Hanoi is developing but it is also dilapidated. Gleaming new cars drive alongside putrid motorbikes held together by the splattered pig slops they transport. A sharp glass edifice of a building stands in sharp contrast next to the mildewed ochre facade of once stately colonial villas. Boys with sharply angled coiffs gelled to attention escort their black toothed betel-addicted grandmas across gridlocked intersections.
There are restaurants housed in the courtyards of modern office complexes and streetfood eateries set up in the crumbling cluttered doorways of the people.
Old is juxtaposed against new, clean against dirty, obscene and decadent against pure and simple.
So pure and simple that almost anyone can whack a pot on the street and start serving breakfast. With the aid of a trolley or a husband, the women of the alleys of Hanoi orchestrate the lugging and arrangement of their product on a stretch of curb or the more prominent doorstep of a neighbour. The utensils and ingredients, the small collection of plastic stools and tables, the money tin and other sundry items are meticulously placed within a half-arm arc of the proprietress and her pot. I must say there is something to be admired in the Vietnamese ingenuity of operating a business without having to ever stand up.
Which is just as well because some of these women are as ancient as the doorways they inhabit. In the western world, women of this age would have retired to their gardens, their grandchildren, their needlework, their cruise ships, their long-deserved leisurely autumn years. But in Vietnam, even grandma has to earn her keep.
Rugged up against the cold, she sets up a pot of rice porridge (chao) to feed the neighbourhood breakfast. Prepared using pork ribs (suon), this thick viscous version does not contain the broken pieces of rice of other chao establishments. In the pot, it spits occasionally like a hot mud bath might and when grandma is serving the porridge, it is reluctant to leave the ladle and almost has to be thrown at the bowl.
On the porridge's surface, minced pork is scattered and quay (deep fried fingers of airy bread) is cut with scissors. I add heat and spice in the form of pepper and chili flakes before dragging everything under the surface to coat it with salty cloying chao.
And, despite the stiff breeze, the whole experience warms me. Being served by grandma, sitting in a doorway that nobody seems to enter anymore, spooning a steaming simple porridge into me, I can momentarily forget the white noise of progress all around me.
Au Co St, near lane 124