A popular pairing with Hanoi’s favourite beverage, bia hoi, nem phung is as simple as it is delicious. Words by Huyen Tran. Photos by David Harris
While walking along Hang Dao on our way to exploring the city, my Scottish friend — who had been in Hanoi for only a few weeks — was overcome with curiosity when she saw a few peddlers selling small rice balls in their baskets.
You can’t get good pho in Saigon. It’s a statement oft heard and oft cited — particularly by northerners, who are used to eating a particularly Hanoian version of this dish.
When I was growing up, my grandmother told me, “Bread is the dish of Western people, brought to Vietnam by the French. It is only for urban or upper class people. It is expensive and not for the working class like us…”
Today, this sounds far-fetched. For many years, bread or banh my (banh mi in the south), has been one of Vietnam’s street food staples.
The kindergarten courtyard is packed tonight, but there’s not a child in sight. Locals slurp noodles at plastic tables, surrounded by pastel murals in loopy, childish handwriting.
Two years ago dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant with an American chef led to an inevitable conversation about street food. While he enthused about ingredients, textures, spices and flavours, so I expounded on the dishes I loved and why. From nowhere he mentioned a dish he’d tried in Dalat — banh trang nuong. “It’s incredible,” he explained, “I’ve never seen it anywhere else.” He then went onto describe it, although at this juncture my memory fails me.
November is when Hanoi says goodbye to autumn and welcomes winter. The pleasant mild and cool weather is said to tempt people to eat — just thinking of hot rice porridge or steaming rice dumplings warms you up while riding back from work. Not surprisingly, at this time of year, mid-afternoon snacks are popular with Hanoians.