The day started here...at 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.
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.
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).
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.