February 8, 2019
It’s dusk, and I’m walking the streets of Hanoi. The first few days I was here locals apologized that so much was closed as a result of the Tet holiday. The city never felt sleepy to me. “Anyone who can will take off the first three days” I was commonly cautioned. It’s day four of Tet and true to report the already bustling Hanoi has exploded. Freshly back from Halong Bay, tears in the seams of me started to show back in the hotel room, so here I am navigating the streets. My mission: coffee and a place to read before dinner. Fleets of scooters honk and zip their way past me. There are very few sidewalks in Old Quarter Hanoi, so I am walking in the road, dodging said scooters, as well as pedestrians, litter, and pop-up food stands. It’s controlled chaos and it’s a mystery how it stays controlled. I have a particular fascination with the composition of passengers on a scooter. A family of four? A man riding with three dogs? I see them both and more. One scooter screeches to a stop right in front of me. The older man driving produces a small brown bag from his pocket and stage whispers, “Marijuana?”. My attempts to master Old Quarter Hanoi geography is failing miserably. At least I am not alone. “I’m so turned around, this place is a bloody maze!” shouts one Australian. And it is. I am walking in circles, being swallowed up by the hoard of smoke and bodies. Tonight it’s an orchestra playing a symphony of dissonant tones, street Rachmaninoff, a concert of crowds sounds pulsating with life and gasoline and odor. It’s Thursday night in Hanoi.
“That’s the best banh mi in Hanoi” said Daisy, pointing an enthusiastic finger at the street food eatery I now sit at, patiently waiting for my sandwich. Daisy, my ethereal Halong Bay tour guide told us there were three signature Vietnamese dishes we had to try, made best here in Hanoi; pho, bun cha, and banh mi. She more than cast aspersions we would not be able to find these dishes at the same elite level elsewhere in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City? “They make everything sweet” she said disparagingly. Earlier, I walked in circles, never found the coffee shop, the restaurant Ash & Sip recommended was closed, and then I saw this banh mi spot of legend, Thanh Hop Pho Ga. This is the one Daisy had pointed her finger out the window at just before the bus dropped me off at the hotel. When I saw it, I said fuck it to the coffee and reading plan and asked the barker for a table to get my banh mi on. By table, I do of course mean a tiny, child-sized plastic, Coca-Cola table with tiny child-size chairs set on the street. All the seating looks occupied but the barker runs across the street and sets up a new table, just for me, on a patch of open sidewalk. Thanh Hop Pho Ga just opened a second location. And it’s only just me for a second because soon they have crammed five tables at spots across the street and are running back and forth dodging speeding scooters. No shortage of honking, car exhaust, cigarettes, beggars, beers, laughter, and FaceTiming. The young locals are always FaceTiming in Vietnam. I’ve never seen the technology put to even a fraction of this use anywhere else. Of course, I order the banh mi and breaking from my traditional holy trinity of beverages (coffee, water, booze), I order a green tea soda. And we’re back to the beginning; of the paragraph at least. I’m waiting for my meal.
As a restaurant lifer, I can’t help but get lost watching the mechanics of the Hanoi street food operation. There is a distinct system in place. It goes a little something like this… it’s built to run by a three-person team. Your entree to the world, of course, the server. Can be a guy or a girl, but always young. This one server is taking every “table”. Generally, the guys are friendlier, working overtime on their devil may care attitude while being completely flustered. The ladies are more focused, attractive and aggressively unfriendly. The server also runs the food, and if they have time, helps seduce new customers. Naturally, we have our cook. Usually, this is the oldest member of the team. I’d say 60-40 female to male ratio. The best find a zone becoming practiced, precise, cooking machines. The cook is always surrounded; ingredients laid out in tubs on the left, dirty pots and rinsing station on right, (the cook is also their own dishwasher), and whatever cooking apparatus (wok, grill, etc.) resides directly in front of them. It’s like they are 80’s keyboard players surrounded by synthesizers. The song they are playing is Hanoi street food. The third and final member of the team is the bank. He/she holds the money on his/her person. They collect the money, make the change, fill in as second barker, order taker, runner, dishwasher, and new seating across the street builder as needed. Many have a seeing the whole game, manager vibe, but not all. Sometimes it’s clear the server is the boss, and at the morning pho stands, it’s always the cook who’s in charge. I think about the many health inspector visits I’ve been present for at restaurants past as I stare at food piled in plastic tubs uncovered and unrefrigerated on the street. Also, while I watch the dishes being scraped, washed and “rinsed”, in tubs on the pavement. Is it wrong I like the element of risk? Most places don’t have names. That doesn’t mean they are not memorable. They are known by their location and their dish. Some have lines and certain cooks draw crowds. The majority focus on only a few or even just one item. These setups are efficient, fast-paced, unregulated, lively, and delicious.
My banh mi arrives. The “best banh mi in Hanoi” – a baguette, two over easy eggs, pork sausages, cucumbers, cilantro, with a side of limes and chilies. Sweet baby Buddha it’s a great sandwich. Give me a beat and I’ll break it down… the spiced fattiness of the sausage, the richness of the egg, against the freshness of the cucumber, off the zest of the limes, with the earthiness of the cilantro, and heat of the chili! Some assembly required inside a brilliantly baked French baguette. The banh mi eats fresh and indulgent. I wash greedy bites down with green tea soda. A little sweeter than I expected but it’s fun drinking. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. It’s accurate to say I wolf it down. And now I dream about that banh mi. While eating I muse, “this would be really good hung over”. I debate ordering a second, but I think better of it. Being rolled down the street by her father to an alarmingly loud portable karaoke machine is a small child singing. The ear piercing volume crashes my banh mi party. Her sister talks on the phone while absentmindedly collecting money from the pedestrians. The little girl singing is belting her lungs out. It’s the unpleasant soundtrack to the end of my meal. I stop licking my fingers to wince. Then I ask for the check.
I go back to wandering Hanoi at night. I go back to drinking Tiger beer at Bia Hoi Junction. I go back to eating. With room to spare in my belly having forgone a second banh mi, I buy a red bean bun from a street vendor. You see, I was taught to eat my way through countries; traveling and discovering culture being inseparable from frantic mass food consumption. “The locusts are coming”, literally being a proud family motto from my childhood. One is buzzing around Hanoi this night in February. Down the dark, winding streets I buzz.