Archive for the 'Bun Cha' Category

Soaked in Sapa

After five days in Hanoi, The Astronomer and I packed up our bags and headed to Sapa, a frontier town and district in Lào Cai Province in northwest Vietnam. Sapa is home to many ethnic minority groups such as H’mong, Dao and Tay.

Even though The Astronomer and I bought our train tickets as soon as we arrived in Hanoi, they were sold out of soft sleeper seats on the evening we were hoping to depart. Rather than endure a sleepless night on a hard sleeper, we opted to travel during the day. We left Hanoi before the sun rose and arrived in Lao Cai eleven hours later.

The train’s barred windows made us feel like we were trapped in a cage, but the picturesque and lush scenery was still enjoyable through the metal. The fresh mountain air was also a treat for our much-abused lungs.

The night before we boarded the train to Sapa, I was worried that we wouldn’t have anything to eat during our lengthy trip. My worrying was for naught because food and drink vendors were hawking up a storm throughout our voyage with vendors seemed to be hopping on and off the train at nearly every stop. Around lunch time, The Astronomer purchased a pre-assembled container of com binh dan (worker’s lunch) that had rau muong luoc (boiled morning glory), cha (pork forcemeat), two soggy cha gio (egg rolls), rice and tofu. The food wasn’t anything special, but it filled The Astronomer’s pit, which was all he really wanted.

The Astronomer fueling up and hydrating.

When we arrived at the train station in Lao Cai, a hired hand picked us up in a van and drove us to our hotel. It was raining during our drive up the mountain, but we didn’t think much of it. I went on a run as soon as we arrived, and for dinner we dined at our hotel’s restaurant due to the bad weather. The restaurant served a mixture of Vietnamese and Western cuisine. I ate a hamburger.

The following morning, we woke up to low visibility and lots of rain. The Astronomer and I were hoping to trek in the hills and zoom around town on a motorbike, but it wasn’t in the cards on this day.

Since trekking and zooming were out of the question, we decided to eat some hill people’s food and shop for colorful, hand-crafted gifts for our families.

As we headed to the marketplace, we spotted this woman grilling under an awning. After checking out her offerings, we decided to indulge in some grilled meats on a stick and sticky rice in bamboo (com lam). I returned a few days later to try a grilled egg, which ended up tasting just like a regular hard boiled egg.

Here she is brushing our meats on a stick with slick coat of oil to keep it from burning.

The meat on a stick was laced with lemon leaves and tasted nice and smokey. The Astronomer was so enamored that he ordered another. The hearty com lam warmed us up and hit the carbohydrate spot. We dipped the rice in a mixture of sesame seeds and salt.

Our next course were sweet and salty Vietnamese doughnuts filled with mung bean paste—banh cam (or banh ran for Northerners).

After a bit of shopping, we were ready to eat some more. The Astronomer ordered bun cha—grilled pork patties soaked in a vinaigrette with pickled carrots and daikon served with fresh herbs and vermicelli rice noodles. This version was all around inferior compared to those we ate in Hanoi, Saigon and America. Something tells me it’s hard getting fresh noodles in these here parts.

I went for another order of com lam. The grill master at this joint removed the rice from the bamboo to grill. As a result, the sticky rice was much smokier and had a crispier texture. Lovely, lovely.

The following three days were kind of a blur. We woke up to low visibility and an abundance of rain each and every day we were in Sapa.  The relentless precipitation due to tropical storm Kammuri caused terrible flooding and mudslides all over the surrounding area, which made it impossible for us to get down the mountain. Even though our situation was bleak, tourists hoping to head back to Hanoi via train were in worse shape because the tracks were seriously damaged.

After way too many days of doing nothing and eating sad western fare, The Astronomer and I were dying to move on to our next destination—this trip to Sapa was clearly a bust. Before heading down the mountain, we rolled up the legs of our pants, slipped on some flip-flops and headed into town to chow on hill people’s food one last time. We ordered the usual com lam and meat on a stick.

As well as a plate of sauteed chayote with carrots. All three items were excellent, but we were mentally ready to blow this Popsicle stand.

A gloomy day at the market.

The weather was so gray that even the peaches looked sad.

More clouds, more rain, more low visibility.

The Astronomer and I eventually hired a driver who owned a military jeep to drive us down to Lao Cai. The rain finally stopped about half way down the mountain and we were able to take in some gorgeous sites.

The beautiful rice terraces of Sapa. We asked our driver to drop us off at the Lao Cai/Heiku land border. After clearing customs, we crossed the border into China and eventually made our way to the Beijing Olympics. I can’t wait to experience Sapa without the interference of a relentless tropical storm.

Hanoi Highlights I

The first stop on our long road back to America was the capital city of Hanoi. It’s hard to believe that I spent an entire year in Vietnam without venturing further north than Hue, but it’s probably because I knew I would be heading in this direction before peacing out. The Astronomer, on the other hand, spent quite a bit of time in Hanoi for business and definitely knows his way around town.

We flew from Saigon to Hanoi on Jetstar Pacific and arrived after the sun had set. We dropped off our bags in our hotel room located in the Old Quarter and headed off to find some good eats. Since The Astronomer knows the Old Quarter (and all of its secrets) like the back of his hand, he led me to Xoi Yen because I am a sticky rice fiend.

I went for the classic xoi xeo (7,000 VND)—sweet sticky rice topped with fried shallots and sheets of mung bean paste that resemble Parmesan cheese. The Astronomer ordered a portion of xoi ngo (15,000)—sticky rice with corn topped witdh cha mo (pork forcemeat), mung bean paste and fried shallots. The two orders of sticky rice were served with a bowl of pickled cucumbers on the side. The spicy and sour cucumbers contrasted nicely with the sweet sticky rice.

Still a bit hungry after our sticky rice snack, The Astronomer and I stumbled upon a woman serving up an impressive number of Northern dishes in a cramped street side set up. We ordered three pho cuon (3,000 VND each) and two nem chua ran (3,000 VND each). Unfortunately, both the pho cuon (grilled meat and herbs wrapped in rice noodle sheets) and nem chua ran (deep-fried fermented pork) turned out to be ho hum. I don’t think it was the cook’s fault that these dishes didn’t rock. When it comes down to it, pho cuon and nem chua ran aren’t innately brilliant dishes. Pho cuon lacks a proper dipping sauce (neon orange chili sauce from a squirt bottle doesn’t count), while nem chua ran needs a good punch of fresh herbs.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel room and crashed. I had a hard time sleeping my first night away from Saigon—there’s something about the people and the spirit of the city that tugs and pulls at me. I’ve moved around quite a bit in my adult life so it was really a novel sensation to actually yearn to be somewhere. Although it took a while, I eventually caught some much-needed Zs.

The next morning didn’t begin as bright or as early as we had hoped. I was a bit bummed about missing our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, but my frown was quickly turned upside down with one wiff of cha ca. Cha ca is hands down the greatest dish to come out of Hanoi. Hearty chunks of white fish marinated in tumeric are fired up tableside with a forest of green onions and fresh dill. The fish and greens are eaten with an assortment of accompaniments including vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, herbs, fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste. The dish is so good that I don’t mind reeking of fish and dill for the rest of the day.

Even though Cha Ca La Vong receives all of the accolades and press (including a visit from Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats), those in the know head to Cha Ca Thang Long (80,000 per portion) for this local delicacy. And let’s set the record straight—there’s nothing bizarre about fried fish with dill.

The rest of the day was spent buying train tickets to Sapa and walking around Lake Hoan Kiem.

Two scholars—The Astronomer and Ly Thai To.

Shady trees and winding paths—two lovely non-edible Hanoi offerings. After exploring the city scape, The Astronomer and I went on a run that consisted of multiple laps around the lake and dodging tourists in the Old Quarter—a pleasure compared to our options in Saigon.

For dinner we stayed in the Old Quarter and noshed on barbecued pigeon (chim quay - 45,000 VND) and  rice noodles with beef (pho xao – 20,000 VND). Pickled cucumbers and dish of kalamansi, chili and salt were served on the side.

The barbecued pigeon was succulent, but a bit too oily. We dipped the meat in a simple sauce made from kalamansi juice, chillies and salt to combat the oiliness. The pho xao was a solid plate of carbs—it’s hard to mess up stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat smothered in a light gravy.

Because dinner never ends with just one eatery for us, The Astronomer and I jammed over to the street side vendor we discovered the previous evening  and ordered a plate of mien xao cua Thai Lan (20,000 VND). The vendor recognized our faces and quickly wok’d up a heap of glass noodles with crabmeat and fresh beansprouts. Whereas the mien xao cua served at the Crab Shack in Saigon contains lots of fresh crab meat, the crab in this dish tasted strangely crunchy and not at all fresh.

The following day we met up with “Teddy,” a former editor of mine, at Dac Kim for a lunch of nem cua be (crab-stuffed eggrolls) and bun cha.

The Astronomer was impressed with this eatery on an earlier visit, and Teddy guaranteed that the place was great, so it really wasn’t a surprise that both the bun cha and nem cua be were executed outrageously well. Along with Cha Ca Thanh Long, Dac Kim is definitely a not-to-be-missed stop during a trip to Hanoi.

We took Teddy’s advice and hit up Banh Cuon Gia Truyen in the Old Quarter for dinner. This woman makes each banh cuon fresh to order.

Banh cuon—delicate rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms—are another one of Hanoi’s specialties. Even though the banh cuon here was comparable to what we’ve eaten in Saigon, a portion cost twice as much.  We also had to fork over some extra dong for cha (pork forcemeat) because it wasn’t included. Not cool, Hanoi. Banh cuon without cha is like Oreo cookies without the cream in the center.

Street side roastie.

After our puny plate of banh cuon, The Astronomer took me to an eatery specializing in eel. The first time he ate here, The Astronomer ordered a bowl of noodle soup with crunchy fried eels and glass noodles, which were good but not great. On this occasion, we listened to the waiter and ordered stir-fried glass noodles with eggs and topped with the same fried eels, which turned out to be really spectacular.

Our third course of the evening was a bowl of bun thang at 12 Hang Dieu Street. Compared to stellar Vietnamese noodle soups like bo kho, bun rieu and bun mang, this Northern-style chicken soup just left me bored. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good bowl of soup, but it can’t hit the spot like the big dogs can.

For  dessert, The Astronomer picked up a plate of profiteroles from a random French bakery in the Old Quarter. Although they looked appetizing, the cream tasted like bubblegum. The Astronomer ate one and we gave the rest to a street vendor. Bubblicious puffs just ain’t our thing.

The following morning we cruised the bay of Halong.

Hanoi Eats on Saigon Streets

As the self-proclaimed Gastronomer, I’m usually the one introducing friends to unknown eateries and the one in charge of coordinating group meals. However, Hawkins recently turned the tables and planned an awesome lunch at a hidden away bun cha joint in District 1. The two-story restaurant is located in a tight alleyway off of Le Thanh Ton Street next door to Pho 2000.

The Astronomer, Hawkins and I met at noon thirty, placed our order downstairs and found an open table on the second floor. Since this was Hawk’s second time dining here, he knew what the goods were and insisted on a portion of banh tom ho tay and nem cua bien in addition to three portions of bun cha.

The bun cha here is light on the ground meat patties and heavy on pieces of grilled pork. The meats are served dunked in a well-seasoned fish sauce vinaigrette that’s adorned with pickled slices of carrots and green papaya. Although I prefer more patties and less hunks of meat, this was a solid rendition of Hanoi’s specialty. Down the street at 8 Ly Tu Trong is another restaurant serving excellent bun cha.

The nem cua bien (crab stuffed egg rolls) were crispy and delicious, especially dunked in the vinaigrette. While The Astronomer took the time to wrap them up in lettuce leaves and garnish them with herbs, the nem looked so tasty as is, so I skipped out on the greenery and just popped ‘em in my mouth.

Here’s a look at the innards (and my dining companions). The nem cua bien weren’t as crab-intensive as the ones at the crab shack, but still totally awesome.

The banh tom ho tay (batter and fried sweet potatoes and shrimp) were just as good as Hawk promised, but I was too stuffed with grilled meats and nem to truly enjoy them.

It’s tough to find quality down-home restaurants amongst the glitz and glam of District 1, but it’s so good to know that they’re still around! The bun cha restaurant is flanked on one side by Cepage (a high-end Asian fusion restaurant) and on the other by a Pho 24 competitor. With rents and inflation rising at unprecedented rates throughout the city (and country), I wouldn’t be surprised if this eatery was booted out of its location by next year. Eat it while you still can!

Eating in Hanoi I

lake

After living in Vietnam for over 7 months without traveling north of Hue, I finally made it to Hanoi recently for a business trip. With no appointments on my first day, I was free to tour the city and sample some northern cuisine straight from the source. Overall the trip was a pleasure, even though I was annoyed by the constant pestering by cyclo drivers, travel book vendors, and sunglass sellers in the Old Quarter.

The city’s collection of lakes and copious (relatively speaking) green space were a breath of fresh air, and I found it surprisingly easy to converse with the locals, despite their ‘zzz’-laden accents. Maybe Rosetta Stone Tieng Viet was a worthwhile endeavor after all.

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When I arrived at the hotel, my room wasn’t ready yet, so there was nothing to do but go ahead and start eating. My first destination was a banh goi vendor recommended by gas•tron•o•my reader Wandering Chopsticks (and also, amazingly, my Rough Guide tour book. The Rough Guide’s section on street kitchens in Hanoi is a gem—I’ve never seen anything so useful in a mainstream guidebook). I had no trouble finding the stall with a variety of deep-fried treats. I wanted to try them all, but I had already planned to follow-up the snack with a lunch of bun cha, so I limited myself to a single banh goi.

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The first two bites were amazing—hot out of the frying oil, the flaky exterior melded wonderfully with the fatty meat inside. Banh goi are similar in appearance to empanadas, Cornish pasties, and the southern Vietnamese banh xep, and for a blissful minute I thought it was better than any of these. I loved the onions mixed in with the meat—something banh xep lacks. Unfortunately, my third bite was nearly entirely mushrooms. Unlike The Gastronomer, I am simply not a mushroom fan, so the powerful taste was an unpleasant surprise. The rest of the banh goi had an even mix of meat and fungi, but in the final analysis I’d have to rank it slightly below banh xep.

When I was almost done eating, I saw a couple nearby dipping their banh goi in some sort of sauce. I’m not sure why I didn’t get any—maybe it’s considered too pungent for a white man? In any case, I’ll have to get some next time I head up north.

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Next up was Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim (67 Duong Thanh St.), which was recommended by another reader, Teddy. Bun cha is one of my favorite dishes in HCMC, so I was stoked to try the original version. The two are relatively similar in style, but northerners don’t bother to mess around with a second bowl. Instead, they add their noodles and greens bit-by-bit to the meat and sauce. I tried this eating method once in Saigon and found it cumbersome, but it was much easier at Dac Kim because the bowl of pork patties was HUGE—probably three times more meat than a typical southern portion. The vinegary broth, with significantly more spices and nuanced flavor, was terrific. I think it’s safe to say that this was the best bun cha I’ve ever had.

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Even though I generally prefer pork to seafood in fried spring rolls, I felt obligated to try one of the nem cua be. And I was glad I did. The nem was wonderfully crispy on the outside and filled with large, loosely packed pieces of crab. It wasn’t cha gio, but it was damn good. If I hadn’t been so full, I would have gladly paid 7,000 VND for another.

Even after an hour-long run through the city parks, I was still totally stuffed from lunch and could only manage a light bowl of pho bo for dinner. I stumbled upon a random stall about a block from my hotel and decided it looked as good as any. The pho was solid—much better than the watery versions of pho bac I’ve had in Saigon—but it didn’t stand out as an all-time favorite. It was a nice feeling to be slurping down a noodle soup on a cool evening, away from the endless scorching summer of the south. Apologies for the lack of pictures—my camera goes to bed early.

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By lunchtime the next day, I was ready to feast again. I couldn’t leave town without trying cha ca, perhaps northern Vietnam’s favorite dish, so I followed the Rough Guide’s recommendation to Cha Ca Thanh Long at 31 Duong Thanh Street. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was quite impressed. The cha ca experience is much like hot pot—a rollicking meal cooked on the dinner table and shared with friends over a few beers. As such, it didn’t quite feel right eating by myself, but I still couldn’t help enjoying the meal.

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Herbs, particularly dill, play a major role in the dish. They are simmered along with the fish patties (cha ca) and scallions in a well-oiled skillet on the table, and diners reach in with their chopsticks and grab a few pieces to add to their bowl of bun. Thanh Long’s excellent nuoc mam was the perfect addition to each bowl. It all made for a classic eating experience, and I left Hanoi totally satisfied.

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