Dark alleys at night are supposed to be avoided. There are bogeymen lurking up them. Our western culture has prejudiced us against walking these passageways. All those books we read, all those films we watched, the stories we were told, the warnings of our elders have conspired to create a fear of long narrow stretches of space that have no light. Characters get murdered there. Monsters suddenly emerge from them. Shady dealings occur.
In Hanoi, fear not. Such corridors are rife, both as interconnecting short cuts through to wider thoroughfares and as dead-ends to private spaces and homes. The Old Quarter, in particular, is a labyrinth of these mostly covered alleyways, black by night and black by day. I suspect that "don't go down dark alleys at night" is not a caution issued here. A great percentage of the population lives in them!
I amble along them to feed my face. There is sometimes light at the end of these tunnels. Bright culinary light.
Down beyond the southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, one such alleyway widens at the end to a cramped community of households, one house being a noodle house. Outside, a little courtyard of grimy chipped walls contains a medieval 'infrastructure' for cooking and washing; solid permanent charcoal cooking hubs, a collection of coal braziers, infant-sized earthenware jars, utensils for slicing and scooping hanging from mangled old coat-hanger wire. The modern world of primary colour plastic is in evidence, too. Torn towels stiff with cooking stains drape the walls along with motorbike helmets, conical hats and flimsy plastic raincoats. Pots and woks abound. This jumbled collection of stuff is emblematic of the Vietnamese woman's lot in life: daily or twice daily visits to market (rain, hail or shine), cooking and washing up, cooking and washing up, cooking and washing up...
Thousands of women across Hanoi attempt to generate extra household income from their cooking, welcoming patrons into their homes to eat. Our noodle vendor directs us up an awkward flight of steps to her second floor sitting room, telling me to mind my big foreign noggin on the way. We pass by her glass service cabinet where orders are placed, ingredients are prepped and ready for assembly. The space in which we eat is in direct contrast to that we walked along to find the vendor. My eyes are bleared momentarily by fluorescent light so bright I could be at the gates of heaven.
When this vendor's array of noodle dishes get set down on the table, there is a risk I will be going to that other place - for committing a gross act of gluttony. Four bowls await consumption: bánh đa trộn is a dry noodle dish comprised of Hải Phòng's brown rice noodles smeared with crab paste and other ingredients which can include fried tofu, sausage meat (giờ), beef, perhaps a bit of crispy deep fried perch and then bean sprouts and morning glory or Chinese celery (rau cần); miến trộn is essentially the same dish with a glass noodle made from tapioca or mung beans offering a slightly different mouthfeel - both are garnished with coriander and crunchy deep fried shallots here; bún ốc is a noodle soup (mentioned here in just the last post) with snails, a stew of turmeric-stained plantain and tofu in a sour tomato broth; and, bánh đúc, an unusual soup containing a gloopy mass of cooked rice starch (bột gạo) which cuts through with a spoon, minced pork, wood ear fungus, fried tofu pillows and coriander. Kalamansi, garlic-infused rice vinegar and chilli paste or flakes can be added to all at the table. This last dish in particular will be subject to further investigation.
This dark alley will be trodden again.