The world must be off its axis. Back home in Atlanta the temperature soared to a record breaking 106 degrees recently and Hanoi, which should be hitting 100+ was cool, cloudy any maybe upper 70s in the morning. This type of weather makes getting out and exploring new foods even more enticing, and that steaming bowl of soup doesn’t heat our bodies up even more than the sauna like, smog filled miasma normally suffocating the city.
My arrival for a night or two each week in Hanoi makes me wonder how I would have been able to undertake this food journey had I still been living here in the capital city. The food choices just aren’t as vast as Saigon, and people seem to find satisfaction in a handful of noodle based dishes. Don’t they get tired of eating the same few items day in and day out? I mean it’s like if we were to eat a hamburger each day of the week but rotating amongst Burger King, McDonalds and Wendys.
At 25 Xuan Dieu Road in the Tay Ho neighborhood, an open front restaurant overlooking the festering lake serves a variety of wonton soups. What a nice change from the usual suspects such as beef pho, and I tried in vain to place an order for mì sủi cảo which literally translates as sparkling noodles. They understood “mi xao” which means fried noodles. No, I want the soup, not a heap of wok fried mess. So I walked over to a picture on the wall, stood under it, and pointed directly to mì sủi cảo. The woman then pointed to the mi xao picture on the opposite wall since that was what she had heard the first time. Tapping my picture with my hand confused her even more so she tapped her picture in response.
An older man came to the rescue with a picture menu but nowhere on it did I see mì sủi cảo. Some badly translated items such as “puller sparkle beef” came close yet just were not what I saw on the wall picture. Somehow the woman miraculously picked up on the fact that I desired mì sủi cảo and mì sủi cảo only. What arrived minutes later though was in the ballpark but not exactly what I ordered. I am not complaining for it was good.
Eight soft wontons stuffed with shrimp along with one random fried specimen containing the same sweet filling floated around in a bowl of clear broth tasting much like wonton soup in America. A generous heap of sliced bok choy added a bit of tart and half a hardboiled egg gave a bit of savory infusion. Slices of pork and beef rounded this one out.
Let’s compare this $2 bowl of goodness to a wonton soup back home. First of all, we are lucky to receive one sticky, salty ravioli stuffed with a chunk of grey pork. And have you also ever noticed how the meat is usually one pathetic strip of pork about the size and length of a julienned carrot? This Hanoi version has actual slices of meat and several to boot. A side order of eight wontons in America would probably set us back $6 or $7, and I can see this mì sủi cảo with shrimp costing close to $10 were it to even be offered. Best of all the Hanoi version has a huge helping of firm, wheat based noodles and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a similar version in the US.
Even if ordering breakfast in Hanoi can sometimes prove to be a frustrating exercise in patience, miming, pointing, and just accepting whatever arrives, chances are it will taste good and provide great bang for the buck, or actually I should say Dong. Yes, eating here provides great bang for the Dong. That’s their currency…minds out of the gutter everyone!