You come to Vietnam for lots of things – the culture, the people, the countryside, the history…and the food. So many fresh flavours. People had told us to avoid it – for obvious reasons [OK, hygiene?] – but also to experience where we could. The markets are a heady mix of colour and smell with many, many vegetables that we didn’t recognise and, those that we did are so much more vibrant than we see at home. Fresh ginger [obvs], fresh galangal, fresh turmeric in abundance. Meat being butchered on small benches right on the street. Fish still swimming – and escaping out on to the pavement – alongside big bowls of crabs and shrimp.
People shop here everyday – probably three times a day – collecting fresh ingredients for each meal, so the meat and fish don’t have to hang around long. The time from field to table is measured in hours, not days or weeks so, although it looks a bit rough and ready, in reality it’s probably as safe as you get in the UK. Safer?
The markets are geared up to both individuals and to restaurants. All along the streets people squat on small stools – they look as if they belong in a primary school. Groups on their way to work or families out for communal breakfast, the pavements are alive with little cooking stoves, pans and woks steaming with the day’s fresh food. People start early and we saw groups exercising in the parks at 6am – could be Tai Chi or ballroom dancing [very popular].
We’re on an evening street food tour, walking around the markets and sampling the small ‘restaurants’. It’s run by Mark Lowerson and his partner, Van Cong Tu. Mark’s an Australian who came here 17 years ago and never left. He started a food blog and it grew from there into an expert view on the food culture in Hanoi. He collects us from the hotel and we head into the old town. First of all he tells us that’s there’s nothing unsafe or scary – no tarantulas or snakes [well, not on our tour…]. Each place produces one simple dish; it could be in the morning or evening and, when it’s gone, it’s gone and the place closes. So we sample several courses, finishing with a place that sells fresh fruit. Fabulous. Each and every course. A little beer is thrown in and the scariest moment is when we load our plates with barbecued quail, boiled first and quickly flashed across the BBQ. Just make sure you pull the head off first.
A fabulous way to experience great street food.