A gradual sanitisation of street food is occuring. I have alluded to it before, as have others. It's not happening overnight but to an attuned observer, the subtle changes in Hanoi's foodscape are hitting like a sledgehammer. A certain slickness along with a raised level of hygiene awareness is creeping its way around the city's streets and alleys
The forerunner of this change was the now ubiquitous Pho 24 chain of noodle soup franchises, all fresh, green, glassy and somewhat global, these days. Minimalist decor and stainless steel surfaces abound in these outlets which have now really gained a foothold in the Hanoi market, after some initial resistance from northern pho slurpers earlier on.
Now, their success is spurring others to move out of the gutter and into the slickstream. I hit a spot just before venturing to Laos that exemplifies the trend. A non-descript side street just off the north end of the old quarter provides an address for this noodle house. Fancy green signage and lick of paint on the interior walls - a la Pho 24 - greet me but what I notice are the gleaming surfaces, grime free cooking equipment and spotless floors. For local eateries, this is the exception rather than the rule.
Deeper incursion into this unfamiliar territory uncovers objects from some hygiene time capsule from the future: tongs and plastic food handling gloves, objects that ten years ago were met with "What are they?"and five years ago with "they'll never catch on." But Hanoi's street food operators are slowly adopting food handling practices long established in the west and, it must be said, this is a welcome trend.
Fearless as I am, peace of mind in this regard is a pleasant change. In this place, I don't have to rub dry napkin on bamboo chopsticks in a futile attempt to clean them nor do I have to examine the fingernails of the girl dropping ice blocks into my glass. I don't have to kick myself a space free of spat bones, squashed lime wedges and soggy napkins to settle my big hooves. In the moments before the food arrives, I don't quite know what to do with myself except to take in all of the cleanliness around me.Then I notice something else.
Plastered across the back wall is a mighty big expensive brand new flatscreen TV, volume turned down (another first!) showing a dead boring Russian docu on Russian luxury cars. The docu is not the only thing that's dull. The entire culinary experience has been altered along with the paintjob and signage. I slurp down my banh da tom (brown Haiphong noodles with shrimp) in silence and, instantly I'm longing for the barking grunt and grime of real street food.