First off, before making any sort of food post about Vietnam, I have to give full disclosure: the food has made us ill. Roman and I have caught a whole other kind of travel bug, the kind that makes our stomachs churn. The kids (knock on wood) have so far avoided tummy troubles. I think their natural aversion to vegetables and preference for bland food has worked in their favour. Roman got sick moments after stepping off the plane and can’t seem to kick the travel bug. I’m feeling better, but still wary. We’re drinking bottled water, avoiding uncooked food when possible, washing hands, etc., but every meal still feels like a gamble. We should have listened to our travel-wise friend Louise who suggested bringing probiotic tablets to Southeast Asia, but we forgot all about it, and now it’s too late (We’ve tried and failed to find them here).
Navigating the food scene in Hanoi also wasn’t easy, especially from our decidedly non-touristy airbnb in Ba Đình. Stepping outside into the chaos of traffic, hawkers, and puzzling storefronts, we’d see people sitting around outside on low plastic stools, eating something from bowls. Women washed herbs in plastic tubs on the pavement, or squatted in doorways assembling spring rolls or butchering meat, their plates poised on scraps of cardboard on the ground, while other women hosed down the sidewalk nearby and motorbikes roared past.
We ended up gravitating to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which seems to cater to tourists with well-lit indoor cafes and restaurants with English menus. Normally I would scoff at the touristy places and seek out the authentic food scene, but given the state of our digestive system, I was too afraid. We met two other traveling families in Hanoi who had both done a food tour of the city, giving them some background and cultural insights into different dishes and restaurants. I think we’ll also do a food tour once we get to our next big town, Hoi An, to get our bearings.
It’s funny that the food seems so inaccessible, when Vietnamese food is everywhere in Canada. We didn’t eat any Phở (noodle soup) until our last day in Hanoi because we strangely didn’t come across it. Instead, we had sidewalk crêpes, spring rolls, a crab-broth hot pot, chicken and rice dishes, and Vietnamese barbecue. I enjoyed the barbecue best of all.
Most people are familiar with Korean barbecue restaurants, where raw meat or seafood is brought to your table, and you grill it on your own using a charcoal or gas grill. When we arrived in Hanoi, we tried the Vietnamese version. We were walking through Hanoi’s Old Quarter for the first time, navigating the narrow streets with sidewalk shops and stalls spilling out onto the road, edging away from the motorbikes zooming by. A young man – a restaurant hawker – waved us energetically over to an outdoor seating area. We were hungry, and saw that the place was busy, so we sat down for a beer and some barbecue.
The waiter brought a portable gas stove to our table with aluminum foil on the round grill. We got two heaping plates of seasoned beef, pork and vegetables, and a small tub of butter (more likely margarine), and a bottle of oil. The waiter cooked the first batch for us. Using two chopsticks, he scooped a great dollop of margarine onto the grill, then added some oil. Once it began to sizzle, he piled on some of the meat and vegetables. The buttery aroma of the barbecued meat made my mouth water, and was distinct from its Korean counterpart (possibly a French influence?) To complement the meat, we each got small bowls of seasoning containing salt, sugar, a few slices of chili pepper, and a small lime (to be squeezed over the rest, and vigorously stirred). Dipping the meat and veggies in this salty/sour sauce was really tasty!
I hope our food misadventures will end as we spend more time in Southeast Asia and acclimate. I would really hate to miss out on the delicious cuisines of this part of the world.