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spice food is central to

vietnam’s highly

of life
social culture.
A common greeting
literally means
‘have you eaten
rice yet?’
A millennium old this year, Hanoi
has developed a food culture all its own.
Christopher R Cox is seduced
by its intoxicating flavours

Clockwise from top


right The chef at the
Sofitel Metropole Hotel.
An artichoke dish
at La Verticale.
A boy eating noodles.
Opposite page One of
the city’s many
two-wheeled residents

In 1992, when I first visited Hanoi, the ancient the nation’s longest continuously inhabited market. We roll through streets at once medieval
city seemed a dour, silent-movie film set, with urban neighbourhood, which lies just north of and modern: strutting roosters, wizened women
mouldering French colonial buildings, hectoring the willow-rimmed Hoan Kiem Lake. shouldering yokes with piles of flowers, and
communist billboards, crowds of drably clothed Originally a commercial area between the walled up-market ladies exiting a fire-engine-red
bicyclists and hardly an automobile in sight. Imperial Citadel and the Red River, each of the Old BMW convertible.
Less than a generation later, the Vietnamese Quarter’s three dozen streets was occupied by Dodging motorbikes, Madame Hai plunges
capital has plunged headlong into modernity, an artisan’s guild that specialised in a specific into the dense display of exotic fruits and
complete with gleaming, mixed-use satellite product: Hang Bac held silversmiths, while Hang vegetables, meat and poultry (and frogs, snails,
towns, glaring neon signage and mobs of Gai offered silk. Hang Ma sold votive papers. Eight and snakehead fish) that are indispensable to
motorbikes and late-model cars operated by centuries on, this mercantile maze is still crowded the Vietnamese table. Food is central to this
drivers who seem to be simultaneously speaking with family-owned businesses that concentrate on highly social culture, where a common greeting,
on their mobile phones. a single trade: Hang Gai continues to burst with ‘An com chua’, literally means, ‘Have you
And yet, as Hanoi blithely multi-tasks its way silk shops, while Hang Mam, originally the spot for eaten rice yet?’
into the twenty-first century, reminders of its pickled fish, now traffics in tombstones. And nowhere is food taken more seriously
1,000-year past endure. The millennium’s worth of ‘It’s old Asia that disappeared in Shanghai and than Hanoi. According to Madame Hai, the
monuments are as visible as the feudal-era Flag Hong Kong and Singapore,’ says Jeff Richardson, cuisine here isn’t as sweet as that found in
Tower, as fanciful as the National Museum of an expat who has lived in Hanoi since 1993. Saigon (the default taste setting for most
Vietnamese History, an Indochine confection ‘Everybody’s lives and livelihoods are linked and overseas Vietnamese restaurants), nor as spicy
combining classic French and Oriental pagoda spilling out on the sidewalks and streets.’ as the nouvelle-style entrées of Hue, where
construction, as venerable as the eleventh-century I get a sense of that bustle with Nguyen Thi the nineteenth-century Nguyen Dynasty
Temple of Literature, which trained the country’s Kim Hai, the long-time chef of Sofitel Metropole emperors required 50 different dishes for each
scholar-poets for nearly 900 years. But Hanoi’s Hanoi’s Spices Garden restaurant, who meal. In Hanoi, however, everyone’s a finicky food
soul beats strongest in the teeming Old Quarter, accompanies me by xich lo pedi-cab to Hang Be critic. ‘People here are very demanding,’ says

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hanoi’s old quarter spiced with a hint of star anise, ginger, cinnamon, sticky rice steamed with coconut milk and topped
is filled with and cardamom, served with a few wafer-thin slices with shavings of mung-bean cake, sausage,
hole-in-the-wall of beef, rice noodles and a range of condiments, and shredded pork.
from fiery chillies and pungent nuoc mam fish ‘If you tell anyone you’re going for xoi,’ says
eateries specialising sauce to fresh mint and coriander. Matt Law, owner of the English-style Le Pub,
in a single dish. ‘The broth is very delicate,’ says Stephane, a nearby bar, ‘It’s just assumed you’re going to
catfish Grilled who is French-Vietnamese. ‘It takes hours and Xoi Yen.’ Just as if you say you’re going to Hanoi,
with turmeric is hours. Everyone has a secret family recipe. If it’s it’s assumed you’re going for the food.
a popular choice very good, the restaurant is always full.’ Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) flies to
Come five o’clock, Hanoians knock off work Hanoi from London Heathrow, from £501 return.
Stephane Yvin, who along with his Hanoi-born and grab a street-side stool for a glass or three
wife, Huong, a third-generation restaurateur, of bia hoi, fresh-brewed draught beer that sells
owns the well-regarded Green Tangerine bistro. for the enabling price of 3,000 dong (about 10p).
The restaurant is set in a 1928 ‘tube’ house The sober head instead for 55-year-old Café
– a long, narrow series of two-storey rooms Lam, where the walls are covered with paintings by
broken up by atria and courtyards. It is a classic starving artists who traded landscapes for iced lattes.
Old Quarter design. ‘The success here is the True to its guild-age ethos, the Old Quarter is
quality of the cuisine,’ says Stephane. ‘There’s filled with hole-in-the-wall eateries that specialise
more gastronomy than in Saigon.’ in a single fabulous dish. Along Duong Thanh
It is widely held that Vietnam’s signature dish, Street, that creation is cha ca, a type of catfish
hearty pho soup, was perfected in Hanoi. Chef grilled with turmeric and then stir-fried at your table,
Didier Corlou, a native of Brittany who has lived with scallions and fresh dill, and served over rice
in Hanoi since 1992 and owns La Verticale noodles with fresh mint, coriander, fish sauce,
restaurant, terms it ‘a soup, a cuisine, an art, an chillies and skinned peanuts. At the corner of
identity’. Here, pho is all about the rich, savoury Hang Mam and Nguyen Huu Huan, Xoi Yen
stock – a long-simmering broth of beef bones restaurant has a city-wide reputation for its xoi:

Decorative lanterns.
Clockwise from left
Life on the river. Green
Tangerine occupies
a classic ‘tube’ house.
Food as art at
La Verticale

photographs: michael fountoulakis

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Clockwise from left
Fish at the market.
The spice shop
at La Verticale.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
restaurant. Green
Tangerine’s courtyard
setting. Condiments
at the Sofitel
Metropole Hanoi

Hanoi address book


where to stay in the heart of the Café Lam This house (48 Hang Be; French Quarter lane, regional specialities
Sofitel Metropole Old Quarter. Doubles Old Quarter café is 00-84-438 251 286) Didier Corlou and a Hanoi
Hanoi Since 1901, from £33 (00-84-439 decorated with the KOTO This training creates a fusion of street-food buffet
this landmark hotel 289 916; www. work of artists who restaurant for French and (15 Ngo Quyen;
has been Hanoi’s greenmango.vn) paid their bills with under-privileged Vietnamese flavours 00-84-438 266 919)
most prestigious where to eat paintings (60 Nguyen Vietnamese youth in such dishes as Xoi Yen This Old
address for travellers, Cha Ca Thang Long Huu Huan; 00-84- serves Western and palm-shoot spring Quarter eatery is
among them Charlie This Old Quarter 438 245 940) Vietnamese dishes, rolls with chives and famed for a single
Chaplin, Fidel Castro restaurant serves Green Tangerine including bun cha black truffles (19 dish: a bowl of sticky
and Mick Jagger. only a single dish, Continental and – a Hanoi speciality Ngo Van So; rice steamed with
Doubles from £133 cha ca, catfish grilled Asian flavours are of noodles and grilled 00-84-439 446 317) coconut milk and
(00-84-438 266 919; with turmeric, then combined in one pork – for a great Spices Garden The topped with shaved
www.sofitel.com/asia) stir-fried with dill of Hanoi’s most cause (59 Van Mieu; Sofitel Metropole mung-bean paste and
Green Mango A chic, and spring onions romantic Old 00-84-437 470 337) Hanoi’s in-house sun-dried sausage (35B
seven-room boutique (31 Duong Thanh; Quarter settings, a La Verticale In an Art restaurant offers Nguyen Huu Huan;
hotel and restaurant 00-84-438 245 115) restored 1920s ‘tube’ Deco villa on a quiet cooking classes, 00-84-439 263 427)

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