What is the most adventurous thing you have eaten? Would you consider eating weird Vietnamese street food? How weird? I head you ask. I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
Hanoi Street Food Tour
We were keen to join a street food tour or cooking course in Hanoi. There were a few options but the most common one which comes up in searches, which we have used before, is through cookly.me. But they are pretty pricey. More research led me to a fantastic organisation called HanoiKids.org. HanoiKids is run by students who will provide free city tours in return for having the opportunity to practice their English. They don’t allow you to tip your student guide – all payments needs to go back to the organisation to enable them to run if effectively. Although it isn’t compulsory, but a good idea, is to make a donation to their organisation. We can certainly highly recommend them!
Our guide was a guy called Tung Son Le. Summed up in one word, he was fantastic! We had the most enjoyable evening of eating delicious street food, and sharing information about our countries. It was fascinating listening to stories about the real Vietnam, and how Vietnamese people eat, think and live.
Also read: Delighted by Bangkok street food
This is not entirely an educational, documentary type article. I haven’t done full research, and I don’t know the proper name for some of the things we ate, but I can show you lovely pictures, and will do my best to describe what we ate and whether we liked it. So here goes:
We started with these delicate, soft pork rolls, which I think are called nhân thįt lón. (Vietnamese words are full of accent signs which I haven’t mastered on my mac, so accents aren’t quite right, but close!) Watching the skilled lady cook them was incredible. It was almost like watching a magic act. She poured the rice mixture/batter onto a piece of cloth that was strung tightly across a big pot of water. The batter would steam, and become slightly more solid. She’d then whip the rice-pancake off, using 2 chopsticks, faster than the eye could see, filled and rolled them. They’re served with crunchy onions and herbs. So incredibly tasty.
Next we ate crunchy spring rolls from a lady that made them on the street. They were certainly the best spring rolls we have eaten in Vietnam to date. Another dish followed, but I can’t remember the detail, because the thing we had next, was by far my favourite, and is etched in my memory.
Bun cha is possibly my favourite food thus far in Vietnam. It’s also made famous by Barak Obama who visited one of the most famous Bun Cha Restaurants in Hanoi. But in spite of their popularity, it is still a very affordable meal. A main course and beer would cost about £2! Add a few spring rolls (50p), and you have a very substantial meal.
What is bun cha?
Bun cha consists of a few parts: A bowl of plain, fresh white vermicelli rice noodles, a plate of herbs (lettuce, coriander, mint, holy basil) to share, an individual bowl of sweetish-savoury broth, which contains green papaya and 2 types of pork.
The first looks a bit like thicker-cut bacon, unsmoked, but cooked on an open fire. The second is a type of minced pork meatball/patty, sometimes wrapped in herbs, also cooked on an open fire. The broth takes on the BBQ flavour, and tastes simply delicious. However, the broth is more of a dipping sauce than a soup.
Also read: Bangkok – Food Heaven
How to eat bun cha?
Before you start, if you like garlic, you need to add a healthy dollop of garlic to your broth.
Next, you take some of your vermicelli rice noodles, and dunk it into the broth. Add a good measure of the herbs into the broth too, then eat together with pork and papaya. Eating noodles this way is a bit slurpy, but don’t worry about it – everyone else is slurping too and no-one will worry about how you’re eating it! Most important is: enjoy! Definitely in my opinion the winner dish in Vietnam thus far.
Everything we ate was delicious. And nothing we ate was weird. The weird was to come once we got to Hoi An …
Hoi An Street Food Tour
HanoiKids website seemed to be affiliated to the Hoi An Food Tour, so we booked another street food tour once we got to Hoi An. We received a confirmation for the tour, with instructions to arrive hungry, so of course we did. The list of foods we would be tasting was long – although some of them were taster portions – thank goodness. And yes, this is where we had our adventurous (or weird) item to try: something called balut egg. But before we got to that, there were some other things to try.
Also read: Getting to know the Vietnamese
Nancy was our very good guide for the afternoon, and we were joined by a couple from Barcelona. Both of them were lovely and fun. Such a pity Anna wasn’t feeling well, although Damian seemed to be pleased to eat all her leftovers.
Grilled pork wrapped in rice paper
We started the tour at a local informal restaurant specialising in BBQ pork skewers. They are freshly made, wrapped together with salad, into a double layer of rice paper – one dry and one fresh & wet, stick removed and finally dipped in a peanut-based sauce.
I think these were my favourite of the day. We’re definitely going back for more!
One of the best French legacies were baguettes. In the rest of Asia, it is often hard to find Western style bread, so the Vietnamese adapted, smaller version of the baguette, which includes more rice and sweet potato flour, makes for great comfort food. Traditionally the Vietnamese would eat a meat version, which includes some salad, a variety of meats, as well as a mushroom path. You can choose a spicy or non-spicy version. Dare I say I quite like the non-traditional vegetarian version with egg (simple omelette), cheese (laughing cow!), salad and chilli? We visited the Madame Khanh Banh Mi shop, although many tourists prefer the Banh Mi Phuong, especially if you judge by the queues. Both were really nice, but personally I do think the Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi Old Town is the ultimate Vietnamese banh mi winner. However, I do think their Banh Mi has been adapted for tourists.
Traditional Vietnamese wedding treats
We were also introduced to husband and wife cakes, that make an appearance around the time of Vietnamese weddings.
The outside is a little chewy and jelly-like, but the inside texture was a little too floury for me.
Can Lau is a traditional Hoi An noodle dish, where the recipe is handed down the family, and the secret ingredient is ash from a cinnamon-like bark, or so the legend goes. Unlike most other noodle dishes, it has no broth, making it a dry noodle dish. The first time we ate it, it seemed a little bland, but this version was very tasty.
Balut egg (the weird food!)
This one is not for the feint-hearted. We were offered an optional dish – only for adventurous eaters. Apparently only 3/10 people will try it. In our group, it was 3/4.
A balut egg, is a 16-day old duck embryo. Apparently very good for your health!
When you remove the shell from the duck embryo (balut) egg, it looks like the picture above. As with most Vietnamese food, we add some crunchy veg and herbs to enhance the flavour (or camouflage it!).
Nancy, our guide, eased us in. She let us taste what she called the ‘safe’ bits first: the yolk which is pretty much intact, and a few other bits. But once she pulls the embryo apart, you really see what you’re eating. At this point, we did have the option to say ‘no’, but we all decided to go ahead.
My dad would be proud. He is possibly the most adventurous eater I know. And I have a feeling he will be looking for a balut egg when he is in Ho Chi Minh City next month!
Both Tim and I gave the balut egg (sounds much better than ‘duck embryo) a go. I cannot say I really enjoyed it. The health benefits would need to be pretty spectacular, for me to eat it again. I felt a sense of achievement, just trying it, but, was quickly put to shame by Damian – definitely crowned as the king of adventurers today. He asked whether we had all had enough, and when we said ‘yes’, he tipped the remainder of the embryo into his mouth and crunched through the rest! Wow! That was impressive. Nancy says no-one has ever been brave enough to eat the whole thing!
Also read: Can you eat worms in South Africa?
I think, other than eating mopani worms, cooked for me by a Zimbabwean friend, this would rank as one of the freakiest things I have eaten!.
Eating in a Vietnamese home
The tour ended in a Vietnamese home. We started with Banh Khot, some mini Savoury Coconut Pancakes, followed by a comparison between deep fried and fresh spring rolls, and finally a desert of sweetened coconut milk and corn (while mealies). All very tasty.
Also read: Vietnam – first impressions
Learning to cook Vietnamese food
We will be joining the Hoi An Mama Cooking Class later this week, so hopefully we will learn to make some of the lovely things we ate today. Somehow I don’t think the Balut egg (Duck Embryo) will be on the list!
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