Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hanoi: The Land of Soup

Saigon and Hanoi are very different cities.  In the Great Red North people talk, eat, frown, and dress a little differently.  Hanoi is arguably the cultural epicenter of Vietnam, but weather-wise one can easily consider it the North Pole after growing accustomed to the balmy haze of Saigon.  Winters up north are dreary, bone-chilling affairs; hence the prevalence of soup.  I have never been one to hunker down over a steaming bowl of phở down south, but in Hanoi it's the only way to regain feeling in your face. Due to the popularity, there are many specialty soups served up as both street food and in proper restaurants.

1. Bún Riêu Cua

Tomato broth, crushed up bits of freshwater paddy crab shells, and rice noodles are the main ingredients in this singularly delicious offering.  Add water spinach stems, chunks of fried tofu, hot peppers, fresh bean sprouts, and shredded banana flowers to maximize your flavor. Intrepid eaters can go even further - add Vietnamese sausage (we affectionately refer to them as "mystery meat sticks"), paddy snails, or tubes of congealed pig's blood (rich in iron, hard to swallow).  After a grueling mid-morning peregrination, Gavin spotted the sign for this joint a mile away.

We enjoyed our bowls amongst hungry locals and a group of boorish Americans at 123 Phu Doan.

Typically finicky, I ordered a simple vegetarian phở to warm my innards and finished off with a strong, black coffee to push myself through our final day of exploring.

2. Bún Chả Ha Noi

This is not quite a soup, but since it is the dish to order when in Hanoi it deserves mention.  While we have enjoyed it a couple of times in Saigon, there's nothing quite like the real thing.  A steaming pile of rice noodles, capably constructed meatballs, crispy spring rolls, and leafy greens are doused with a fragrant broth and then quickly consumed.  Gavin ordered this beauty at New Day Restaurant (72 Ma May) on our first day in town.

3. Bún Riêu Oc

After spending an eternity perusing purses at a beautiful embroidery shop on Hang Hanh Street, I noticed Gavin had gone missing.  Where did I find him but across the street, hunkered down precariously over a fresh bowl of bún riêu ốc.  He had a spoon full of snails, a crooked grin on his face, and the small plastic stool supporting him looked as if it would soon buckle under his immense weight.  This soup is almost identical to the earlier mentioned crab soup, but rather than paddy crabs, a heaping helping of pond snails is added.  (Thus it lacks the scarlet hue).  I asked him what he thought and after furrowing his brow and pausing in reflection for a moment his reply was that snails taste an awful lot like the environment they dwell in: dirt.

4. Canh

Dill, lemongrass, mouth-watering fragments of freshwater fish, peanuts, and vermicelli rice noodles mingle together in a boiling hot pot.  Sound delicious?  Sure was.  I found myself ladling spoonfuls of the delicate broth strait from the hot pot into my mouth.  An incomparably light and tasty soup that we enjoyed at 69 Restaurant & Bar (69 Ma May).

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