell crab and the inevitable bowls of rice. That first taste of green papaya salad (goi du du), with crushed peanuts, coriander and tangy-sweet nuoc cham sauce, confirmed to me that this was indeed something new, far beyond what we’d tried back home.
We had arrived in Vietnam.
Of course, this was only an appetiser. As befits a long, narrow country with a diverse ethnic make-up, a storied colonial history and 3,000 kilometres of coastline, Vietnam has a varied cuisine. In the tropical south, where fruit and rice grow in abundance, dishes tend to be lighter and sweeter, with a liberal dusting of palm sugar. The food in the north is richer and heartier, and the influence of neighbouring China can be detected in the stir-fries and noodle-based soups.
Every part of the country has its own specialities; even villages within walking distance of each other can exhibit very different cooking traditions. Here in Hanoi, the largest city in the north and Vietnam’s capital, the dish everyone insists you try is pho (pronounced fuh), a clear meat broth containing rice noodles, herbs, beansprouts and slivers of beef or chicken. Every Hanoian has an opinion on where the city’s best pho is to be found and they are usually happy to share it. By the end of our stay, I, too, wanted to have an opinion about pho.
We got a broader view of Vietnamese cuisine at The Metropole, the magnificent hotel where we were spending the first two nights of our trip. Built in 1901 by the French, it exudes colonial elegance and a rich sense of history. Famous guests over the decades include Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene and Joan Baez, who stayed here in December 1972, as American bombs rained down on Hanoi. In recent years, the French group Sofitel has restored The Metropole and expanded it; now it is one of the grandest places to stay in the country.
After a sundowner by the pool, we crossed the courtyard to the hotel’s Spices Garden restaurant, where a Vietnamese feast awaited us. The meal began with a selection of fresh and fried spring rolls (goi cuon), filled with beef, crab and vegetables. Then we had our first pho. The orthodox view is that real pho can only be found in local restaurants dedicated to the dish, but grand hotels do it well, too, and this was a fine example – rich, fragrant and very satisfying. It was followed by a curry of lobster from Nha Trang, a coastal city in the south, accompanied by a medley of vegetables from Đà Lat in the fertile Central Highlands.
The end of the meal was dominated by the lotus plant, whose flower is the symbol of Vietnam. In cooking, it is employed in a variety of ways: the flower is used in tea, the leaf for wrapping food, and the lotus stem is delicious as a base in salads. The seeds are often used in desserts. Here, we had lotus seeds in coconut jelly, followed by a sweet soup of sugar-cane syrup with lotus seeds, which was refreshing and delicious.
During our meal we asked our host, who grew up in Hanoi, for her pho opinion. She favoured the hotel’s version, but her father, she said, is a lifelong devotee of a small place in the Old Quarter known by its address: 49 Bat Dan. I made a note of her recommendation. However, we’d have to wait awhile before we could try it out.
The next day, we left Hanoi and headed south, with the intention of returning for a few nights towards the end of our holiday. It’s easy and inexpensive to get about by plane in Vietnam – there are airports dotted throughout the country and domestic flights have improved in recent years – but we decided to take the slower option and travel by train.
We were heading for Hoi An, a small coastal city in central Vietnam, known for having some of the best food in Asia. Once a significant trading port on the South China Sea, the city has, in the past two decades, become a popular tourist destination, attractive for its easy-going atmosphere and splendid traditional architecture as well as its food.
After 16 hours on the sleeper train and a further 45 minutes by taxi from Đà Nang, we arrived in Hoi An, tired but happy. The rains of Hanoi had dissipated, as had the hectic traffic, and we walked through sun-baked streets savouring the midday quiet.
The old town centre, next to the slow-moving Thu Bon river, is something to behold. The streets are dotted with old Chinese assembly halls and beautifully preserved merchant houses. To the west, there is a picturesque Japanese covered bridge dating back to the 16th century, which is now the emblem of Hoi An. There are silk weavers and numerous tailoring shops, which whip together garments for almost everyone who passes through the city. There is also a wealth of places to eat, and we wasted no time infinding a venue for lunch.
Our first couple of meals in Hoi An did not quite meet our sky-high expectations. For lunch, we decided to try a local food area on An Hoi island. The set-up, a covered market housing a long line of food stalls, was charming but our meal – spring rolls, prawns in banana leaf – was nothing special.
That evening, when red lanterns lit up every street and the centre came alive with people, we sampled a couple of dishes at the Banana Leaf, a cafe on the touristy riverfront. Again, they didn’t quite hit the spot. To experience Hoi An food at its best, we had to dig a little deeper.
We didn’t have to go far, though. One street back from the river, we came upon Morning Glory and went inside to continue our evening meal. It was a revelation.
We were wowed by bánh xèo, a crispy pancake with shrimps which we were instructed to wrap in rice paper and fill with herbs. Even better was a sweet-and-sour fish soup, which my wife later proclaimed her favourite dish of the whole trip – although I was just as taken with the papaya and sesame beef salad.
Morning Glory is one of several restaurants in Hoi An owned by an entrepreneurial local chef called Trinh Diem Vy. For breakfast the next day, we had mango lassis and delicious cinnamon buns at her Cargo Club cafe, just across the road from Morning Glory, and for lunch we ate at Vy’s first restaurant, Mermaid, close to the vibrant food market. Here, we sampled a local speciality, bánh bao, known in English as “white rose” dumplings for their resemblance to the flower.
We loved these so much that, the following day, we decided to learn how to make them. At our hotel, the serene and luxurious Anantara Hoi An Resort (www.hoi-an.anantara.com), we arranged to do a cookery class at noon so that, once we’d learned how to make bánh bao and other dishes, we could feast on our efforts for lunch.
In the airy dining room overlooking the river, a friendly young chef called Dieu set up a cooking station and guided us through the process. We made bánh bao with little balls of minced shrimp, folded inside thin sheets of rice paper. It took us several attempts, but in the end we were producing dumplings that looked, passably, like white roses. We ate them with little bits of toasted garlic scattered over the top and a plum chilli sauce on the side. Delicious.
Hoi An occupied us for four enjoyable days. You could spend weeks in this enchanting little city without exhausting all it has to offer, but it was time to move on. We didn’t return to Hanoi straight away. Instead, we went back up the coast in little hops, pausing for a couple of nights at Hue, with its magnificent, half-ruined Imperial City, then heading inland to Phong Nha, where we spent a few days exploring some awe-inspiring caves and eating lunches al fresco on carpets of banana leaves. But time was ticking on, and I was impatient to continue my pho quest, so we boarded another overnight train and headed back to the capital.
There is, of course, much more to Hanoi than pho. There is bánh cuon, a steamed rice cake filled with chicken and minced mushrooms, which Miss An, a third-generation bánh cuon maker, has perfected at her hole-in-the-wall cafe at 72 Hang Bo, in the Old Quarter. There is cha ca – white fish marinated in galangal and turmeric and served with fresh dill, which you can try at the specialist restaurant Cha Ca La Vong, just around the corner. You can sample steamed dog and even snake – there’s a village called Le Mat on the outskirts of the city where you can eat still-beating cobra hearts, in case you’re interested.
But it was pho that I was after, so we followed up the tip from our previous stay in Hanoi and made for 49 Bat Dan.
To say this little Old Quarter restaurant is modest would be an understatement. It’s a single room with the cooking area up front, open to the street, and a few tables behind. Great flanks of beef hang on display at the counter and a huge pot of broth bubbles away in the corner.
They serve three varieties of pho and nothing else, the most expensive a mere 50,000 Vietnamese dong (Dh8). I carried two steaming bowls back to the table and we ate them with big dollops of chilli sauce.
Oh my, what pho!
I’m not going to go into detail here about the subtleties of the broth or the depth of flavour in the meat. Suffice to say, it was the best noodle soup I’ve ever eaten.
We had come to Vietnam to get a better understanding of its cuisine, which is a roundabout way of saying we wanted to stuff ourselves silly with great Vietnamese food. Thanks to restaurants like 49 Bat Dan, we were going home full and happy.