When I first came to Vietnam in 2002, the streets were frenetic with colour. The people were all go and no stop, possessed with an industry that made me tired. The mangoes were going by bicycle, the chickens and ducks faster, feathers ruffled in the slipstream of millions of motorbikes in a hurry. Hanoi was positively floral, each street corner a mini-Chelsea flower show. The hats on the heads of the country's women were crazy paisley psychedelia, hot pink lace, big yellow bows, rainbow rims. In short, the joint was a kaleidoscopic blur, hard to process.
But I persisted. And nine years on, I've changed and Vietnam's changed. It seems that my views have been coloured while the vibrancy of the colours around me seem to have dulled. My personal vista is greyer.
The tables I graze at are not, thankfully.
On one of Hanoi's blue formica tables last weekend, I went central. That is to say I reacquainted myself with a taste of Huế, Vietnam's old capital located on the country's middle coast. Famed for its eccentric 'royal cuisine', the city also boasts a sexy range of savoury rice and tapioca flour snacks as well as the ballsiest noodle soup of them all, bún bò Huế.
Before I go any further, let me just say that this establishment in Hanoi does an interpretation of bún bò Huế, which would not please purists. Yes the dish is a celebration of protein in all its visceral glory, a porky-beefy marriage in a bowl. There is beef shank, chunks of pig's blood, pig's trotters, sliced tender 'corned beef' (chin), steamed pork balls...in short, the butcher involved is making a good profit. A pleasant side plate of crisp vegetable content in the form of bean sprouts, shredded banana flower and herbs also scores points.
The problem lies with the soup. The pungency and colour of bún bò Huế is delivered by lemongrass, annatto and chili. Here it's virtually a clear pho broth with only the slightest hint of the right aromatics.
Bánh bèo is the simplest of snacks done up with a colourful throw of dried shrimp dust (tôm khô), slightly sweetened croutons and perfect sprigs of mint. The flat white disks of steamed rice cake lay underneath, camouflaged by the plate. In many Huế restaurants they are served separately in their own small ramekins. Of course, this dish is nothing but dry and bland without nước chấm, a nước chấm with extra chili, in the true spirit of Huế cuisine.
A similar colour scheme is seen in another of Hue's specialties, bánh bột lọc, also on offer at this eatery in Hanoi. These dumplings consist of a filling of shrimp and sometimes pork encased in a dough made not from rice flour, but instead tapioca flour. This gives the dumpling a semiopaque appearance and quite an unusual sticky quality in the mouth. Again, the dipping sauce is essential to this dish's success.
This orange and green on white is a spectacular foodscape, photogenic and reminiscent - at least in my sensibility - of nature.
In one way or another, Vietnam's plates are continuing to string me along.
Bún Bò Huế O. Xuân
3 Quang Trung
(next door to Vietnam Airlines ticketing HQ)