Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Get Your Motor Running...

There are seventeen different dishes laid out, along with three vats of soup that aren’t visible in my photo.

For lunch today I decided to visit one of my favorite local cơm bình dân restaurants.

More than anywhere I've ever been, people in Hanoi love to eat outdoors. They've taken sidewalk eating and turned it into an art form.

I absolutely love these places for their homemade touches, the wide selection they usually offer, the freshness of the food, and the fact that I don’t have to wait at all after placing my order. This is fast food at its fastest, freshest, and finest. This woman is quite nice, too; all the more so after I helped two French tourists last week order food from her.

I placed a takeaway order of sautéed shrimp, sliced potatoes, a small omelet, mustard greens, and of course white rice.

I walked away 20,000 dong ($1.03) lighter in pocket, but with an amazing array of delicious food.

Later in the afternoon I was feeling pretty tired – I think it’s this string of hot days that’s upon Hanoi: today’s high was 96, and for the next five days it’s supposed to hit 104, 106, 105, 103, and 101 – so I decided to visit a café I’ve driven by a few times but never entered. I was particularly curious about the café because of its name: Classic Motor Coffee.

Catchy name for a café, no? I mean, it got my attention.

I’m a fan of strong coffee myself, but I wondered if the coffee here actually did double-duty as some kind of motor enhancer or cleansing agent. With these thoughts in mind, I decided to pay a visit and drink a cup of whatever they sold.

In fact, the name of the café probably draws attention away from how charming the place really is. It seems to be a converted house, though by the looks of it the family still lives here and packs itself happily away in some small corner where customers won’t intrude on them. As soon as I parked my motorbike and went inside, I realized why the café was thus named – the interior is filled with classic motorbikes and photos of people (the owner, I presume) riding motorbikes in various locales (mostly Russia, I think).

It's all starting to come together now. Classic Motor Coffee...a cafe full of classic motorbikes.

I'm virtually certain that motorbike was never property of the U.S. Army...

The decorations are a bit eclectic, but the “motor” theme is pretty consistent throughout. Looking past this, the rest of the interior is quite nice. On the second and third floors, wooden doors and windows open onto tree-shaded balconies overlooking the street, the ceilings are high and airy, and the old wooden tables and chairs are quite comfortable.

Very cozy here. I can't wait for the cool autumn weather to arrive so I can park myself here all day.

The view from atop the stairs to the third floor.

The coffee is excellent, too. I ordered a nấu đá (literally "brown ice"), which came with a complimentary cup of tea, and I nursed both drinks while reading through the middle half of the Soseki novel I brought with me.

The custom of serving complimentary tea with coffee should be followed everywhere in the world...

The café itself doesn’t serve food, though in the mornings, apparently, many customers order phở from across the street and have it delivered to their tables, where they’re already drinking coffee. I’ll definitely have to come back in the morning and give this a try.

The owners and staff seemed to appreciate my taking photos of their café. I doubt this post will bring them extra business, but maybe they were just surprised to see me there in the first place.

Classic Motor Coffee is located at 13A Hàng Bún Street, just a few blocks behind Châu Long Market on Truc Bach Lake. They’re open from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. every day.


Later in the afternoon I wanted some fruit. Thinking it might be a good time of the day to visit the local traditional market and get some photos, I made the long journey (about two or three minutes by foot from my apartment) with my camera dangling from my neck.

I’ve come here quite a few times over the last two months, often just to wander around, but sometimes to buy fish, shrimp, squid, beef, and various herbs and veggies. The market has pretty much everything one needs. Half the time, however, I don’t really know what I’m looking at, and the explanations I’m given often don’t enlighten me. Today I didn’t bother to buy anything, so there’s really not much of a story to share. Instead of rambling, then, I’ll just let the photos (and my captions) speak for themselves.

One of many butcher stalls in the market...

The crabs are all dressed up and ready to hit the town.

Shrimp kept fresh on ice...

Some of the freshest squid I've ever had came from here...

They're looking at me as if they know I had fried frog the other night...

Red snapper...

Cá quả, which I think is mullet...

Two different types of miên noodles.

Various random fish left to sell at the end of the day...

A bucket full of baby eel...

Snails and clams for sale. West Lake snails are considered a local delicacy and are priced like it, too.

One of many veggie vendors...

Egg vendors...

Typical aisle in the market, wet from the constant hosing down...

Another typical vending booth...

This altar, though a bit in the way, is supposed to bring prosperity to the market and offer luck and safety to those who work here.

Charred pigs' hooves, said to go well with mắm tôm (fermented shrimp paste). I love Vietnamese food, but that's a dish I don't think I can stomach...

Outside the market is where all the fruit vendors gather. For some reason fruit never seems to be sold inside the market itself.

Selling custard apples on the sidewalk...

I didn’t have anything particular in mind, so I wandered around until I found a decent selection to choose from.

A nice, colorful selection of fruit...

I ended up getting one mango, two custard apples, and a giant peach. I didn’t bother bargaining, so I ended up shelling out 40,000 dong ($2.06) – admittedly around 10,000 dong more than I should have paid.

From there I ventured to the opposite side of Truc Bach Lake from where I live and found the woman I often see selling bananas. I got her down in price by about one-third, and for five bananas I ended up paying 10,000 dong ($.52) – still a bit more than I should have paid. I also bought a papaya, and again half-heartedly bargained the woman down from 20,000 to 15,000 ($.77) – as usual, more than a Vietnamese person would have paid. But really, for 65,000 dong ($3.35), I did okay, I think – five bananas, one papaya, one giant peach, two custard apples, and one mango. Meh…

Banana Woman with her friends, Papaya Woman 1 and 2...

For dinner I went to what’s probably my favorite restaurant on Truc Bach Lake, though it’s admittedly a bit hit or miss, especially in the way of service. The place is called Hải Sản Vân Oanh and is located at 96A Tran Vu Street.

This place, which is only about a five-minute walk from my home, is always packed. They could up their service, but the food is always excellent.

They specialize in seafood, with an emphasis on shellfish and crustaceans, and there’s never a time when they’re not jam-packed. I was in a party of two, and we headed there at around 8 p.m. Somehow this restaurant (like so many restaurants in Hanoi) uses public space for seating, and while this includes much of the paved space near the water, there wasn’t a seat open. We ended up sitting on the sidewalk, where a car promptly parked next to us and blocked any view we had of that particular side. We ordered a bowl of sò huyết (blood cockles), miên cua (stir-fried noodles with crab), and two thu hai (long-necked clams topped with fried onions).

The blood cockles came with a small basket full of herbs, and it took a bit of wrestling to get to them. After prying them open, and hoping their blood-colored juices wouldn't shoot all over us, we proceeded to suck the juices from the half of the shell without the meat and then dipped the meat into a mix of salt, pepper, lemon, and wasabi, and ate it with the herbs. Cold beer, in case you have guessed already, is a must with sò huyết.

A blood cockle nestled into an herb I can't remember the name of (some people say it tastes strongly of fish).

The miên cua was very good; probably some of the best I’ve ever had. Of course, it helps to pour fried onions over the miên, add a dollop of chili sauce, and finally sprinkle everything with lemon juice. The crab was fresh and de-shelled by the kitchen staff, which was another plus. Crab shell, I’ll have you know, is my number one enemy.


I liked how they provided teacup-sized bowls to eat the miên cua from.

But the highlight of dinner, as it is whenever I come here, was the long-necked clam, grilled in its shell and filled with crisp fried onions and a light sauce I haven’t quite figured out.

Each one of these costs 12,000 dong ($.62). That's expensive for Vietnam, but these are worth it.

There’s no polite way to eat this, so it’s best just to suck the entire, finger-length clam straight from the shell and try to inhale, at the same time, as much of the fried onion as humanly possible. You'll undoubtedly get half of the fried onion on your shirt and pants, but the secret here is to pretend it’s cool to be covered in your own food. Again, beer helps. I might even say it’s indispensable.

For all of this, including beer, we shelled out 243,000 dong ($12.52), which is pretty reasonable for seafood shared by two people.

Afterward, as I walked home, I stopped for a 7000 dong ($.36) glass of mia đá, or sugarcane juice, remembering how in Bien Hoa in 1994 I could get the same for only 500 dong.

There's not much better on a sultry night than a cold glass of sugarcane juice.

Times change, but at least the food gets better along the way…

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing these food experiences with us!! Chargrilled pigs hooves,..;I wouldn't try that, I think!

    The fish looks very different from what we can get over here in Brussels.
    The food scene & food markets are intruiging too!

    Very interesting too,...Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete