Fast food nation

Dugald Jellie relishes the tastes and aromas of Hanoi, from simple street food to splendid La Grande Bouffe moments.

Catherine Deneuve leads us astray. In cloying heat in Hanoi we get lost in the Old Quarter, seeking a little cafe favoured by the French leading lady when filming Indochine. We're looking for stardust - for a petit tart maybe - and to make-believe on wooden stools, under spinning fans, we're part of a steamy colonial drama that once tore at the heart of old Tonkin.

Tropical languor has this effect. As does the tease of iced coffee, sweetened here in Vietnam with condensed milk and served as the most perfect of afternoon pleasures.

To be in Hanoi is to be enchanted by a nostalgia for what the French left behind. It's a city of romantic possibility, of baguette sellers on street corners, coffee houses and illusions of Deneuve in starched jodhpurs at a time of rubber plantations, opium parlours and an absinthe at dusk as a daily routine. "If there is any city where the exile should be reconciled to his lot, that city is Hanoi," stated a 1909 issue of Travel and Exploration magazine. "With its boulevards and magasins, its race course and opera, its soldiers and the gay life of the cafes."

In the capital it's easy to enjoy the culinary leftovers from another world. We eat French toast by the jade waters of Hoan Kiem Lake, confit de canard in the white-shuttered colonial villa of La Badiane restaurant and in the Beaux-Arts splendour of the fabled Metropole Hotel, with polished silverware on white double linen, we try for our very own La Grande Bouffe moment. Our brunch begins with foie gras terrine with cognac jelly, freshly shucked oysters, salted salmon roe and a bottle of French bubbly.

All this before we've even sat on plastic street stools and slurped the city's signature dish: pho noodle soup.

Food in Hanoi is a treat. Everywhere you look, everyone is eating: on street corners, down alleys, on the back of motorcycles and in produce markets spread under blue tarpaulins where elderly women squat on the pavement stirring steaming pots of clear broth. It's a city of flavours, a cauldron of epicurean traditions: noodles and dumplings from China, spices and curry powders from India, the deft hand of South-East Asian cookery and a French legacy that offers charcuterie-style meats and grilled frog's legs.

"Food in Hanoi is more subtle than it is in the south," says Sydney restaurateur and TV chef Luke Nguyen, whose latest cookbook, The Songs of Sapa, begins its culinary journey in the north of his ancestral homeland. "It's elegant food, with a strong French influence that keeps it simple and uncomplicated."

And much of the best food is found on the streets. Idleness enforced by tropical heat sends us there most afternoons to bia hoi - a type of light-bodied local draught beer and also the name of the outdoor cafes that serve it in tall glasses at rock-bottom prices. It's a social occasion full of chatter and gossip, the rhythmic chorus of motorcycle traffic and mealtime aromas of smoky meat and grilled aubergine hanging in the air.

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"Clouds of smoke pull you in and make you sit down and eat char-grilled pork bun cha," Nguyen says of a staple Hanoi dish of pork patties served with dipping sauce, rice vermicelli noodles and a tangle of mint, basil and perilla leaves. "Sitting on the street and eating food that's been cooked in front of you and watching everything go by, it's like theatre."

Culinary highlights of our visit include glasses of sugarcane juice from nuoc mia carts; fried rice-flour banh xeo pancakes filled with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp; coconut-milk ice-creams; seafood wherever we try it; and late one night, finding a street dedicated to skewered barbecue chicken stalls, which I think of as the stuff of dreams. Then there are bowls of pho bo, the ubiquitous beef noodle soup that in this weather leaves me dripping with sweat and with bits of tissue paper stuck to my forehead.

We become intrigued also by the lives of the city's street vendors - the mostly married women who sojourn to Hanoi from Red River delta villages and set up makeshift kitchen stalls, or walk the streets with bamboo shoulder poles laden with baskets of fresh and cooked foods. Theirs is a life of slim margins, social displacement, political harassment and food prepared according to time-honoured traditions.

An engaging exhibition at the Vietnamese Women's Museum tells of their hardships. Conspicuous in conical palm hats, these itinerant basket ladies migrate to the city to top up meagre farm incomes. They earn a median 30,000 dong ($1.80) a day after meal, transport and accommodation expenses. And since 2008, when officials barred them from tourist areas to ease traffic congestion, police regularly crack down on them.

"These women don't want to be in Hanoi but they have no choice," says US economist Rolf Jensen, who since 1999, in conjunction with Vietnam National University, has surveyed more than 1700 roving street vendors. "It's a circular migration forced by the inability of farming families to survive on agriculture alone. They have one foot in Hanoi and their selling enables them to maintain a rural identity."

The exhibition changes my food-buying habits. I now eat omelets with crisp-fried spring onion and garlic, cooked on their portable kerosene stoves. I snack on steamed pearl millet pancakes and boiled corn; gnaw sugarcane sticks; have a woman peel me a pomelo from the back of her bicycle; buy bunches of lychees, hands of bananas and bundles of mangosteens that I don't really need. And barely do I haggle over the price.

"Women sell according to the season but within each season they'll also specialise in the sale of just one or two goods," Jensen says. "They sell a lot of tofu dishes and a lot of rice noodle dishes with fresh greens and flavoured with fried fish or dried shrimp."

There's no McDonald's in Hanoi and I think this is why. These women and their makeshift stalls hawk convenience food to the people. They're enmeshed in the cultural fabric of the city, walking the bread line, and now with livelihoods endangered by authoritarian rules. How could I not pay more than is really necessary for sugary dumplings a woman sells from a bamboo basket outside our hotel each morning? They're delicious. And they're worth every cent.

Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines.

Luke Nguyen's Hanoi

Quan An Ngon Hanoi's best street chefs gather in one courtyard location, each cooking specialty dishes. Popular with locals and in-the-know foreigners. "Clean, hygienic, very traditional and authentic food." Expect to wait for a table at rush hours. At 15 Pho Phan Boi Chau.

La Verticale Frenchman Didier Corlou (former executive chef at Sofitel's Metropole Hotel) continues his love affair with spices in this upscale French-Vietnamese restaurant. Try his banh cuon noodles, made with a batter of rice and tapioca flours and filled with pork terrine and wood-ear mushrooms. "It's one of my favourite Hanoi dishes." At 19 Ngo Van So.

Pho Bo Ha Noi The city's staple rice-noodle beef dish, eaten everywhere. "In a bowl of Hanoi pho you don't need additions of hoisin sauce, chilli, fish sauce (nuoc mam) and sugar. It's just a very simple, clean, aromatic soup, garnished with spring onion and coriander. That's it."

Highway 4 A modern-day Hanoi institution, popular among expats who come for shots of fruit-flavoured Son Tinh rice wine, while entertaining friends with dishes that range from the everyday to the exotic. Roasted locusts, anyone? Or a bite-size snack of cha de men (meat patties with crickets). Crunchy. At 5 Pho Hang Tre.

Thit cho Known otherwise as dog meat, it's a delicacy in north Vietnam, served with great ritual at restaurants between West Lake and Song Hong (Red River). "I've had a lot of roasted suckling pig before but roasted dog is much better. It's incredible." Mostly chargrilled and served with noodles, soup, bamboo, green vegetables. At Pho Nghi Tam.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare for $1190 (low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney), which allows you to fly into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City. It is usually cheaper to fly with only one airline. Malaysia Airlines flies via Kuala Lumpur while Thai Airways flies via Bangkok. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

While you're there

Visit the street vendors' exhibition at Hanoi's Women's Museum, 36 Ly Thuong Kiet. Daily 9am-4.30pm; 10,000 dong (60 cents).

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