Why is it that food always inspires at least one blog post when I travel? Hell, sometimes I wonder if food isn't the reason I travel at all. And I'm certainly convinced that you can learn more from a good meal than from gawking at some tourist-crowded monument. Hanoi proves the point. Despite the painful legacies of French colonialism, cafe culture rules in Hanoi. Coffee is dark-roasted, individually percolated, and stunningly good. Think a cross between French roast and Turkish coffee. Locals and tourists alike rub shoulders at sidewalk cafes and garden terraces overlooking the busy streets, sipping excellent coffee, iced or hot. Especially when ensconced in a vine-wreathed deck above the clamor of the street traffic, the ambiance is unmistakeably European.
Coffee, however, is but the prologue to Hanoi's culinary delights. French influences continue on the street level, with baguettes figuring heavily into many of the infinite street foods. From donor kebab in baguette to omelettes in baguettes, the french bread is everywhere. Deep-fried baguette? Yeah, haven't tried that one yet. And to be perfectly honest, the baguettes in general don't quite meet my bread-snob expectations. So let's skip to Hanoi's signature dishes.
Cha Ca, or fried fish is the champion signature dish in Hanoi. They even named part of a street after it, and you'll have to make your way there to find the signature restaurant for this signature dish: Cha Ca LaVong. No, not "Cha Ca LaLuong" across the street. LaVong is the only way to go. Here's how it works: you sit down at one of the spartan tables and the help hands you the menu, which is actually just a card that says "only one dish: fried fish." Fine, that's why you came. Order a beer, and a few minutes later, your food arrives.
Lightly battered chunks of catfish sizzle in a pan of oil over a coal fire. Throw in the provided mixed herbs, stir it up and dump it into your bowl full of noodles. Throw in more fresh herbs and a little nuoc mam (fish sauce) and stuff it in your face. The key (I think) is their totally unidentifiable but stunning mixture of herbs, which create a redolent bouquet of smells and flavors as it fries with the fish. You can get a version of this at Portland's Pok Pok, but it can't hold a candle. And costs like ten times as much. Though I'm usually tempted to try to recreate dishes myself, I wouldn't know where to start replicating the delicate, herbaceous flavors thaat come from those mysterious greens.
And then there's the Pho. If you've had Pho, you know how good it is under any circumstances. If you've never had Vietnam's signature beef noodle soup, you need to start rethinking your priorities in life. And unless you've tasted it, it's nearly impossible to describe. In Hanoi, it's everywhere, it's cheap, and it's delicious. The broth has simmered for months for all you can tell, with fresh bones being constantly being thrown into the pot. The noodles and beef are cooked quickly in the broth when you order, and the result is orgasmic. Sitting on the tiny plastic chairs, sipping bia (beer, duh) and slurping Pho is the perfect way to power up before cruising the night markets. Sure, there are scooters blatting past you just three feet away while you're eating, but if you aren't used to scooter traffic within a few hours of arrival, well, Hanoi just probably isn't for you.