The dragon and the turtle

The dragon and the turtle

Luke Nguyen
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson


Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. It is a charming and beautiful old city, which only a few years ago celebrated 1000 years of existence. Much of the nostalgia experienced here is due to the melding of original Chinese, Vietnamese and French architecture and the city layout.

Located beside the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi’s old quarter retains its original 36 streets, their origins dating back to the thirteenth century, and their names announcing the product that once was traded there, like silver street, hat street, fish street, medicine street, cotton street and so on. Nowadays the streets don’t specialise so much in only one product. Luckily for me, Cha Ca Street still dishes up the delicious Hanoian specialty, ‘Cha ca’: snakehead fish fillet, panfried at the table in a turmeric and dill marinade, then tossed in a vermicelli, peanut and herb salad. An absolute must-try dish on your visit to the old town.

Hundreds of years of Hanoian life and history are captured in these energetic streets, once connected to major waterway routes via canals. Hanoi was crowned capital and political hub of French Indochina in 1902. The beautiful wide boulevards, streets and timeless French villas and estates that make this city such a charming visual experience can be equally as telling of the slavery and war that engulfed the community during French colonial rule.

Today, Hanoi is a city on the move, and as everywhere in Vietnam, street food is a major part of the culture. For the Vietnamese, street food is more than just a convenient way of eating; it’s a lifestyle, which I feel is the envy of many in the West. Street food in Hanoi seems more accessible than it is in Saigon these days. As I walk through the old quarter, street food seems to be everywhere — from early morning until late evening.

Now if you want to see the streets come alive with activity, you have to get up super early, as the Hanoians like to wake before sunrise to exercise or to simply eat breakfast, so this is when the street-food vendors also come out to play.

One of my favourite street-food vendors is Chi Hong, and she has been selling a local dish called ‘Bun cha’ for 20 years. Just off Hang Cot Street, under the railway bridge, I walk down a narrow lane until I reach her house. At 6 am, the doors and windows are wide open. It is a tiny, narrow home with stuff everywhere; there is not much room to move. Large bags are stacked on top of each other in front of old tall wooden cupboards that sit next to two single beds, which double as sofas during the day.

Chi Hong enters with 10 kg of pork belly and asks me to start slicing. I’ve come to learn her recipe, but I guess she has other plans. I find some space on her floor, place a thick chopping board on top of a small plastic stool and begin to thinly slice the belly and place it in a large tub, as Chi Hong adds spring onion, red Asian shallots, honey, salt, pepper and fish sauce.

As we slice and massage the meat with the tasty marinade, Chi Hong tells me her father passed down this very same recipe to her, and now the whole family is involved with the street-food business. She lives with her two sisters, who each have husbands and kids — and they all live in the same cramped home. Each morning, they wake at 4.30, buy their fresh produce from the markets, and spend four hours prepping for the day.

By 8 am my 10 kg of pork belly is all marinated; half thinly sliced, half made into small patties. Now we have to set up the stall. We unpack the plastic furniture and set up ten tables of four along the street, fire up some charcoal on the kerb and start chargrilling the belly and pork patties. Within half an hour, the smoky aroma lures people in and the breakfast rush begins. The grilled meat is served with a warm delicate sweet fish sauce, pickled green papaya, fresh herbs, vermicelli noodles and crushed roasted peanuts — all for less than $1!

After breakfast, I walk through the old quarter to discover more local dishes and see a little stall with a tiny table out front, with cans of soft drink and beer — only the tops are cut out of the cans and there are two tiny black feet sticking out of each one. The feet belong to freshly killed black chickens. This stall gets baby Silkie chickens, places them upside down in a can, stuffs them with Chinese medicinal herbs, adds some rice wine and soy sauce, then steams them until tender. They don’t look all that appetising, but they are so incredibly tender and delicious. Oh, and the stallholder says they are good for you, too.

A few doors down, I notice a long queue forming. Scooters and motorbikes also pull up; they shout out their order to an elderly man and wait on their bikes. The elderly man sits in front of two large pots, both on high heat. He lifts the first lid up with his left hand, revealing some muslin (cheesecloth), which is stretched tight around the large pot. He then ladles some thin rice batter onto the muslin, distributing it evenly in a circular motion, then places the lid back on. He repeats this process with the other pot, all of this taking no longer than five seconds. His movements are elegant and swift, like he has been doing this all his life.

The batter is steamed for less than a minute; he then passes the super-thin rice noodle on a flat bamboo stick to his wife, who places a mound of ground pork, thinly sliced mushrooms and red Asian shallot on top and rolls it up. She tops the rolled noodles with blanched bean sprouts, cucumber, mint and a drizzle of warm fish sauce. The whole process has such technique and the finished dish looks so amazing that I have to sit down and try one. Each noodle is made to order, and is worth the wait. The noodles are extremely thin, soft and silky, the fish sauce not too salty, and the herbs add such fragrance and texture.

After spending some time eating my way through this nostalgic city, I notice that the Hanoian palate is very different to that in the rest of the country, particularly the south. Food in Hanoi is not at all bland, but it is more elegant — simpler but refined. Flavours are light and delicate: not as spicy as in the centre, and not as sweet and complex as the south.

A great example is the much-loved ‘pho’. In Saigon, southerners cook pho for 8–10hours, using 10 different spices, and they eat it with added bean sprouts, saw-tooth coriander, rice paddy herb, basil, chilli, spring onion, chilli sauce, fish sauce and hoisin sauce. In Hanoi, you simply get a beef broth with rice noodles, slices of beef, some sliced spring onion and that’s it. Not too many spices are used, only star anise, black cardamom, cloves and peppercorns, so the broth is clean and clear. I must admit, I do prefer the northern-style pho, but my parents will not be happy if they ever find out…

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long, or Descending Dragon Bay, is not only a stunning natural landscape, but an ancient site steeped in folklore and stories of gods and dragons, who are said to have descended to Earth to protect their people and land from invaders.

Locals describe the body of the dragon in the landscape, moving their hand over the shapes of the Ha Long mountains, depicting her back and tail, then curling their hand at the heart of the bay, where the dragon mother’s head is said to lie.

Pulling into Ha Long City, nothing is given away by this uncharismatic port town; indeed, the magic lies offshore, in the mirrored waters of the bay itself, shrouded in a cloud of mist.

The ever-changing colours of the sky throughout the day are dramatic and breathtaking, and its clear turquoise waters make Ha Long Bay a highly popular tourist destination, informally nicknamed the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.

Hidden inside the bay are four floating fishing villages, populated by 1600 locals who live here permanently, protected and shielded by some 3000 mountains and island formations surrounding them.

Here, the youngest children have never even walked on solid ground — some not until primary school age. I cannot imagine what it must be like for these kids to have never felt the earth beneath their feet.

As I hop off my boat and onto their floating homes, I pay attention to my each and every step, trying to distribute my weight carefully while crossing floating platforms; meanwhile the kids jump and run, without a second thought to the motion underfoot.

The kids have floating schoolhouses for their early school years, and later go to the mainland for further schooling. Most houses have at least one dog that acts as a security guard. Many parents and families work at home, or on nearby ocean farms; most opt to farm their own fish, right beneath their lounge room floors.

I’m here to meet Mr Thai, a local fisherman who has three generations living in this floating village. He invites me into his home, which I consider a great privilege — rarely are outsiders allowed to set foot on the floating houses.

Mr Thai explains that the idea of constructing floating villages in Ha Long Bay arose thousands of years ago. In the past, fishermen had to set out very early in the morning from the mainland; once they caught their catch, they then had to make the long journey back. But living directly on the water, among their fishing grounds, cuts their travel time by half, allowing them to spend more time with their family.

Mr Thai’s home looks to stay afloat on top of six large blue barrels. There are no doors, everything is open; there is absolutely no privacy in these homes.

His wife sits on the veranda, rocking their son, who is sleeping in a hammock. Their wooden floorboards are painted pastel green, and under the boards, swimming around underneath his house, are thousands of fish that Mr Thai has caught in the past months, which he sells, when they grow bigger, for 150,000 Vietnamese dong per kilo.

But it is not fish that I am here to cook: it is the special Ha Long mussels, which are ever so juicy and plump.

Mr Thai suggests that I simply throw them on the grill and finish them off with spring onion oil and peanuts, but I’d really like him to try something different — something he hasn’t tried before. I’d like him and his family to sample mussels cooked in a light lemongrass-infused coconut sauce, with Vietnamese mint and chilli.

Mr Thai says he is unfamiliar with my fragrant mussel dish, but is looking forward to trying it.

As I am cooking, he yells out for some cold beer — and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a lady comes rowing past and passes him a few cold ones. She is the local corner shop and bottleshop it seems; she rows around the floating village and brings goods to your front door.

As I begin to plate the dish, he grabs a mussel from the bowl, sips the coconut sauce from its shell, and is very impressed with the intricate, delicate flavours. He’s so delighted with the dish that he demands I cook some more, as he wants to invite his neighbours!

I’m a bit nervous, as there are 150 homes with 500 inhabitants in this village. I can’t cook for all of them, but I’m able to cook another four serves and keep his next-door neighbours happy at least.

Now if you are unable to score an invitation from a local to visit their floating home, do what the Vietnamese tourists do: ask the skipper of your boat to take you to one of the many floating farms that sell live crab, mantis prawns, cuttlefish, squid, mussels, clams and over fifteen species of fish. Pick out what you want, then ask the chef on board your boat to cook it any way you like.

Or do what I did, and buy a few live red crabs and cook them yourself, by lightly coating them with potato starch, then flash-frying them with chilli, garlic, spring onions, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

In Ha Long Bay you will find hundreds of old wooden Chinese-looking boats, known as junks, on offer to tourists. Some can carry up to 80 people, but I suggest that you find a smaller junk that takes no more than 20 people, so you can have a more intimate Ha Long Bay experience.

You’ll need to spend at least one night on board cruising the entire area. However, there is so much seafood variety here that you’ll really need a couple of days to sample everything on offer.

This is the best way to experience Ha Long Bay, and my favourite part of being here. The seafood is so incredibly fresh, diverse, and literally right at your doorstep.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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