A few times now I’ve been asked which Vietnamese city I prefer. Saigon or Hanoi. Without a doubt it has to be Hanoi. It seems much quiet, lacking the big city feel that Saigon thrusts upon its visitors. It’s greener, it’s more colonial, it even seems friendlier. It’s not that I didn’t like Saigon, it just wasn’t as engaging as its northern neighbour.
So this is it. Our final few nights in the country’s capital. Home for the last remaining days was The Sofitel Metropole, occupying a gorgeous old building renovated inside and out, located in the Hoan Kiem District.
Being centrally located meant that almost everything we needed was within walking distance. More importantly we were within minutes of a good local meal; but that applies to just about any urban centre across the country, methinks.
On the west and north-west side of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Old Quarter with its tangle of congested streets, buzzing with motorised traffic as well as the human kind. A variety of shops, cafe’s and restaurants brimming with locals and visitors snapping up homewares and handicrafts and getting their fill on ca phe and pho.
Pho 10 is one place that saw us for breakfast. It has a corner possie and seems to be very popular with the locals slurping on one of ten different pho available. All the cooking action takes place behind steamed glass in the cramped kitchen; an absolute flurry of activity to get the soups quickly constructed and delivered to the hungry person that ordered it.
Pho chin (well done beef 35K) for him, pho bat dac biet (special soup 50K) for me. What was so special about mine? Aside from an incredible stock from one of the bubbling pots and some shavings of beef flank, it was the goldmine of giblets that made this pho the hero for me on that particular morning. Chewy, soft, gristly, a variety of textures. Breakfast of champions.
Several blocks away near what I dubbed shoe street, thanks to the plethora of cheap foot ware shops, is a restaurant I’d wanted to try for sometime before we even hit Vietnamese terra firma. Green Tangerine. Cool name, cool space. Stepping into the peaceful cobbled courtyard from the crazy-manic street outside is a sudden and very welcoming transition.
The restaurant is housed in an early 1920’s French colonial villa, lovingly restored across its multi-levels that provide some very comfortable places to kick back, relax and go with the chilled flow.
At this eating house it’s all about French food with a bit of a nod to the Vietnamese palate. Classic techniques, some local flavours and the occasional unusual approach by husband and wife team Stephane and Huong Yvin.
It was with duck that we kicked off our lunch. Tiramisu (180K)with a difference. No coffee or savoiardi but instead layers of duck liver mousse in Cognac and Grand Marnier, parmesan mousse and a crumbled topping of crusty bread mixed with amaretto, onions, galangal and raisins. First of all this thing was huge. Secondly, I just didn’t want it to end. The word heavenly popped into my mind repeatedly. Forget white clouds and silly halos; this is what heaven is all about.
The other starter may not have given me the same tingles but it wasn’t a slouch either. Duck breast carpaccio (178K). Seared breast, thinly sliced and squirted with a sweet berry sauce, the occasional “leaf” of sesame biscuit and a central bouquet of enoki mushrooms flavoured with balsamic. Beneath those mushrooms was a small pile of candied “gizzard”. Not sure where the candied came into it but the heart-slash-stomach (whatever it was) was meant to be candied in ginger, but it was far from that. Still, a great little starter.
Onto another kind of bird. Marinated pigeon (362K), perfectly pink, served with mashed fried eggplant and candied peppers. Once again the candied effect didn’t really come across as it seemed just roasted. But ignoring that it was the teaming of soft pink flesh with coffee and cocoa sauce that made the dish shine.
The caramelised pork (318K) came with a lotus seed mille feuille of apples stewed in Calvados, decorated with piped mashed carrot as well as taro with ngo gai. Some good, rich flavours lightened by the delicate sheets of crispy pastry.
Prior to this lunch I’d never seen a free-standing crème brûlée (87K), as it was at Green Tangerine as a slightly flat pyramid. Great lemongrass-infused custard with frozen raspberry yoghurt on the side. The banana “tatin” tart (135K) was a bit of a sloppy affair topped with a little too much of the fruit. The winning element was the chocolate ice cream that had been rolled in pistachio’s. All in all a pretty good place to stop and get a fill on some progressive French-Viet food.
Some ten minutes walk from the centre of the Old Quarter, a little away from all of the travellers, is Tong Duy Tân Street. Otherwise dubbed as Food Street, this very short stretch of mainly pedestrian thoroughfare is home to a concentration of street-style eateries that specialise in local dishes of chicken, duck and sticky rice with seafood.
It’s the locals that seem to take up the squat plastic stools on the dusty concrete laneway but anyone is welcome, of course. Just don’t go pointing your camera near the open-air kitchens as you just may hear the words “no photo”.
Fresh food vendors on the peripheries of the Dong Xuan Market.
Each place we visited in Vietnam had a highlight when it came to a dish or particular restaurant. Aside from the wonderful pho that we found on the Hanoi streets it was the food at Madame Hiên that stood above all our other meals.
It didn’t take long to realise in Vietnam that the higher calibre city restaurants didn’t quite match the quality and authenticity of their “street” counterparts. This wasn’t the case with Madame Hiên. The food’s traditional, it’s generous and it’s (as expected) a little more costly. The setting is in a gorgeous villa that was once the Spanish Embassy, found in the Hoan Kiem District; a place that’s comfortable and is a nice break from those plastic micro stools that just aren’t built for the larger-than-Vietnamese physique.
Lunch began with nem ran ha noi (78K), some local-style rolls loaded with pork, vermicelli and mushrooms. It continued with ga nuong lá chanh (120K), chunks of chicken wrapped in lemon leaf that had been char-grilled to juicy tenderness.
The bun cha (118K), bbq pork, came served on a cast iron griddle and had that wonderful charred and caramelised texture and flavour that make this dish so special. Alongside were a few small ground pork cakes for an added protein hit. Stepping away from chicken and pork I made sure we ordered the muc nhoi ngao (189K), a steaming bowl of stuffed squid and clams fragrant with lemongrass, ginger and many other tid bits.
Walking around a city can be hard work at times, especially in the heat and humidity, so when I spotted a place called Fanny I veered us towards it for a brief pit stop. This ice cream parlour has many of the usual flavours as well as many unusual varieties.
The other half went for com, a young rice ice cream that tasted, you guessed it, like sweet rice. I went all out and ordered the bamboo berry (89K), a bowl featuring a variety of flavours like strawberry, mixed berry and raspberry sorbets. It also had chunks of fresh fruit, white chocolate and whipped cream. Well worth stopping by.
I’m not even entirely sure that the name of this place is even Pho Ga but I can only go by the signage at its entrance. It’s located opposite Pho 10, the joint we ate at the day before, so rather than have breakfast at the same place we thought we’d give this one a go. The decor is delightfully Vietnamese – formica tables, uncomfortable chairs and stools – and the pho is pretty damn special.
It was pho ga (30K) all ’round, of course, a big bowl packed with delicious stock, noodles, shiitake mushrooms and greenery. As the slurping and tooth-picking happened around us on the street corner outside we pulled up and squeezed into child-sized folding chair and joined in on the pho fun. Is there any better way to start the day than with pho? I think not. I made sure I savoured every last drop and every last strand of noodle as that was the last thing we ate in Vietnam. Until next time, of course!