You know that sensation when you know something’s a little wrong but you don’t want to admit it yet, don’t want to make it real by giving it a name? It’s the nagging sensation like a lover that has become a little distant or your own declining fitness; that concrete evidence staring you in the face can be so hard to see when it means swallowing a hard truth. And so we ignore, as the saying goes: denial is a strategy. It’s a strategy we mock for it’s stupidity but how many of us don’t use it, possibly regularly? And so we are in Hanoi after weeks of actively employing this very unstrategic strategy. Ever since crossing the DMZ from the south to the north of Vietnam we’ve noticed a change too big to face, the lover we knew was slipping away but for ignorance granting us a few more devoted weeks. Yes in the north, the; I can barely say it, it hurts too much. The food is not as good as in the south.
What relief, what hurtful emboldening freedom; it’s out there now, we’ve admitted it and there’s no turning back. Since leaving Hoi An the bulletproof random guesses at food that always astounded have changed tune. At first it was just an occasional dish in Hue that didn’t come with the basket of fresh herbs or the fish sauce was replaced by soy. The need for denial persisted when chilli went missing, we stopped seeing saw coriander and in Phong Nha disaster struck: we had a watery pho. Twice. The dish that built a nation is sacred yet after tasting it’s timid demise we still denied, all these incidents mingled with great ones surely can’t confirm anything we told ourselves. But facts are facts, the food in the south is better so by Viet standards this very good northern food just doesn’t cut it. Very good but not good enough, where does that leave us?The answer to that is the death nail and the salvation of northern food all in one; Hanoi. About four and a half weeks we’ve been riding and all the while getting closer to China, and Chinese food. As glorious as that is, Chinese food is the street fighter that rules his home block now fighting on a world stage, that is to say that perspective is a harsh mistress. After limping into Hanoi yesterday it’s off to taste the town and first stop is, you’ll never guess; go on have a guess. If you said coffee then go ingest some caffeine, you deserve it. Running the gauntlet that is negotiating Hanoi streets we gawk at street names and numbers before spotting the sign over a door that seems to indicate our place is ten metres to the right. We pause, unsure. A frail old man perched at the entrance like the spotter at a drug deal notices our hesitation and after summing us up nods towards the door that leads to nowhere but a tight lane.
Through the door we’re in; a dark corridor that seems neither outdoors nor indoors opens up to a small courtyard also with the same stuck in between half light of a hangover morning with just two tiny tables. Surely this is a mistake we think, before a young boy points up a staircase discretely tucked behind a wall. We had a tip off for this place from a local and upon cresting the stairs the world bursts to life in a room of bustling tables all here for the same purpose, we’re back in the Viet ideal of just doing one thing and doing it well. We order two egg coffees, one with rum and await the fruits of our adventure. We taste just the words in our mouth at first, egg coffee. What could this be?Apparently a famous bartender in Hanoi channeled the very Viet ideal of not resting on assumption and decided that cappuccino foam had no flavour. Millions have tasted cappuccino but it’s up to Viet ingenuity to push the line a little further; what the hell is an egg coffee? The aftertaste of words still sticks to our mouths as the boy is back in a flash with the answer to our questions. Two soupy pots of dieting disaster topped with a kind of zabaglione arrive, the sweet Italian dessert of thickened egg yolk has a new incarnation as a replacement for the emptiness of cappuccino froth. Viet coffee is rich, sticky, sweet and potent at the best of times but adding the rich, sticky, sweet, potent decadence of beaten egg yolk on top is both an abomination and a decadence in one; basically the biblical version of gay sex. Don’t start me on the one with rum in it.
Not content with one coffee innovation it’s time for coconut coffee. The decadence of the eggs is replaced with the freshness of iced coconut milk yet the depth and body remains, the yin to the yang. Just when north Vietnam was posing as an insipid copycat version of its southern twin, Hanoi drops these babies on us. Maybe denial was a strategy after all. Noodles without the herbs, soup without the broth and barbecue without the char; the north had shown nothing of invention beyond what it borrowed from the south. Until now. There’s only one option, it’s time for another instalment of the glut-a-thon, following the very successful Dalat version. Cue cheering audience audio.The scene is set, we stand like gunslingers at the beginning of a street swarming with chaotic traffic, haphazard lights and sleeping storefronts pushed to insignificance by a footpath that is all scooter parking and food stalls. It’s a reality TV show but more reality and less TV. The three rules: we can’t reject any food, we must try one of every new thing and if we don’t know what’s being sold it must be tried. The music sounds, the camera zooms in on our uncertain faces as we sit down to sticky rice, Chinese pork and sausage. We’ve been decrying the Chinese influence to Viet food thus far but with one booming dish Vietnam corrects any fear that the famed Viet ingenuity was in decline, it’s just been in very deniable hiding for a time.
They say pigs are very smart animals. This may be so, with all that intelligence their brains taste yummy in an omelette. Pigeons, they’re a pest, so we do our bit by removing one from the population. Not a lot of meat on the little buggers but that mouthful is rich and gamey. Seared beef on rice with fresh cucumber goes with sticky sweet pork as we dance to every corner of the taste palate. A bit of argy bargy with a pastry lady sees us get more than what we order and pay for less than what we get but somehow everyone wins. We waddle back to our room, faith restored but more importantly free from a burden that has been dogging us since the DMZ; sleep is so much deeper when there’s nothing to deny.