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Eating and Drinking in Hanoi
When I first arrived in Hanoi, I must admit, I was not overly excited about the food. After living in Thailand, I was unconvinced by the comparative blandness of and disproportionate use of sour vegetables in Vietnamese food. But, by the end of my first couple of weeks, I my opinion was completely changed.
One of the things about Vietnamese food that I find most fascinating is the importance of balancing dishes based on the principles of yin and yang. There are ‘cold’ foods and there are ‘hot’ foods, and they are paired together to achieve balance. For example, you could cook fish (cold) with ginger (hot). But cold and hot might not always be what you would expect. Chicken is hot, while duck is cold. Mangoes are hot, while watermelon is cold.
Of course, I was not thinking about balancing yin and yang when I was ordering my dinner. Luckily, I didn’t need to be, because the balance is achieved within each dish itself.
I do not know whether it is due to the balancing of the yin and yang, but the following foods and drinks are what made me fall in love with Vietnamese food.
Phở is a noodle soup. It is one of the most commonly known Vietnamese dishes around the world. As far as I could tell, it is usually served is either chicken or beef, although I imagine that there many are more options.
One of the very first things I had in Vietnam was phở. The first time I had phở, I was underwhelmed. However, upon my next few visits to the phở restaurant near our apartment, I began to realize that phở, like everything in life, is what you make of it. I began to experiment with the condiments on the table: the bowl of chili sauce, the jar of pickled garlic, and the wedges of fresh lime. By my third visit, I had figured out the perfect combination, and phở ended up being one of the dishes I would crave.
Another soup-like dish is bún chả. Bún chả is served in two parts: a bowl filled with small meatballs and grilled pork (reminiscent of bacon) in a sweet broth, and a plate of greens and rice vermicelli noodles. You put the noodles and greens in the broth to soak briefly as you go. It is exceptionally delicious, and it is believed to have originated in Hanoi!
Now this is definitely a Hanoi specialty. Although you might be wondering what business an egg has in coffee, you can trust me that egg coffee is delicious. If you didn’t know that it was egg, you wouldn’t taste it. However, when you know that it’s made from egg, you can sense a distinct egginess the same way that you can taste egginess in custard.
Of course, I was not thinking about balancing yin and yang when I was ordering my dinner. Luckily, I didn’t need to be, because the balance is achieved within each dish itself.SD
The best place to get egg coffee is at the shop where it originated: Giang Café. But, when you go, remember these tips that our friend told us about how to properly drink an egg coffee:
First, is the stirring. She said that foreigners always vigorously stir their egg coffee to mix the coffee with the egg, as the egg ‘mousse’ is mostly sitting on top of the coffee when it is served. But this deflates the whisked egg by destroying all the lovely air bubbles that are supposed to keep it light. Instead, you should gently stir your egg coffee.
Second, is the drinking. She said that foreigners always come in, stir their egg coffees vigorously, and then drink them very quickly. They are finished in 10 minutes. She said that it is better to take your time and drink it slowly. That is why they serve the egg coffee in a cup that sits in another cup of hot water: to keep it warm while you take your time enjoying the egg coffee.
Another drink near and dear to my heart is bia hơi. This is a light beer that is ‘fresh’ – meaning that it is brewed daily and served the following day. Bia hơi is extremely inexpensive (some websites tout that it is the cheapest beer in the world!) and perfectly refreshing.
Now, if you are very observant you might notice that people ‘cheers’ a lot in Vietnam. This relates very directly to the drinking customs in Vietnam. Every time you lift your glass to take a drink, you are meant to ‘cheers’ your drinking companions. This really changes how you drink! If you go out with Vietnamese friends, try to take bigger sips less frequently, rather than gradually nursing your beer.
If it’s around dinnertime, bia hơi is often accompanied by a lau, or hotpot. The first time I had hotpot was a small disaster. We were a group of Americans and Europeans and we didn’t know how to do it properly. However, the second time was incredible. I think the difference was that the second time we went with a few friends who are from Hanoi. I’d definitely recommend trying a lau with locals, rather than alone!
Another reason to go with someone who speaks Vietnamese is that there are a lot of different options of types of lau and kinds of meat for the lau. Personally, I prefer beef to chicken because there are so many bones in chickens and it becomes a bit of a challenge.
A big part of Vietnamese cuisine is the value of not wasting any part of the animal. This means that you might see chicken feet or a chicken’s head in your lau. Although this might be off-putting, I think that it is based in is an honorable value that we should all consider the next time we visit our local butchers.
While it took some getting accustomed to, Vietnamese food is now, without a doubt, one of my favorite cuisines.
If you are interested in local dishes from other regions check out Where To Find The Best Barbecued Rat!