Michael Gebicki picks up tips on rice noodles and real estate on an insider's tour of Hanoi street food.
Snake is not on the menu, Daniel Hoyer tells me. It's regarded as one of the delicacies of northern Vietnam, so this news is a relief. He's about to take me on a half-day street-food tour of Hanoi, during which we'll eat things even the French don't.
At 9.30am we arrive at our first stop, Banh Cuon, a small, open-fronted restaurant next to a shopping mall in what was once Hanoi's French quarter. It's packed but the patrons obligingly shuffle up and we squeeze in at a communal table, on knee-high lacquered stools.
Hoyer has a quick-fire conversation in Vietnamese with the waiter and five minutes later we're served steaming bowls of fat rice noodles to share, some wrapped around mushrooms to make a sausage. We each get a bowl of fish sauce, to which we add a squeeze of lime, chilli, browned shallots, shredded pork and garlic in rice vinegar. Dip in the rice noodles and away you go. It's delicious, tangy and piquant but light.
We're feeling fired up and emboldened by the time we leave and on the footpath outside we stop a woman toting a heavy basket and buy some of her banh gio - balls of taro and rice powder deep-fried and sweetened, some with sesame seeds and others with sweet bean inside. They're chewy but tasty. A worthy little mouth-pleaser while you're on the march, we decide.
A restaurateur and food writer based in New Mexico, Hoyer came to Vietnam three years ago to write a book on the country's culinary arts. When he was rescued from a bad tour by a Hanoi-based travel agent, he formed a partnership with the agent and now co-owns True Colour Tour as well as a restaurant, My Burger My, which means My American Burger. He also operates The Well Eaten Path - guided gastronomic adventures in Mexico and south-east Asia.
It becomes quickly apparent that this is much more than a food tour. Along with his gastronomic qualifications, Hoyer brings a unique perspective. As a foreigner with a deep affection for Vietnamese culture and cuisine, he approaches his work from a different point of view from that of a Vietnamese guide. He has an insider's take on life, work and play in Hanoi.
Back in the minivan, Hoyer tells us about the gold price, how the local foreign currency exchange works, doing business in Vietnam, the price of real estate and about Vietnamese superstitions: don't get wet in the rain or you'll get sick; don't drink ice water when it's hot or cold or you'll get sick; avoid a cool breeze on a hot day or you'll get sick.
Hoyer also explains the various meanings of "yes". "A Vietnamese will almost never say 'khong' - 'no' - unless they mean it in the sense of absolutely never intending to do something," Hoyer says. "The correct version is to say yes to everything, or else 'Not yet'. Ask a Vietnamese, 'Have you had a coffee?' or 'Are you married?' or "Do you have a job?' and the answer might be 'Not yet' but never a definitive no."
Next stop is Cho Hom Market, a huge produce market in the Hai Ba Trung area of the city. It's mid-morning and, by Hanoi standards, relatively quiet. "Fresh is the main criterion for Vietnamese cooking," Hoyer says. "A dutiful Vietnamese housewife might go to the market three times a day so it's busiest around 7am and 6pm."
The stalls on the outside are piled high with devotional goods that are used as offerings - fake cellphones, fake shoes, miniature versions of Mercedes-Benz cars and bundles of fake money. "It's Buddhism, Viet style," Hoyer says. "They copy, synthesise and when it goes through the filter it comes out as something totally Vietnamese. It's Buddhism mixed with Confucianism and Taoism - ancestor worship and animism both being powerful influences."
The most amazing thing about a Vietnamese market is the sheer variety. There are dragon fruit, mangosteens, pomegranates, nashi pears, squirming fish, crabs, spices, pickled bamboo shoots in several versions, lotus root and bowls of squishy tofu. It's also spotlessly clean. In the butcher's section, the white tiles are gleaming and, despite the unrefrigerated beef and pork, there's not a fly in sight.
"The Vietnamese will eat meat with every meal," Hoyer says, "but it's more a flavouring. Beef and pork are the most common meats. Chicken is upscale. The favourite is fighting chicken, which is small, lean and rather stringy. Chewy is a characteristic they like, soft is not.
"Soft and tender chickens the Vietnamese call 'Chinese chickens'."
Our next visit is Tho, a coffee house on Viet Vung Street. Viet Vung is coffee central. Tho is a former French colonial villa but the wrought iron is rusting and the doors leading to the upper-floor balcony sag. Maintaining the architectural fetishes of their former overlords is a low priority for the Vietnamese.
Inside, twentysomethings are lounging around, deep in conversation. Coffee houses are a popular place to meet. Houses are small and the cafes have Wi-Fi, television, music and games. We're served coffee with condensed milk. It's toasty with a hint of bitterness and a solid caffeine kick. Vietnam is the world's second-biggest coffee exporter after Brazil, Hoyer tells us. "It's especially popular with Italians because it has a good crema and they like the flavour."
Vietnam is still overwhelmingly a tea-drinking country but everyone around us is drinking coffee. According to Hoyer, the French colonials forbade their Vietnamese servants to drink coffee. The story goes that the Vietnamese would taste the half-drunk coffee the French had left behind, which had been flavoured with butter from the croissants the French dipped into it, and so they developed a taste for coffee with a buttery flavour. In some places butter is added to the coffee during the roasting process.
Hoyer hands over 48,000 dong for the four coffees, about $2.50, and we're good to go. Outside, he tells me a useful phrase that sounds something like "Com mi ching" - "I don't want monosodium glutamate". This is one of the favourites of the Vietnamese kitchen. Sometimes restaurants have MSG on the table so you can ladle a little more into your bowl. Here, as in much of south-east Asia, it's known as ajinomoto after the Japanese company that makes tonnes of the stuff.
Our lunch spot is a local restaurant known as Pho Cuon, which spreads itself across the footpath alongside Truc Bach Lake. Like the other restaurant and cafe we visited, you'd never find it on your own. While there's plenty of street food available, Hoyer's finds are the connoisseur's version.
The meal begins with translucent spring rolls with beef, the meat inside teasingly arranged with mint and carrot batons. Then seafood fried rice, fried corn, clams with shallots, the water spinach dish known almost universally as morning glory and rice noodles that are deep-fried so they puff up into golden pillows, served with bok choy and beef with a hint of ginger.
"Want more?" the waiter asks as he's clearing away the debris. "How about snake? Small one?"
"It's OK," Hoyer says. "He means snack. They don't serve snake. And besides, it really isn't the season."
Michael Gebicki travelled courtesy of Thai Airways and Accor.
Thai Airways has a fare to Hanoi for about $1165 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. You fly to Bangkok (9hr), then Hanoi (2hr). Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Daniel Hoyer's tours cost $US50-$US85 ($48-$82) a person. Email Daniel Hoyer-Chef Tours on email@example.com or book through True Color Tours, firstname.lastname@example.org, +84 9122 23966.
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is the city's stately grand dame, a throwback to French colonial times. For imperial manners and lots of style, the price is astonishing — from $206 a night, see sofitel.com.
Hotel de l'Opera Hanoi is a cool and stylish atrium-style hotel with a touch of belle-epoch glamour. Double rooms from $111, see mgallery.com.