A food tour and a wander around the city
In our research before we came away we discovered withlocals.com which is a site that allows you to meet guides,find tours and book excursions. We have done a couple of food tours in the past which have proved a good way of finding our way around a new city and also trying out things we wouldn’t normally find.
We booked an 11am tour with Binh Thai, a local guide who would take us on a food tour of the city. He met us at our hotel and we set off on a walk around Hanoi, we had made a brief excursion the night before but nothing significant.
Our first stop was for Banh Mi, the infamous Vietnamese sandwich. It’s clearly heavily influenced by the French but yet oddly doesn’t taste that way. Essentially it is a fresh,crusty roll stuffed with a variety of fillings- the traditional one being a type of coarse pate, fresh cucumber and pickles
The pate was different from what I expected, it was fairly coarse and came with what is often referred to as floss, think, strings of meat that are chewier than a normal roasted meat. We shared one between us as we wandered and listened to stories of the city.
The tour focussed on the most well known dishes and we ate full size versions of things instead of small tasters. I had initially assumed we would try loads of things but this way,we got a better experience of the dishes instead of a fleeting sample.
Having had Pho the night before we thought we were pro’s but we quickly learnt that we didn’t know how to eat it or how best to combine our condiments. Binh showed us the correct eating method and mixed our condiments in for us. The result was a much better bowl that we had had the night before despite that one being delicious.
We moved on to a lakeside cafe and learnt that the road closures we had seen the night before actually take place each weekend, outside the cherry blossom draped shop we tried a Vietnamese specialty- egg coffee. I had read about this online and to be honest, I wasn’t too keen on giving it a go. The drink is made with egg, coffee,honey and cinnamon with a touch of rice wine to get rid of the smell. It’s served over hot water and has to be stirred constantly so that it does not set. The consistency is alot like a liquidy mousse, it didn’t taste of coffee really as the honey was quite overpowering. It was an experience to try it but I can’t see myself ever wanting to drink another one, it’s a bit of an oddity.
Walking through the city we got to see small temples, market stalls and landmarks. Although our goal was mostly to eat, we managed to learn a lot too. Binh was full of information and we chatted a lot during the day.
We talked a bit about people doing ‘Bourdain’ tours, where they only visit places featured on an Anthony Bourdain show (predominantly Americans) we have watched avidly but our ideas come from a range of sources and we certainly wouldn’t go somewhere just because he once did. However, the restaurant we did visit for Bun Cha is part of a small number of restaurants, one of which now famously was visited by Bourdain and President Obama and has encased their table in perspex for posterity(odd indeed). We were warned about other spots that have sprung up as copies following the attention that the original Bun Cha Huong Lien has achieved (one next door and one opposite with the same name). They have a poster one the wall where we went stating the shop next door was fake.
The small narrow building was crammed full of people, many of them Vietnamese, we had to press ourselves against the walls it was that crowded but we only waited a couple of minutes for a space at a table. Binh ordered for us and showed us two different ways that we could eat the dish, one a stuffed lettuce leaf dipped into broth and the other being to mix the leaves and noodles into the broth and eat them in a more traditional way. We tried both but preferred the second option. For a simple dish it was without a doubt the best thing we ate all day. The broth was full of flavour and came with slices of roast pork and minced pork meatballs, mixed in with the leaves were sprigs of Vietnamese mint which I just couldn’t get enough of!
We finished with two sweet items, one made with sesame (pictured) and another that was flavoured with coconut. After such an awesome Bun Cha we didn’t get too excited by the sweet items so we went to a local bar for a beer before parting ways.
Spending such a long time with a stranger can be challenging but it didn’t feel like that at all, it was more like a day out with a friend you hadn’t seen in a long time, Binh was a great guide and showed us the sights of the city and some great places to eat too.