Northern blues in Hanoi

It’s no secret that the south of Vietnam dazzled us. Beautiful, friendly, exotic and surprisingly free of tourists. The fact that the winter temperatures are ideal is also well worth mentioning. But the further north we travel, the less enchanted we feel. It’s becoming colder, the landscape’s turning industrial and grim, and people are more reserved. It’s getting expensive as well, and the difference between the local and the tourist price is more evident than ever. If we compared the south to a cheerful yet feisty puppy, the north would have to be a serious-looking, black Doberman. You’re never quite sure if it will run up waggling its tail or rather bite off half your head. Obviously, this is an unjust generalization — we’ve met wonderful people here as well and I bet some Dobermans are really friendly — but truth be told we’re just much more on our guard.

As far as the largest cities are concerned though, the situation is the complete reverse. Hanoi beats Saigon hands down. The streets of both cities are full of life, but in Ho Chi Minh City this means mostly motorcycles. The tourist district is awful and we were not able to find redeeming qualities elsewhere. Hanoi however, even though cold and cloudy in February, has its own style, a mixture of Vietnamese chaos and colonial elegance. The streets of the Old Quarter, though often architecturally uninspiring, are full of people and steaming pots of soup, while the tourist traffic, apart from a few streets, blends perfectly with local life. The city’s full of beautiful trees — smaller in narrow side-streets and huge old-timers on representative avenues. During the bleak and cold winter, Hanoi reminds us a bit of Warsaw and we wonder if it’s the same for the large number of the Vietnamese in our capital.

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20140210-IMGP1389-hanoi fruit sellers

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The northern cuisine is less green and more warming. There’s the nasty Hanoi beer, but also vodka makes more frequent appearances on the scene. Maybe because we’ve already eaten a phở too many, in the homeland of the soup it lacks any allure and we focus on the novelties. Rather unknown in Poland, yet originating from Hanoi, is bún chả, or grilled pork served on rice noodles. We find a mention-worthy instance using our favorite method — strolling along unknown streets and encountering a random eatery, where we’re lured in by the wondrous smells and numerable patrons. The food does not disappoint, on the contrary, it’s delicious. A similar dish, bún thịt nướng, is popular in the south: meat, spring rolls and greenery are served on cold rice noodles with accompaniment of fish-sauce based nước chấm sauce. The dish is very tasty but also heavy and we’re not thrilled with the cold rice noodles. Bún chả consists of the same ingredients, so we’re not really sure what’s the difference. The northern version was served in a nước chấm “soup”, but in Hanoi I’ve seen dry bún chả as well. Either way, it would be an ideal cold-morning meal if it wasn’t form the luke-warm soup and cold noodles, but hey, it’s the Vietnamese way.

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We’re very fond of local DIY eateries where sitting at a table on the side-walk we grill various foods. In Hanoi we found a place with the greatest multitude of stuff to choose from: meats, fish and seafood, veggies and even mushrooms. We pick the things we like ourselves and place them in a plastic basket. Unfortunately, next they are grilled by the staff, while our table-grill’s suppose to keep food hot. The staff does not skimp on oil and our morsels reach us soaked in fat.

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To warm ourselves we also try the local version of fish with turmeric and dill, or chả cá, and the nationally popular claypots. Since we’ve had about enough meat, we choose versions with eggplant and tofu.

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One of our favorites is phở cuốn, a “dry pho” appetizer, made from unsliced flat noodles rolled into spring rolls with beef and herbs inside. This dish can be found in the pleasant area by the Truc Bach lake.

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But what really gets me going though, are the desserts (chè). They’re completely different from desserts in the west, full of nutritious ingredients and combinations we’d never think of. The Asian desserts occupy our random access memories since Malaysia, though we still feel completely at loss when it comes to understanding them. In Hanoi many are served hot, with taro (the “Asian potato”), lotus seeds, longan fruit or corn, all swimming in sweet syrups. I like desserts that are not too sweet and can fill my stomach and Asia offers me many choices. Some are yummy, and some… freaky. When it’s warm, the cold versions with yoghurt make sense, going by the catchy name of sua chua. It’s worth to break the habits and try these curiosities, especially when you get the northern blues.

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