April 09 2011
Sitting at a bar among the crumbling buildings of Hanoi’s colonial Old Quarter, I had a very good reason to order another beer; actually, I had about 1.36m of them, which, according to the Hanoi Police, is the number of scooters and motorbikes in the city. They clutter the pavements and swarm belligerently through the streets. Crossing the road is fraught with danger: “Walk in a straight line, at a steady pace, and, whatever you do, don’t look at them!” a battle-scarred expat advised.
Instead, after another Bia Hà Nôi, I did what any sensible Westerner has done since 1901: I hailed a cab and went to the Metropole. It is one of the world’s great hotels; the old wing, with its glittering chandeliers and glorious staircase, has changed little since Charlie Chaplin padded around the corridors with starlets on his arm.
One look at the traffic, and dinner at the Metropole’s Beaulieu restaurant seemed highly appealing. The dining room is handsome and the food is very French, as is the stupendous wine list – very popular, so I was told, among the upper echelons of the Socialist Party (heavyweight Reds, indeed). I had a jolly good steak, a couple of glasses of wine and tottered up the stairs feeling rather ashamed at my pusillanimity; outside, the scooters still swarmed.
How can the judiciously adventurous gourmet enjoy street food if the streets are deeply perilous? I discovered a solution the following day: it is called Quan An Ngon, a restaurant serving a huge variety of street food in a big, shady, pleasant garden. Former street vendors cook their specialities in (relatively) serene surroundings – it is always busy – for an appreciative crowd of locals, expats and tourists ordering from a single menu. Quan An Ngon charges perhaps twice the street price, but that is hardly a fortune: it is difficult to spend more than £15, and that includes a drink or two.
Twenty stalls make up the perimeter, each expertly doing their own thing: rolling up perky, prawn-and-herb-filled goi cuon, for instance, the translucence of the rice paper wraps hinting at their contents; boiling springy egg noodles in a porky broth for mi van than, or rice vermicelli for bun thang (chicken noodle soup); grating green papaya for a spicy salad pungent with fish sauce; or deep-frying some creatures that look suspiciously like baby sparrows.
The best ploy is to wander around with a menu and make a note of anything you fancy. Service, from a huge team of waitresses, is brusque but highly efficient, and the food is of a very high order. I suppose you might find a better pho, Hanoi’s classic, herb-spiked breakfast soup, by scouring the streets of the Old Town, but you will have to brave a thousand Hondas to do it: when it comes to street food, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.