I felt self-conscious as I sat on the plastic stool on the pavement at the side of a busy intersection in the Old Town of Hanoi. I was the only Westerner and, although I am nobody’s idea of tall, seemed an ungainly mess of knees and elbows on that tiny stool, like an embarrassing father squeezing himself into a pedal car. The other customers, hunched over their bowls, took no notice.
I had watched the vendor set up. She humped everything across town on a yoke on her shoulder, the big pot with the broth and the meatballs, the containers with rice vermicelli, spring onions and coriander, the bowls and the stools, which she laid out in a semi-circle, and a hand-drawn sign to tell passing customers that she was selling bún mọc.
She spoke no English and my Vietnamese had still not got beyond xin chào (hello), so I just pointed and she raised an index finger to confirm that I wanted one bowl. I nodded and she scooped a handful of noodles into the bowl, chopped a few stalks of coriander and sprinkled them over the noodles, then ladled in the pork broth and meatballs fashioned from minced pork and chopped shi-take mushrooms. She took up the cleaver again and clicked off a few slices of spring onion tops, scattered them over the top and handed the bowl to me.
Wherever I walked in the old town, I smelled pork grilling over charcoal at the little shops selling bún chả, Hanoi’s most iconic dish. The vendors marinate pork mince and belly pork overnight with fish sauce, soy sauce, honey, garlic, shallots and spring onion, then form the mince into patties like miniature burgers and cut the belly into strips and char-grill both. They blend fish sauce, sugar and vinegar with pork broth, heat it up and add the meat, then serve it to you with rice noodles and an abundance of greens. As often in Vietnam, you assemble it yourself at the table.
Hanoi’s food vendors tend to do one thing and do it well. The restaurants along Chả Cá Street only do chả cá, nothing else. Chả Cá La Vong is the best known; so well-known that restaurants all over Hanoi have appropriated its name. It has been there for generations, making the same dish dozens of times every day.
I was expecting a menu, but I am not sure why when it was chả cá or eat somewhere else. Instead the waiter came with a sauté pan, sizzling with chunks of turmeric-coated fish, which he balanced on a fondue burner, then brought a bowl of rice noodles, a generous plate of herbs, and a ramekin of dipping sauce made with lime juice and chilli.
I was supposed to take over the cooking myself at that point but was not sure what to do, so the waiter, spotting my confusion, took a handful of herbs and dropped them in with the fish, and then when they had wilted, switched off the burner and left me to work out that the fish and the herbs went in the bowl with the noodles.
The chả cá was great, but then everything I had eaten in Vietnam had been great, from south to north, from Saigon to Hanoi and everywhere I had stopped in between; from smart restaurants to street food carts, from summer rolls wrapped in bus station cafes to lobster grilled on the beach. It seemed impossible to eat badly in Vietnam.
© Richard Senior 2016