By Betty Gordon
© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.
A cyclo driver sent to fetch us was the first clue that our Food on Foot tour around Hanoi’s Old Quarter was going to anything but a staid affair.
Susan, my travel companion, and I had been advised that our guide — I was expecting someone on foot — would pick us up for our Friday evening outing. So a few minutes before 6 p.m., we were waiting patiently in our hotel’s lobby.
But it wasn’t our guide who arrived. A cyclo — best described as a bicycle-powered pedicab — pulled up at the entrance. Mr. Cyclo hurried in, spoke to the friendly hotel staff and then was pointed in our direction. He had come to take us to our tour.
Susan and I looked at each other — there may have been a raised eyebrow or two about the mode of transportation — and off we went with this short, wiry man. Susan and I maneuvered under the canopy, squashed ourselves into his vehicle’s metal seat and put our feet on the footrest. He quietly climbed onto the bike behind us. Silently I was wondering how this slight gentleman was going to be able to pedal two Westerners who, together, no doubt outweighed him by at least 100 pounds.
There ensued a wild trip through the narrow, bustling streets of the Old Quarter. I was laughing so hard I was crying, both from the exhilaration of the unexpected cyclo experience and the fear that we’d have a collision with a car, a scooter, another cyclo or a pedestrian. I had a fleeting mental picture of the three of us sprawled helplessly on the street with an overturned cyclo pinning us to the ground, its wheels spinning madly above us. Fortunately, this did not come to pass.
I was also trying to take photographs as we zipped in and out of Hanoi’s hectic traffic. At some point, Mr. Cyclo abandoned his seat and the task of pedaling his customers. He must have decided that pushing the vehicle had to be easier than riding it. Maybe he just couldn’t see past us well enough to steer?
Our journey probably wasn’t more than 10 or 15 minutes, and we were safely delivered to our destination. We met Trang, our English-speaking guide, and a young couple, Ben and Cara, who had arrived at 6 that same morning from England.
Introductions finished, and with assurances from Trang that she was taking us only to places where the food would not make us sick, we started our 3.5-hour tour. This was only our second day in the country, and getting a food-related illness at the beginning of our trip — or any time — was something we wanted desperately to avoid.
Sure, we could have gone independently, deciding where to stop by how the dishes looked (or guidebook recommendations), but we thought a tour would be fun, and a good introduction to both the cuisine and culture of northern Vietnam.
Our first stop was a street stall, where we sat on low, plastic red stools and ate salad prepared from fresh, thinly shredded green papaya. One of the toppings was beef jerky. Susan thought this might be an interesting gift to bring home for her husband, so Trang negotiated with the vendor for a small purchase. Unfortunately, when we came back though U.S. Customs, the jerky, packed in a plastic bag, was confiscated. It might have made it through had it been professionally vacuum-packed.
Next we followed Trang (above, left) down several streets to a dark alley — we never would have found this on our own — where at the street’s curve a woman was making her specialty, fish soup, by the light of several dim bulbs.
Fish is not among my favorite foods, so I only had a few spoonfuls. The cook also made fish balls stuffed with pork and mushrooms, which Susan pronounced as “good.”
Then it was off to the next stall, on a busier street, where we sampled dishes of sticky rice with turmeric, peanuts and mung beans. Chicken and pork were also available as toppings. Trang went off to get drinks and returned with cold bottles of Bia Ha Noi, the local beer.
Cai Mam Restaurant, which boasts “simple but authentic” food, was our next stop. Trang ordered steamed rice, morning glory (a.k.a. water spinach) with garlic, green beans with fried lemon grass, tofu with mushrooms, and sauteed chicken with pineapple and carrots. As with all previous stops, the food was delicious.
It was while we were chatting at Cai Mam that Trang good-naturedly revealed that there are five things a savvy Vietnamese woman wants her prospective husband to possess before she’ll agree to marriage:
- A good bicycle, preferably a Peugeot
- A good watch, preferably a Seiko
- A house in the city
- No mother-in-law
- An old father-in-law
I don’t think she was entirely kidding. It was also fun to learn about Trang’s training in the hospitality industry, and see that she seemed to be having as good a time as we were.
By now, we were all feeling quite sated, and we quickly declined Trang’s offer to order yet more dishes.
But she had one more treat in store. We headed toward Hoan Kiem Lake and stopped to admire the decorative sunburst lights hanging from the trees over the promenade adjacent to the water. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic is dense in this area, particularly on a Friday night, so we stuck close to Trang, trailing her like eager ducklings, to get safely across the streets.
Again we entered a dark alley, traveled its length, and climbed several flights of poorly lighted stairs.We emerged at Giang Cafe, known for its egg coffee (caphe trung), a concoction of egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter and cheese, according to its website.
The current owner, Nguyen Tri Hoa, writes that his father, Nguyen Giang, founded the cafe in 1946, during which time he was working as a bartender at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel. (The cafe’s location has changed twice.)
Originally, the cup of egg coffee was served submerged in bowl of hot water to keep it warm, the owner writes, and he says his father used egg in the recipe because milk was scarce in Vietnam in the 1940s.
The busy cafe was itself a bit grungy, and had no restroom facilities. The patrons seemed to be a mix of tourists and locals. Cigarette smoke was thick in the air, and spent sunflower seeds tossed onto the floor contributed to the ambiance. The small balcony had a nice view of the lake, but with very few places to sit outside, we were crowded around a small table inside.
I don’t drink anything with caffeine after about 4 p.m., so I relied on Susan to describe the beverage. She said the texture was like coffee mousse, adding that it was “fluffy, sweet but warm.” The introduction to egg coffee made a positive impression; she ordered it at several other locations throughout our trip, but I think her favorite was the original Giang Cafe version.
Our goodbyes said, Trang hailed a taxi for us and arranged our return to our hotel. An uneventful cab ride couldn’t compare with the excitement of the cyclo, but on a full stomach that’s just as well.
Quick references: Food on Foot tour booked through Vietnam Awesome Travel, vietnamawesometravel.com. $25 per person for group of four or fewer; $23 for groups of five to eight (maximum size). Tour runs about three hours, hotel pickup, all food and drink included, tip for guide and return transportation to hotel are extra. Food choices can be customized to accommodate allergies and preferences. Lunch tour pickup at 11:30 a.m., dinner tour pickup about 6 p.m. The company also offers a wide range of experiences that can be booked throughout Vietnam.
Cai Mam Restaurant, 29 Hang Trong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi; caimamrestaurants.com
Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan St., Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, giangcafehanoi.com