Brilliant Savarin, a French epicure, and gastronome, once said: “The discovery of a new dish contributes more to human happiness than that of a new star”. Travelling is said to satisfy your wanderlust, but it can also give an edge to your appetite; and if you travel to a country that runs on food like Vietnam, the chances of stumbling upon a culinary finding are great.
If one would like to make sense of this intense and timeless nation, Vietnam culinary tours are an indispensable way to explore the depository of its oldest cultural values.
Fabled for its millennial history and its dignified standing as the on-off capital of Vietnam, Hanoi boasts a kind of cuisine that, even at its simplest form, will make one feel like partaking in a sensuous buffet.
Pho Bat Dan (Source: Internet)
Huu Ngoc, a culturist, praised pho as a contribution to human happiness. This is not an exaggeration; a large number of Vietnamese across the country would back up his statement.
Vietnamese boat people living in foreign cities have been successful in this national delicacy and have won the love of many. However, what they are serving every day is just an imitation. The lack of Vietnamese herbs and spices has led to the absence of pho’s iconic flavors. Even if the restaurant’s chef is thoughtful enough to go out of his way to acquire all the ingredients, the relaxed atmosphere of diners slurping the piping hot broth while squatting on child-sized plastic chairs, which contributes to the satisfaction of enjoying pho, can be found nowhere else but Vietnam, and more precisely, Hanoi.
Hanoi’s pho is rooted in an earthy and bottomless deep broth. The soup is filled with flat rice noodles and a variety of meat: strip, tendon, raw, or cooked beef. A Northern bowl of pho is rather unappealing to the eye but delicious on the tongue. It is usually unadorned, except for a handful of scallions sprinkled on top. Simple as it may seem, the skills to produce the finest pho are not something everyone possesses. Bang Son, a noted Vietnamese writer once said: “It takes hundreds of years to gather enough knowledge and experience for a good bowl of pho; a pho chef has to go through decades of training and apprenticeship to get a nod from his diners”.
Pho Bat Dan is a popular name among tourists and the locals alike. Huddled among narrow Vietnamese tube houses, this humble eatery’s appearance is inconsistent with its fame. Not much is needed to get it going; a handful of communal tables and chairs, some utensils, and a table with herbs, scallions, noodles, hulking slabs of brisket, as well as a large cauldron spreading aromatic fumes out into the dining area. First, you queue for a seat and pay for your serving in advance, then your bowl will be filled with noodles and chopped scallion, and the boy standing next to the broth cauldron will quickly poach the beef for two seconds and before ladling your pho with the complex stock. Pho was still an unaffordable luxury in the 80’s and 90’s, but nowadays, everyone can enjoy this delicious, belly-warming dish. Some people believe it can even cure minor illnesses such as the common cold. Whether this is true or not, this savory and nutritious dish will continue to enrich the lives of all who try it.
Cha ca (Source: Internet)
Over a century ago, Hang Son was on par with Hang Dao and Hang Gai, some of the main streets in the Old Quarter. However, when the Doan clan’s daughter-in-law invented cha ca, Hang Son entirely lost its business, name, and identity to the new delicacy of Hanoi.
Building number 14, on Cha Ca Street was a safe house for insurgents fighting the French colonials in the late 19th century. It was also the gathering venue of scholars and mandarins. With the high status of the guests, the innate hospitality of Hanoians did not allow for a mundane meal to be served. This is when the hostess of the house came up with the original idea for cha ca.
On the spectrum of Hanoi’s vibrant food scene there are street foods with simple-to-the-eye fares that are assembled right on the spot, and on the other spectrum there is cha ca, one of the most delicate and sophisticated dishes of the old city. No list of Vietnam culinary tours would be complete without it. Cha ca have more to its name than most diners expect. Ca lang (a type of catfish) or snakehead fish is first marinated with turmeric, galangal roots, and fermented rice, and then seared on a grill. Cha ca is accompanied by a dozen types of herbs, roasted peanuts, rice noodles, and shrimp paste. Hanoi’s connoisseurs, renowned for their discerning palate, recommend pairing the dish with Vietnamese rice liquor on a drizzly day to fully feel the assertive flavors.
No matter how many eateries are set up claiming that they serve the best cha ca in Hanoi, the most authentic can be found at its birthplace, number 14, Cha Ca Street. The restaurant is still under the management of the Doan’s descendants. The atmosphere there is difficult to love for foreigners, but no restaurant serving the same dish can rival its taste.
Bun cha (Source: Internet)
Vietnamese cuisine has a wide variety of dishes that have the word “cha” in their names. This word does not indicate any certain way of cooking or a common ingredient that these dishes share. The real reason is that the Vietnamese love to add the word “cha” to anything that has an enticing taste and smell. A prime example is cha ca and bun cha, two of Hanoi’s delicacies.
Bun cha used to be carried across the narrow streets of Hanoi on the shoulders of young women from surrounding villages. Their food stalls included a coal pot, pork strips, pork patties, herbs, rice noodles, and dipping sauce. Everything was fitted into two baskets balancing on a bamboo yoke. It evolved as a mini meal to stem the hunger and anticipation of dinner, so an abundant portion wasn’t what diners were looking for. The young stallholders were incredible at multi-tasking. They would fan the coal to grill the meat while pouring sauce into tiny bowls, and when the meat was done, they would swiftly drop it into the bowl and arrange everything on a bamboo plate. This small business was passed down from mothers to daughters, not only the recipe and skills, but also the business locality, which was often a few streets.
Bun cha Phat Loc is a tiny food stall set up on the sidewalk of Phat Loc lane that still char-grills the meat with bamboo skewers. Bun cha Huong Lien may be the spot Anthony Bourdain recommended, but Hanoi’s connoisseurs will tell you otherwise.
Learn more about Vietnamese cuisine here:
Taste of Vietnam 12 Days
Vietnam Food Tours – The Complete Guide for Vegans and Vegetarians
5 reasons why street foods is a must when you come to Vietnam