In the rainy pen of Hanoi we settle and slow our pace in contradiction to this city that is anything but slow of pace, we’re seeing the sights before the food storm descends upon our lives, a calm before the storm. The Ngoc Son temple sits in a lake near our hotel, this gracious setting a place where the lifestyle of Vietnam switches from simple life to show off the fastest growing middle class in Asia; more than just a place of worship. Beautiful architecture hosts elegantly dressed people to represent what centuries of struggle have been for; how we take for granted the simple idea of a beautiful place to visit and enjoy for what it is. For a tourist it’s a place to slow your pace but we can imagine that for a Vietnamese person it could be a place to relish the fruits of a seemingly endless fight for liberation. Just a pretty place or so much more?
The women’s museum also facilitates a slower pace, a chance to take in the place of women in this rapidly changing society. We’ve noticed clear gender roles in Vietnam where women do the cooking, men fix the bikes and so on, with exceptions so rare. Where definition so often means discrimination, we notice a lack of overt inequality making us wonder if it’s just definition or if there’s discrimination more than we’re seeing. The role of women in Vietnam is not a meek one, women and men may have clear roles but women hold high ranks in the military as well as civic life; it seems that if you’re good enough, you’re good enough. We can’t see all facets of private life but just maybe definition might not mean discrimination to a people not used to taking shit from anyone.From one window into a society to another and now another; it’s cooking school time again. First step is the famous pho and preparing the broth before we head out to market. After boiling beef and pork bones in water to clean them off they’re rubbed bare and plonked into our big pot to start the process of turning water to broth; like water into wine and just as miraculous. Ginger and an onion are scorched black on a flame before being similarly rubbed bare to add to the broth. Cardamon, cinnamon and anise are dry toasted in a pan and added along with fish sauce before the surprises begin. Into the large pot goes a ladle full of chicken stock powder, yes basically powdered chicken soup mix and sugar of all things. We’re blown away by this development, we consider this sacrilege but I guess it’s representative of the Viet view of constantly evolving rather than sitting still on tradition. It seems this is how it’s truly made rather than how we romantically view the process so I guess we’re getting the authentic view if not the romantic one.
The market trip is more a procession of gawking at food rather than an educational as we give the pho broth time to simmer away. Returning to school it’s a wall of cinnamon smell we walk into as the broth takes steps towards its biblical transformation. We mix pork with noodles, vegetables and herbs for spring rolls as we get surprise number two, the dipping sauce. fish sauce goes with vinegar and water which we knew, it also goes with sugar; this we know also. What we didn’t know was the amount of sugar; a small bowl soaks up four huge tablespoons of sugar, it’s delicious but; wow. Again the message rises to the surface, it’s about the result and little else leaving a staggering chink in the armour of what we think to be perfect food. Could we have been totally wrong?We know many of the aspects of this food but it’s the secret tricks that we’re learning here that astound us. The next cab off the rank is my favourite, Bun Cha. It seems simple, little pork patties and BBQ pork pieces in the sugar laden dipping sauce along with herbs and noodles, simple and delicious. The trick here is a small amount of sugar, yes more sugar, turned to a deep caramel in a pan and mixed into the pork, as if the sauce isn’t sweet enough already. Sharing a plate, Charlie mashes up the mince while I massage the pork pieces getting the caramel evenly spread. Charlie keeps sticking his pork into my bun cha but we avoid a sticky moment along with the bad pun; it’s time for the grill. Again this is very authentic, a little box is on the balcony and we hold the meat over the coals just like we see the street vendors doing, it’s not glamorous or pretty, again we trade romance for reality to do it the Viet way.
The spring rolls are fried to soak up as much oil as possible as we sit down to as much sugar, oil and salt as we’d expect from many fast food meals. With herbs, green vegetables and soups dominating this cuisine it’s not easy to perceive the diet traps in Viet food but it seems it’s maybe not quite as healthy as we thought. Health can be an issue for another day, it’s delicious and we scoff it all to set ourselves out into the Hanoi streets loaded with a diet disaster we are completely unashamed about for today’s next slow paced indulgence. Time for more food of course. We catch up with Tung again and to his frustration we’ve been to the few places he wanted to show us, apparently we’re a tour guides nightmare.Just like his inventive nation, Tung doesn’t give up as we’re joined by Fawzy, another traveller from Morocco we met by chance at a street stall to find something we haven’t tried yet. Sitting down to salty rice cooked in hot pots we enjoy a cross between Spanish paella, Chinese fried rice and a dry Italian Risotto. Our multi-national rice is topped with decadent meats in a typically simple and inventive Vietnamese triumph; sweet of course. We didn’t need any more salt, sugar or fat but who’s really counting.
Fawzy is leaving Hanoi tomorrow and as we prepare to part for the night we’re rocked by some sad news; Fawzy has not tried egg coffee. We don’t take no for an answer as we wrestle the informal tour guide mantle from Tung and basically frog march him to coffee street for the essential Hanoi education. We’re slowly learning more about Tung along with his city as Charlie nerds out over Fawzy’s retro film camera while three pots of egg coffee and rum sit before us, full for now. Its not just that egg coffee with rum is delicious, it’s beyond decadence in a day of food defined by going beyond any sense of decency and restraint. Maybe there’s something of a message for us when Tung opts for tea instead of the coffee but there’s no stopping us, it’s a dieting fat-day and we’re cashing in. Gluttony has a new definition as we trade off some romance for authenticity and wrestle with having to make the trade at all; Viet food was perfect but doesn’t perfection depend on just the right type of imperfection?