‘Vietnam is not like China,’ the young bartender assures me. I guess he must be somewhere in his mid-twenties… I have taken refuge in a bar, to savour a cool beer and escape the crushing afternoon heat of Hanoi in August. Inevitably our chit-chat turns to my recent past as we linger on my reasons for being in Vietnam and my less than favourable feelings about China. ‘Unlike China, we know what goes on in the world, and can freely browse the internet, ’ he continues. ‘Not that long ago, there was yet another war between China and Vietnam. Maybe it was not reported to the outside world, but it definitely happened…’ Uncle Ho may well have courted China in his bid to win the Vietnam War, but the love has long since been extinguished and replaced by unwavering distrust and suspicion, if not enmity.
The young man speaks surprisingly good English, although he admits that topics unrelated to food leave him rather lost for words, English ones that is. Whilst he has lived in Vietnam all his life, he has a younger sister (or maybe half-sister, I did not probe too deeply), born and raised in Germany. As she does not speak Vietnamese and the bartender has never felt the need to learn this European language, their Skype conversations depend on the one language they have in common: English, and the one passion they share: food. His rather limited vocabulary suits me, I love food too and have been told by Vietnamese friends in China that street food in Vietnam is the way to go, it is absolutely the best… Did I detect some bias here?? And what about hygiene?? Best to avoid the empty looking restaurants and stands and head for busy, well-attended eateries ignoring the mouth-watering waft from tender and tasty pork morsels, chicken pieces, flavoursome mince cigars using betel leaves… ‘These days, you eat street food at your own peril,’ my Vietnamese friends advise.
True to my friends’ and the bartender’s words though, food is everywhere in Hanoi. On the pavements street vendors and shopkeepers flaunt their wares, a cornucopia of bright colours fresh from the field (I hope) and exotic, tantalising fruits to tempt passers-by.
Fish, painfully heaving to catch their final breath, vie for attention with large slabs of pork, pink and succulent.
Others peddle their goods from baskets suspended on their bicycles, moving on and attracting customers along the way, or visiting their regular clientele. And who can miss the hard-working sellers eking out a meagre living carrying quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a long bamboo stick) on their shoulders, weighted with an abundance of household goods or produce. For many, life in Vietnam is still tough; progress and development has far from reached all echelons of society here.
In the meantime, the bartender, eager to practise his English, proves an excellent source of information. He is local and directs me to a rather unusual restaurant where they cook poussin (baby chicken) in empty drinks cans. Talking about taking recycling another step further… My curiosity piqued and Google-Map enabled, I set out to find out the street. ‘Mind you get there before six or seven in the evening,’ the bartender calls out as I am ready to leave. ‘Vietnamese people eat early, and they may have sold out if you get there too late.’ I make it to the shop before the rush, plenty of hapless chicks still on display.
I cannot say that looking at those pitiable blackened feet and wretched heads works wonders for my appetite as I watch the cook prise one ready-to-eat bird from its container. To the contrary, I have tried chicken feet in China and, no thank you, I am not quite ready to suck the brains out from a baby chicken’s head… I go in search of more familiar, and to me, palatable restaurant dinner options: fish baked in banana leaf sounds more like it… and some Vietnamese spring rolls. Delectable.