I first tasted genuine street food in Taipei. Some towering psychedelic sundae of shaved ice, technicolour jellies, candied strange fruit pieces, condensed milk and dark sugar syrup drizzled on top; all frozen and chewy and rapidly melting into a fascinating soup. And I fell in love. It might have been sharing it with good friends with thick accents, talking Buddhism on a grassy corner stained saffron with streetlights, or it might have been listening to an impromptu guitarist sing romantic ballads in Mandarin Chinese for all the Taiwanese couples gathered round with their geometric hair and shy appropriateness. It might just have been the sugar content, and the plastic spoons & the plasticky-er container, or the thrill factor of even obtaining it, but suffice it to say – from that moment on, I knew I had to live where this stuff was obtainable. And not just shaved ice. Street food.
Hanoi’s street food is inescapable. It’s not just a place to eat or a kind of business, but the pulsating soul of this city, and it’s for this reason more than maybe anything else, that I can start to call this crazy place home. Granted, I can’t eat it every meal of the day (indigestion my, friends, and carb/oil overload), but if I go too long without it I begin to crave the sound of the sitting women snipping bun noodles from their huge flat woven baskets, the cicada snap of sizzling mysterious compressed pork loaves getting swished around in oil, the blare of motorbike horns punctuating the clack of chopsticks and the conversation of the working class all around.
I mean, what’s the other option? Yes, the refrain is that home-cooked food is soooo much better than eating out, but 50% of the time, that means making a PB&J cracker sandwiches, drinking watery Hanoi vodka and watching Vietnamese cable … while still knowing that 8 floors down and 3 feet to the left of my apartment is a place that serves whole black chicken (Canh gà hầm thuốc bắc) with medicinal herbs – head included, and lotus seeds, and tea broth, and shocked dining companions, and eyeballs, and laughing.
So this is my evolving map of the street eats in Hanoi. I haven’t tried everything on it, but every spot seems worth a check-out, and every one I *have* been to has been a solid place to sit and observe surroundings while soaking in the refractive elements of the broth in front of you. Chicken heads usually not included.