My husband and I signed up for a cooking class and market tour with the Hanoi Cooking Center (hanoicookingcentre.com ). We were the only 2 participants at the program and our guide is Linh, the chef in training. Hanoi Cooking Center’s kitchen is right after the front reception. There’s courtyard behind the kitchen and after that there’s a bookstore. The restaurant is on the second floor. Gordon Ramsay was here as evidenced by the photo on the wall.
The wet market is close by and along the way, there are stores selling dried goods. Linh was a pretty good guide, showing us the ingredients used commonly in Vietnamese cooking, like the fish sauce (particularly the one made in Phu Quoc Island is the best), galanjal, various types of rice, and dried produce.
We had a chance to see where the regular Vietnamese shop for food. In fact the wet market is reminiscent of what we used to have in Singapore, and which only a few left. The fresh produce is a wonderful sight, really beautiful vegetables including herbs, seafood like live shrimp, fish, clams, crabs, and strangely only a couple of meat stalls. The place is literally wet, perhaps because of the rain the night before, but the place doesn’t smell like how the market back home does. There’s a stall vendor selling silk worms and Linh asked us if we would be interested to try. My husband was game but I’m not into fear factor bravado. One thing we found out from him is that you don’t touch any of the produce. The vendors in Hanoi markets don’t like it.
The locals also ride their mopeds into the wet market as you can see from the picture below. The moped goes anywhere. There was an interesting observation at the wet market. We were at the silkworm store which also sells shredded coconut. One of the ladies placed a bag of shredded coconut on the display stand but unfortunately the bag fell onto the wet floor. She came out of the store, scooped up the coconut on the floor into the bag (well she scooped as much as she could except for the layer directly in contact with the floor) and put the bag back onto the display stand. I was a little shocked by this as I thought she would just pick up the bag and whatever remaining in it. But on the other hand, I know she had to minimize loss as much as possible since it’s her livelihood. It’s just that for me, coming from a more prosperous country, it was a little incredible.
Along the road, there are also street vendors selling fruits like durian, mangosteen, papaya and avocado etc, and they look awesome. But what I really love is the flower vendors, and it amazes me that there are roses, lilies, sunflowers and best of all, lotus flowers which I think is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve always wanted to buy a bunch of lotus flowers home, which are so difficult to get in Singapore.
Anyway back at the cooking school which also has a restaurant on the second floor and a bookstore at the back of the kitchen, we were shown by Linh how to prepare the ingredients for 4 dishes which we would have for lunch . Many of the ingredients were already prepared for us and so we basically just did some chopping and frying. I’ve to say that the dishes require a little too much preparation work which don’t seem practical for novices. We made breaded spring rolls (which are actually fried by Linh), a stewed caramel chicken/pork (again was braised for us), a banana flower salad which at least we did put together, and a dessert which was solely made by Linh. The food tasted better than they looked, hahah, but I guess that was because of our poor presentation skill.
During the prep process, Linh made us iced green tea ( the tea leaves bought from the market) and cooked a betel leaves omelette for us, which was so good despite being such a simple dish. Since it’s not easy getting betel leaves in Singapore, Linh suggested we use spring onion/chive as a substitute.
Guess what? We found silkworm in the wet market which Linh bought for us as my husband wanted to try. I thought it was eaten live and I wasn’t into ‘Fear Factor’ and said ‘no thank you’. But to my surprise, Linh pan-fried it with peanut oil and sprinkle of kafir leaves, and turned out the silkworm was yummy. In fact it tasted like potatoes! We ended up finishing the entire plate, hahahah!
The program cost US$50 per person. I’ve to admit I don’t think we learn much cooking skills though. We had also signed up for the street food tour with Hanoi Cooking Center as well but decided to do a self-guided tour instead, based on the eatery suggestions taken from Travellers magazine. We checked out this Pho eatery, Pho Bo Gia Truyen, at 49 Bat Dan street.
It’s a hole in the wall eatery (most Vietnamese eateries are hole in the wall anyway) by a narrow road, with proper tables and chairs inside the restaurant and low tables and stools outside. My husband had no idea if the seller can speak English but at least he knows what to order.
The beef noodles looked wonderful, as you can see from the picture, full of herbs. The stock is simply awesome and the beef is tender!
My husband loves it so much and declared it was the best beef Pho he had ever eaten, which I have to agree to. The beef stock has a subtle flavor and the herbs add a light sweetness to it. It is also rather cheap, the Pho Tai Nam (noodles with sliced beef and beef stomach) is only 40,000 Dong, which is $2.40. Though that might be expensive for Vietnam standard. Hopefully you don’t mind the ick factor of the chopsticks being washed in a pail outside the shop.
We then moved on to our next destination, a legendary crepe place at 14 Hang Ga street. We were expecting something like the western crepe, but turned out it was very similar to the Chinese steamed rice roll (cheong fun).
Unfortunately the menu on the wall is in Vietnames, just like the Pho place. My husband knows that ‘tai’ is beef in vietnamese and so decided to order the one with beef and tried our luck with another dish (which we had no idea what it was but suspected it was chicken). They didn’t look fabulous though they come with basils and limes and fish sauce for dressing. When we tried it, it turned out to be pretty good, the rice roll is really thin and goes pretty well with the lime and fish sauce. We really like it that the vietnamese add herbs to the dishes. Gives them a light flavor.
We went to the next place that sells rice noodles at 64 Hang Dieu Street, called Bun Bo Nam Bo. But we were pretty full and so we didn’t try the food but vowed to return.
By then, it was the late morning and it was really getting hot. We were also trying to find a restroom, which we finally did at this partially completed mall. Funny thing about this mall is that the only shops that were operating were all liquor stores. It’s also one of the few places with AC which we were dying for.
After we took a break at this cafe, we decided to check out the food court, Nha Hang Gon at 26A-B Tran Hung Dao street. It’s called a food court because it has various stalls selling street food under one roof.
I think the owner is trying to maximize seating capacity because the chairs placed so close to each others, 6 chairs on each side of 2 tables placed side by side. So to be honest, I didn’t have high expectations of the food which I figured would be run of the mill. We ordered bun cha (grilled pork with cold noodles), ban xeo (Vietnamese pancake), fried shrimp pancake, grilled oysters, and a green sticky rice with shredded coconut (a dessert).
I fell in love with the ban xeo. Basically it comes with a paper rice roll, which you use to wrap a shrimp crepe, bean sprouts and fresh herbs, and dip the wrap in a fish sauce dressing. It was so good, the thin crepe gives it a nice crunch while the herbs provide the light leafy texture. We simply love it that Vietnamese use so much fresh herbs in their food, instead of cooking the vegetables which most other Asian cuisine do. We also love the subtleness of Vietnamese cuisine which uses fresh ingredients to enhance the flavor of the food. Even for fried food, it’s not heavy. Seriously Vietnamese street food is rather healthy compared to those found in other countries, and the liberal use of herbs also encourage the kids to take to greens.
Later that afternoon, we decided to check out the afternoon tea and chocolate buffet at Sofitel Metropole hotel. My husband had the afternoon tea while I decided to throw caution to the wind and had the chocolate buffet (hell, I’m on vacation and have the right to indulge).
The chocolate buffet does not have a lot of selections, and strangely they even serve light sandwiches, scones and papaya smoothies but I thought those were good additions to the sweet chocolate. The food is not bad and the lounge has a good ambience.
The buffet supposedly ends at 5.00pm but I supposed this being Vietnam, there’s no straight and fast rules because the buffet was still continuing past 5.30pm. The lounge is also a good place for people watching. My husband spotted this two Vietnamese guys whom he thought might be the VCP cadres because the maitre’d went over to greet them. but they wouldn’t be caught openly indulging in bourgeois activities and so he thought maybe one of the guys was a bag man for the VCP. He looks like a noveau riche but that wouldn’t warrant the special treatment, and not likely he belongs to the mob since it’s unlikely there is mafia in Vietnam (the VCP is the mafia anyway). He was quite comical; he ordered the afternoon tea, and he picked up a sandwich from the stand with a fork and started eating it like a piece of fruit. Then he stood up and looked at what was available at the top of the platter stand. We realized he must be rather short, We met him and his girlfriend/wife at the hotel lobby later, and he’s a shorty! There were also a couple of other guys who looked like scions of VCP cadres. They are dressed in expensive clothes but yet not looking chic. This is a good place to have a nice tea and check out interesting people. In fact the place reminds us of Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
Later that evening, we went to Viet Ha, 16 Ly Van Phuc street, to try the bbq chicken. This entire street has shops selling BBQ chicken and other grilled items. Viet Ha is supposedly the best. Well, admittedly the chicken wings are big by Singapore standard, but we think it’s seriously no big deal because personally we think those in Singapore are better.
Since we’re in Hanoi, we decided to try French food at the advice of a few people. I checked out tripadvisor and found that La Badiane (www.labadiane.hanoi.sitew.com) is highly-ranked in Hanoi, and so we booked a table which turned out to be unnecessary as there were few customers even on a Friday night. Honestly, we think it doesn’t deserve the high rating. Both of us had the 3-course meal of starter, main and dessert. My husband had the foie gras in brioche and I had the crab bisque for starters, as for main course, he had steak while I had duck, and he selected banana fritter with vanilla ice cream for dessert while I had the warm chocolate cake with raspberry mousse.
The food was seriously nothing to shout about, in fact the duck was a little too tough. My husband complained that the vanilla ice cream is probably from Haagen Daz. Maybe for the price of less than S$100, we shouldn’t have high expectations. But we have better french food in Singapore. And the fact that the restaurant is opened by French and located in Vietnam, the cost is considerably cheaper than singapore, we expect better quality and not blah food. So no, we’re not recommending La Badiane to anybody.
Honestly we didn’t have good non-Vietnamese food in Hanoi. On the night we arrived, we didn’t want to go far for dinner and so we went to this small shopping center next to Fraser Suites. There was this Japanese restaurant on the ground floor which had many customers and some hand-written menus in Japanese on the wall, so we thought it might serve authentic Japanese food or at least pretty decent. Turned out the food sucks big time. One of the worst Japanese food I ever had. Anyway check out the translation on the menu.