Thursday, September 30, 2010

Copping An Eel in Hanoi

Last night, suffering from a lack of ideas for dinner, it suddenly popped into my head, as if I were in a parallel universe directed by Wang Kar Wai, that I was in the mood for eel. When this happens (more often than you might think), I have an easy solution – make my way about five blocks to the unimaginatively named “Nha Hang 34 Yen Ninh,” which can be found – where else? – at 34 Yen Ninh Street.

This place is a hole inside a hole in the wall. The entrance is not at all inviting, nor does it inspire much confidence, although the kitchen window, which faces the street, does offer one, as one parks their motorbike on the curb in front, a whiff of eel magic.

Although the photo here doesn’t show it, the place was absolutely packed when we entered. We were led to a single table at the back, beneath a TV screen showing a Spanish soccer match, and around which a little girl in glasses kept walking, staring at me all the while, saying “hello” in English but not replying to me when I tried to talk to her in English or Vietnamese. She was pretty funny, actually. Admittedly, it might have been the effect of her coke-bottle glasses.

We ended up ordering cháo lươn (eel porridge), which was quite satisfying – the eel was meaty and abundant, and the porridge thick enough to stay on my spoon. It was the first time in perhaps 12 years that I had cháo lươn, and it was different from what I sometimes had, and grew to love, in Biên Hoà before even that.

We also ordered chả lươn, which is basically eel deep-fried with lemongrass, and served with a kind of mint leaf and fish sauce-based dipping sauce, which in turn had red chili sauce at the bottom. This is probably my favorite dish at this restaurant, at which I’ve eaten twice. I love the combination of eel and lemongrass, and these balls of chả are like sponges when dunked into the sauce.

Our third and final dish was bún noodles served with a steaming hot pot of tofu, West Lake snails, banana, and a dark leafy vegetable. The soup was fairly hearty and tasted a bit of Chinese five-spice. I loved the combination of ingredients, and bún is the perfect choice to go with it.

The cost of all three dishes, plus two glasses of iced tea, came to 121,000 dong, which the owner was kind enough to round down to 120,000 ($6.15).

We left feeling fairly full (including my wallet, thankfully), but as the evening was young, and we wanted fruit for dessert, we headed up Yen Phu Street to a small hotel with a two-story café set on top of it. The café, Lang Bac, is pretty interesting – the first floor is basically a glassed-in room showing films, with fully reclined chairs (sort of like thick mats with short backs to them) spaced evenly throughout; perfect for couples who wish to lie down together and either watch the movie or canoodle, basically in open view of everyone else. We climbed to the third floor, which also had a glassed-in movie room, but also had a spacious terrace overlooking West Lake and the Hanoi Club Hotel (the lit-up building on the right in the photo), and ordered hoa quả dầm with a mix of yoghurt and sweetened condensed milk.

At 35,000 dong ($1.79), that’s about twice the price of what you’d pay for it almost anywhere else in Hanoi, but this was a great mound of cut-up fruit mixed together with who-knows-what – it was too dark to see. The flash of my camera showed what appeared to be strawberry sauce on top of what was already pretty incredible, and I have to say, this was truly outstanding for such a simple dessert. It was half-healthy, half-pure-decadence. I have a feeling I’m going to be coming here often, until I decide I’m up to duplicating this in my apartment. But at 35,000 dong, including a view of West Lake, it’s sort of worth just coming here and letting them do all the work instead.

Lang Bac Café is on 52 Yen Phu Street and is open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day. Email:

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day Visit to Bat Trang Pottery Village

Last Saturday, my first since getting back to Japan, I decided to visit Bat Trang Pottery Village on the outskirts of Hanoi. I’d been here twice before – once in the summer of 1994, and once in the winter of 1997 – and remembered it as being quite different from what I found on this visit. While Bat Trang is still interesting and worth spending time wandering its quiet, tree-lined back streets – avoid the commercial center as much as possible, unless you’re there to buy kitschy souvenirs – it’s become a bit of a maze and finding high-quality pottery is not necessarily an easy task.

After crossing Long Bien Bridge into Gia Lam and then winding along dusty, multi-layered roads full of construction and reckless car drivers, we found our way to Bat Trang village, panting and wheezing, and parked across the street from the entrance to the main pottery market. We entered the market, ignoring the touts asking us to pay 50,000 dong to watch pottery demonstrations – we were aware that you needn’t pay money to see this, as the back streets offered free access to many families creating pottery in their homes – and skimmed the various sale-shelves of pottery and ceramics, which were incredibly cheap but not of particularly high quality. Still, the sheer number of pieces for sale was impressive, and it was fun wandering around.

After about 45 minutes we exited the market and found ourselves in a charming alley. Bat Trang is 1000 years old, and many of its ancients streets have been preserved. You won’t find 1000 year-old homes or artifacts of any kind, but everything here is old – perhaps the oldest thing you’ll find is the physical layout of these crumbly, narrow back streets.

We quickly happened upon a wood-and-brick house that looked as if it might collapse under the next storm that rolled through. In the window, which was barred, were several children painting at a table. We entered the very weathered, sideways-leaning door and found a woman teaching a handful of students how to spin a stone wheel and fashion objects out of clay.

Behind the students was the table we’d seen through the window. They had bought (or rather, their parents had bought them) clay figures the teacher had made but not yet painted in. For 10,000 dong one could make pottery under the teacher’s guidance, and for another 5000 dong you could paint it however you’d like.

When the students had finished making their pottery, the teacher took the objects outside and under a low, caved-in roof she placed them before a small electrical heater (whose wires she had to figure out first). At the same time this small heater was pumping out hot air, a fire beneath the board on which the objects sat also contributed to quicker drying.

We watched this for a while, then moved further down the street.

While not every house here is involved in making pottery, it’s still fairly common to find yards filled with objects at various stages of completion.

One even finds steps used for drying vessels under the sun.

Loading up (or down) a motorbike with pieces to sell at different stores.

We found a few people in front of a house transporting clay inside, and we asked if it was okay to observe how the family made pottery. In fact, although the pottery studio was family-run, it had a staff comprised of several non-family members, too. It was fascinating to see the process firsthand – quite different from what I saw in Kanazawa, Japan, two weeks earlier.

Each woman paints about six vessels per hour. It's nothing short of amazing to watch them fill in the white space with various images.

The house is open like this to allow the heat from the kiln, which is just to the left of this photo, to pass through.

By the time we’d finished, the heat was unbearable and we went off to find some place to eat and re-hydrate ourselves. We entered a bia hoi and asked for an air-conditioned room, but the room was a storeroom, and although the owner began moving everything outside so we could eat there, we told him we’d sit by one of the restaurant fans instead to cool down. We ended up ordering a plate of cut cucumbers (40,000 dong) that came with a dipping sauce of salt, pepper, chilies, and lemon juice, and also a dish (60,000 dong) of boiled lamb and an herb called lá ngổ that was simultaneously bitter and sour and very good, all of it sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with a mildly flavored dipping sauce made from fermented soy beans, ginger, and sugar. This was a surprisingly satisfying lunch, though I definitely could have done without the pieces of skin, many of which needed a few swipes of my Mach 3 razor.

Overall the trip was a nice break from Hanoi, but coming here on such a hot day, and on a weekend, probably wasn’t the best idea. One can arrange tours to Bat Trang through any number of tour agencies in Hanoi, or, if you have your own motorbike, you can just find the fairly well-marked signs to Bat Trang. Finding good ceramics and pottery takes some doing, and wandering through the older part of the village is a good way to discover them. The ceramics prices are negotiable, and you can often get a discount between 10-20% in the market. Make sure to look each piece over before buying, as small flaws are fairly common.

These two I particularly liked. The styles are based on an old type of ceramics that Bat Trang once specialized in.

This guy was checking me out in front of a store as we left Bat Trang.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tokyo, Days 2-3

My last two days in Tokyo were spent in Jimbocho, which I remember from previous visits to Tokyo as having some of the best bookstores in Japan. The only problem, of course, is that I really can’t read Japanese. I really like the atmosphere of Jimbocho, its many cafes, and the browsing is still top-notch despite the general lack of books available to me. There is, in fact, a bookstore with English-language books, and it was here that I got a paperback of copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I doubt I’d be able to find in Hanoi.

The food in Jimbocho is also quite good, especially for people like me – about to leave Japan after overspending in other parts of the country. In other words, for people suddenly finding themselves on unexpectedly tight budgets. One such place was near the A5 entrance to Jimbocho station. Yudetate Soba Udon is a place where you order at the chef’s station and then take your food to a counter without anywhere to sit. That is, you eat while standing up. I’d seen these places before in Tokyo but never felt like trying them – I’m a sitter, not a stander during meals – but today I thought I’d give it a try.

I ended up ordering soba with tempura-fried fish and a small bowl of rice with tempura-fried greens. It was a lot of food for ¥750 ($8.87), and it tasted pretty great, too. I asked the cook how long he’d been in business here, and he said 35 years. You know he’s doing something right when he’s been doing this for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

As if that wasn’t enough food, I made the mistake, sort of, of buying taiyaki afterward. What made this a mistake was simply that I didn’t recognize that my body was rebelling against the idea of more food. But my eyes, miscalculating as usual, convinced me to order one.

The taiyaki sold here tastes a lot like a waffle, but as you can see it doesn’t have a honeycomb pattern. Instead it has a fish design, raised and filled with hot adzuki beans. It’s sweet, almost cloyingly so, and on an emptier stomach probably would have been more enjoyable. I was so full for the rest of the day that all I ended up having for dinner was a banana and a small carton of yoghurt. And even those things I could barely get down.

The next morning found me with little appetite still, and the breakfast the hotel provided me didn’t exactly spark an interest in food. I ate what I could.

What I really wanted and needed, though, was coffee, so I took a walk around Jimbocho until I bumped into a Tully’s Coffee. I’m not usually a fan of chain cafes – I succeeded in avoiding Starbucks in Japan this whole trip, which is about as telling a statement as me saying that I succeeding in not sticking my finger in a light socket the whole time I’ve been in Japan – but Tully’s somehow seems like a different animal to me. I kind of like their coffee, though I’ve been in Vietnamese coffee withdrawal for nearly two weeks now. In any case, I came here, ordered a coffee, read a little, and people-watched. After that I bought the book I was looking for and shopped for omiyage.

By the time lunchtime rolled around, I decided I was able to eat something after all. The lure of a set menu drew me to Korya Ume, which was across the street from yesterday’s lunch stop and another minute’s walk up the sidewalk.

I got there at 11:30, and while there were shoes at the genkan, I couldn’t actually find any other customers there. Which was fine, because that meant I had the waitress’s full attention and was able to get my food quickly.

I orderer a kampachi set, which included miso soup, fried tofu, pickled veggies, sliced eggplant, tea, and rice.

I was also surprised at the end by a custardy dessert with strawberry sauce that was fantastic. The set lunch only cost ¥760 ($8.99), and it was more than enough to last me until dinner.

Which makes my stop at a doughnut shop a couple hours later kind of hard to explain. Basically, I was passing by, minding my own business, when a sign-front with the words “Coffee & Donut” passed before my eyes. From there it was just a matter of angling myself about 15 degrees to the right and continuing to walk.

In a matter of moments I found myself in front of a doughnut display case and someone behind it, in a black shirt, red apron, and funny hat, asking me if they could take my order.

I’d started to pant at the sight of a very chocolate-looking doughnut scattered with crushed peanuts, and said I’d like to have one of those and a glass of iced-coffee. It wasn’t as good as it looked, but it was still pretty good. I ate the whole thing, in any case, stopping to breathe maybe once or twice. The damage for this little pit-stop cost me ¥610 ($7.21), which is about par for the course in a Japanese café.

I spent the afternoon wandering through bookstores and looking for more omiyage, including a quick trip on the subway to a department store in another part of Tokyo. I didn’t accomplish much, but by evening I was pretty wiped out. I settled on a curry restaurant up the street from where I had lunch and ordered small salad, a half-size squid curry, and a glass of oolong tea. It might not look like much in the photos, but this was a satisfying meal. It cost exactly the same as what I’d paid earlier for a doughnut and iced coffee.

The next morning I skipped the hotel breakfast and went back to Tully’s, where I got a coffee and a muffin. I checked out of my hotel at 10:30, grabbed a subway (dragging my luggage through the crowds) to a bus depot for Narita Airport, paid $35 for the 80 minute trip there, then waited 40 minutes for a hotel shuttle to come pick me up in front of the arrivals terminal (terminal 2). I got a late lunch at the hotel for ¥900 ($10.64) – six small pieces of fried chicken, French fries that were in fact potato chips, and a wad of newspaper more than a month old.

I had time to kill, so I got a free hotel shuttle into Narita city – it looked more like Narita Airport Town – and wandered around for about 75 minutes until the shuttle returned to pick me up. At a fancy supermarket I found one of the cheapest sushi meals I’d ever found (¥580/$6.86), took it back to my hotel, and scarfed it away along with an Asahi beer I’d bought in a hotel vending machine.

Oh, but I’m going to miss those vending machines…

The next morning, at 8 a.m., I caught a hotel shuttle back to the airport and flew back to Hanoi. The shock I felt at Hanoi’s traffic and noise was truly like being immersed in a bath of cold water. But I’m getting used to it again. The cheap and delicious coffee helps.

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