Friday, August 27, 2010

Living Again in Hanoi (3rd Time Is a Charm?)

The day started least for my stomach.

This afternoon, despite the rain, I drove from my apartment in Truc Bach to an alley off of Doi Can Street, where I picked up Stephen, a sometime-partner in local eating adventures.

The alley in which Stephen lives. I like the mix of old and new here.

Together we were going to have lunch at a local hole-in-the-wall that specializes in bánh xèo and bún thịt nướng.

Bún thịt nướng and bánh xèo.

Both are dishes that can be found in Vietnamese restaurants outside of Vietnam, but nothing outside of Vietnam will compare to either dish served here. (I find it’s true of most Vietnamese food, actually.)

Fortunately, Stephen didn’t complain about my motorbike driving, or the roundabout way I took to get to our destination – Nhà Hàng Tùng Hương. It was pretty busy when we arrived, but we grabbed a table (only one of about six) in the back of the restaurant and I did the honors of ordering one plate of bánh xèo, two bowls of bún thịt nướng, and two glasses of iced tea.

We took the only open table, which was at the back of the small restaurant.

The iced tea arrived immediately, followed about half a minute later by the bánh xèo, and another half minute later by the bún thịt nướng.

The bánh xèo, filled with bean sprouts, grilled pork, and shrimp, and sliced into five pieces, was accompanied by a plastic dish full of washed lettuce, sliced cucumber, mint, perilla leaves, and a small stack of rice paper for rolling everything together. We were also given small bowls filled with a peanut-based dipping sauce. We dove into the bánh xèo first.

What makes this so unique among other bánh xèo dishes I’ve had is that the crepe itself is both fluffy and crunchy. Most bánh xèo I’ve had tends to be a bit greasy, but at this restaurant, although the bánh xèo absorbed the flavors of the ingredients it contained, it never felt greasy or even wet. It had a unique texture we could really sink our teeth into, and with the rice paper and lightly packed vegetables, and the dipping sauce that was peanuty-sweet, this was an incredible dish – all the more so because it only cost 15,000 dong ($.77).

That's what you find inside -- so much colorful goodness.

The bún thịt nướng was excellent, too, mostly thanks to the sweet grilled beef. The sauce that hid at the bottom of all the rice noodles was sweet and sour, and very light in flavor. As with so many bún dishes, it was topped with crushed peanuts and mint and slivered carrots and green papaya. We wasted no time mixing the bun, toppings, sauce, and lettuce and cucumbers and making it disappear in less time than it took to serve us. The bún thịt nướng, too, was cheap – 22,000 dong ($1.13).

The master chef's work station. She's from Hue and says she serves all her dishes in Hue style.

Tùng Hương restaurant is at 3A To Hien Thanh Street. Tel: (04) 2210-1170.

From there, since we weren’t far, we picked our bellies up off the floor and drove through the rain to a café across the street from Ha Le Lake – Café Milano, at 70 Nguyen Du Street.

This photo doesn't really capture the atmosphere of the place.

This is an interesting café and a new favorite of mine, though admittedly I don’t find myself in this part of town very often. Actually, the area around Ha Le Lake is quite charming and pretty and if I weren’t spoiled by my living situation in Truc Bach I’d seriously consider moving there. In any case, we settled down at the only open table – not really a table, but in essence a six-inch high bamboo tray – and ordered ca phe nau da and a yoghurt drink that included crushed ice and brightly colored, flavored gelatin.

This does a slightly better job, possibly. You just can't get the feeling of this place in a photo.

The three drinks ran us 52,000 dong ($2.68). With the cooling breeze that blew through the open-fronted café, the enormous, rain-darkened banyan tree outside, and the view of the lake, I could have stayed here all afternoon.

But I decided to go home before the typhoon off Vietnam’s northern coast ravaged the city with more rainfall. Once I was back in Truc Bach I decided to wander around my neighborhood and take a few quick snapshots, engage with the locals, and keep the food-binge going.

Tran Vu Street. This is the view from the front gate of my apartment. Notice how the lakefront cafés begin almost immediately.

One of the things I love about where I live is that the entire lake is ringed by cafés. Not just indoor cafes, of which there are many, but literally dozens of individually run cafes spread out beneath willow, fish roe, and various other attractive trees along the water.
From up the street a bit. Nothing served here but coffee, ice cream, fruit shakes, and beer. Yum.

This is where I sat and drank passionfruit juice. Directly in front of me is where the café owner said he helped pull John McCain out of the lake in 1967.

More Tran Vu Street.

And still more...

These cafés are hardly fancy; they merely consist of plastic tables and chairs and standing umbrellas, but they’re atmospheric, for a lack of a better word. Birds in bamboo cages hang from trees, singing overhead; vendors on foot or pushing bicycles pass by selling shoeshines, copied CDs and DVDs, steamed corn on the cob, homemade savory rice cakes, fresh bread, fresh flowers, and fresh fruit, among other things; young men fish with bamboo poles from the bank of the lake; older men wade through the water with special nets to collect snails. And farther down the road these sidewalk cafés give way to hotpot restaurants – dozens more set up in public areas, which sometimes force the police to come through and scare everyone back inside where they’re supposed to conduct their business.

Here's my passionfruit drink. It's unbelievably good. And easy to make at home, surprisingly.

After only a month here I already know almost ten of the café owners along my street, and whenever I walk or drive past them we wave at each other. Today, however, I took a seat at one of perhaps ten tables belonging to a couple in their late 50s/early 60s. I’m glad I did. The man, named Lop, who saw I had a camera with me, approached me after his wife went away with my nước chanh leo đá không hạt order (iced passionfruit, seedless) and asked me if I’d like to see his son’s photos. “Sure,” I said.

He left, but pretty soon came back with two small bags of photos. After showing me a number of laminated shots of himself, his wife, and he and his friends on various trips, he brought out a somewhat fuzzy black-and-white photo of around ten Vietnamese men pulling a Westerner, lying on his back atop some long pole-like device, through the water. I knew right away who it was. When I was writing for Fodor’s I spent a day on Truc Bach Lake looking for a small monument commemorating the capture of John McCain, and I’d been aware that his plane, a U.S. bomber, had been shot down over the water. Lop pointed directly in front of us and said McCain’s plane crashed about 30 feet from where we sat. Then he pointed at the photo. “The one in front,” he said, touching his finger against one of the Vietnamese men in the picture, “that’s me. I helped pull him from the water.”

I looked more closely at the men’s faces (McCain’s was hard to see), expecting to see fear, or shock, or hatred, but their expressions didn’t clearly hold any of those feelings. Who can say what they were thinking or feeling at that moment – one would think they might have felt all those things and more – but in the photo they seemed only to be saving McCain’s life. It’s well-documented how McCain was treated shortly after that – perhaps only minutes after that photo was taken, even – and the photo wasn’t what I had expected…not that I’d expected to see the photo in the first place. Like every Vietnamese I've ever met, the man said he didn’t hold anything against Americans, even though America’s bombing campaign displaced his family (and surely did much worse, if not to him then to people he knew), and only wished peace and understanding between both countries. He gave me much to think about as I finished my drink and continued my walk through the neighborhood.

I hope he doesn't eat what he catches. There are lots of fish in Truc Bach Lake, but the water is not exactly what I'd call clean.

This is maybe my favorite small square of space in the neighborhood. This old woman is always out here cooking, her two cats are always nearby sleeping or wrestling, and rice is always drying on threshing baskets in the street.

There was something too lime-green about this house for me not to take a photo. Plus the dog is cute, even though it usually barks at me whenever I walk by.

On a corner behind my apartment.

This little girl seemed suspicious of me, even more so after I took this photo and waved.

This little guy was cute. He waved at me like crazy, but not once did he smile. Not even when I showed him this photo.

From there I walked around the quiet (relatively), tree-lined streets behind my apartment. The area is famous, most recently anyway, for its phở cươn restaurants (look for this in a future post) as well as some old temples. But it also boasts many other things – families spending time together outdoors, neighbors sharing an hour or two playing chess on benches, people cooking, people tending their caged songbirds. Oh, and sandwiched between all of this is a little dessert shop that specializes in fruit shakes and fruit drinks. As I was wandering around, I happened to pass the shop in the photo below.

There's nothing like having a dessert shop less than a minute's walk from your door.

Although the combination of coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk is enough to rot anyone’s teeth, I figured that the fresh fruit in an order of hoa quả dầm was still good for me. And at 12,000 dong ($.62), where’s the harm? Hoa quả dầm has become more popular in Hanoi in recent years, and now it can be found on many café menus, not just in specialty shops like this one. Although the fruits might differ, especially with the season, one always finds crushed ice to add to one’s glass as desired. This particular mix of hoa quả (“fruit” in the north; traí cây is “fruit” in the south) included jackfruit, mango, apple, honeydew melon, watermelon, dragon fruit, longan, and papaya. None of that canned stuff, either. All of it was fresh from the market, which walks by on two legs probably ten times an hour. For such a simple dessert, it’s unbelievably good.

Hoa quả dầm

On my way home, which was only about 100 meters away, I passed by a small table, if you can really call it that, where every day the same woman sells tea, gum, phone cards, bottled drinks, lighters, cigarettes, and probably about 40 other things, too, by the looks of it. She always smiles at me and says a kind word as I pass, and only once have I sat down for tea. I did again today. And why not? It’s only 1000 dong ($.05).

The bird was shy. The people in the background were too busy playing chess to notice I was taking photos. My apartment is behind the two women at the table.

The rain came on after that, ruining my chances to take photos of the local traditional market up the street. There’s always later in the week, though…

Perhaps I’ll be better about posting to my blog now. I hope so, anyway. It’s been too long, I know.

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  1. I must start by saying I'm hard-pressed to find a chocolate bar for $.75, much less a freshly cooked plate of banh xeo! The food and drinks you've described all sound delicious, but your photos and anecdotes about your neighbors are really captivating. Definitely looking forward to more about your new/old home!

  2. Hi Tangled Noodle! Yes, although Vietnamese people say that food prices are increasing, in relative terms everything here is still quite cheap to me. It’s easy to find nutritious meals (i.e., rice, tofu, veggies, meat, soup, and a glass of tea) for under $1. For $1 you can also get 2 cups of good coffee or 20 glasses of green tea (at least in my neighborhood). Hopefully I’ll have more good stories to share soon. It’s nice “seeing” you here again!

  3. Thanks for posting this! It was funny & entertaining too!

  4. Hi Sophie! Thanks for your comments! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Hi never think about Vietnam trip before. Cos of what you written about and all your photos make me craving...It's seem Hanoi not busy like in BKK. What your opinion?? Thank you for sharing the trip! Interesting trip! ;)