Sometimes the best meals are the random discoveries when original plans go awry. A recent CNN Go article online listed Hanoi’s top ten street food joints, and of course this opened up a whole new side of the city. My friend Allie wanted to sample the bun cha at placed called Bun Cha 34 (#143) of all things and the urge for these grilled pork gut bombs proved irresistible enough to actually get me on a motorbike. Yes, we braved Hanoi’s insane traffic lacking any semblance of law and order just to consume exorbitant amounts of fat and calories. Bun cha is well worth hurtling through Hanoi on a two wheeled death machine.
While gunning it through one last intersection lacking any traffic controls, the sea of motorbikes miraculously parted ways to deliver us safely in front of Bun Cha 37. One major non-motorized obstacle stood in our way though…this concrete shack of a joint had not quite swung it’s gated doors open. We arrived at 5pm. Come on now. This is dinner time already. I mean thousands of old folks in Florida would have already dined on their early bird specials at Denny’s and passed out in front of the 5pm TV news by now.
The fresh herbs and meats were just being delivered and progress to assemble a restaurant out of the stacked stools and piles of dishes lining the filthy sidewalk was of course moving at a glacial pace. We knew grills would still need to heat up and pork patties formed by bare, most likely unwashed hands, and we decided it was time to fish or cut bait. Hunger is a powerful motivator indeed so we hopped back on the bikes to maneuver ever so slowly looking for a restaurant not too shocking to Allie’s senses.
We seemed to have landed in “snail street” judging by all the signs advertising ốc, and a decent crowd slurping and burping down some sort of soup filled one place called Thuy at 13 Hoe Nhai. See, people do eat at 5pm. The wall menu had more variants of bún ốc than I could decipher and Allie asked what this type of soup was. Since I was starving and knew she’d vehemently veto these snails she hadn’t even ever before tried, I simply said, “Not sure.” There was some truth wrapped up in this admission as I really did not know what sort of street delicacy bún ốc would turn out to be beyond noodles and a rubbery bug inhabiting a slimy shell in some rice paddy. I said, “Let’s order and find out for sure.”
Within seconds Allie had fished a boiled snail out of the clear broth, and had it perched in between her chopsticks. She commented on what a curious looking meatball this was and took a bite. As the look on her face contorted, she expelled the offending rubbery ball with great fanfare into the trash can under the metal table. The owner quickly rushed over and shouted something in rapid fire Vietnamese. I could tell this old woman was upset so I quickly began snatching rubbery snails out of my soup one after the other and eating them with a smile to show all was good. She squinted at us and walked away.
In the end Allie agreed the spicy soup minus the snails was great. I enjoyed the entire dish with the fresh herbs, seriously spicy base with a slightly tomato-like gumbo taste, and silky rice noodles. The owner watched us like a hawk and sent nods of approval my way while Allie ate under the glare of the stink eye. This is what happens when westerners are unleashed in a locals only place. I love it.