The zesty smell of calamansi is everywhere. They’ve been split open to entice shoppers, and the bright, citrus notes of lime and mandarin from this dwarfish fruit are drawing people in. It’s 5am at Hanoi’s Cho Rau Dau Cau market and the rain has come but the smell of the calamansi is so glorious that my mood soon lifts. All around us, people wearing plastic coats and conical hats scuttle about buying fruit and vegetables. Some swing goods in baskets hanging from bamboo poles, turning on a sixpence with little concern for anything in their paths.
By 6.30am everything is packed up. Women who have finished haggling wake their husbands, who then tie the shopping on the back of motorbikes and drive off. They’ll sell their wares from the pavements, on the stalls of the city’s wet markets or in rooms turned over to restaurants on the ground floors of family houses. This is post-economic- reform communism, which means almost everyone in Vietnam is involved in business, much of it food related.
We hit the queue at Pho Gia Truyen (49 Bat Dan street) to try tai nam pho, a densely-fragrant, clean-tasting broth with soft rice noodles, spring onions, rare steak and brisket. On the table are bowls filled with chillies, garlic-infused vinegar, and lime segments – Vietnam is all about the art of customisation, of finding your own balance of salt, sweet, sour and spicy.
Pho is available in elaborate forms across the world, but it is a simple, almost purist version that’s treasured in its hometown. In her novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Camilla Gibb explains that, ‘the history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that pho was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire.’
This heritage is evident at almost every turn in Hanoi. Here, the French made a Paris of the East, creating buildings, avenues and boulevards that mimicked home. With them came a culinary influence that stayed in Vietnam long after their departure: baguettes used for banh mi, beef pho, snails with noodles for bun oc and the buttery tones in coffee – Vietnamese servants scooped breakfast leftovers and the butter-scented traces left on the cups led them to think that coffee tasted of butter.
I join a Hanoi Coffee Lovers tour and taste egg coffee (an egg yolk whipped up with milk and sugar like a sabayon), café sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk), Vietnamese coffee and yogurt coffee. I love Cafe Xe Co (92b Tho Nhuom), with its vintage bicycles and sewing machine tables, and arty Cafe Lam.
In street food joints and living room cafés Hanoians sit low, on child-sized plastic stools, the ground beside them covered in the detritus left by other diners. I don’t care about the mess, I want to try everything (almost, I’ll pass on dog and turtle) of the local street food: the charred pork of bun cha at Bun Cha (34 Hang Than); bun bo nam bo, beef noodles with beansprouts, carrots, peanuts and crispy shallots, at Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu) and banh cuon, silky pancakes with ground pork, fish sauce, lime and vinegar, at Banh Cuon Hang Ga (14 Hang Ga).
In the backstreets of Hanoi’s frenetic Old Quarter, Mark Lowerson swiftly snakes his way through narrow streets to his favourite vendors. Mark, an Australian, and his Vietnamese partner Tu, run Hanoi Street Food Tours. As we wander, seeking plate after plate, Mark explains that the Vietnamese believe they’re not eating unless they’re eating rice: ‘all this is just snacking’.
First we try an omelette, chung ngai, that’s served with a chilli and calamansi dipping sauce. It’s fabulous. Next is one of the best dishes I taste in Hanoi – nom bai ko – chilli beef jerky, papaya and carrot salad with lemon balm, garlic and fish sauce. Then, biting into crisp little rolls, we’re hit with an umami explosion of cloud ear fungus, minced pork and crisp shallot.
We wander round Dong Xuan market, passing live fish in bowls with intricate water systems, pork just four hours post-slaughter. ‘Everything has to be fresh,’ says Mark.We find a street cart selling ban mi hai phong, rolls smaller than a normal banh mi sandwich, but crisper, stuffed with roast pork, pâté, vegetables, herbs and ‘special sauce’. They’re so good I go back the next day with a plan to eat about five, but the cart isn’t there – it’s only around after school hours.
Hanoi is famous for cha ca, a dish of ca lang fish scented with turmeric, pan-roasted at the table and sprinkled with dill fronds, spring onions, peanuts and shrimp paste. We pass by the more famous Cha Ca La Vong and head for Cha Ca Thang Long (21-31 Duong Thanh) on an assurance that it is better. The fish is perfect, served with noodles.
Later, at a bia hoi (a small bar selling the country’s daily-brewed beer), we take a plastic stool and raise a glass to this crazy but wonderful city – at a cost of 30p.