I like the entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese.
They are a 'get-up-and-go' kind of people; blindly optimistic, vague and blundering at times, yes, but the energy is generally positive. Get rich quick schemes are rife, business ideas go from mere utterance to reality in a matter of weeks. "What can we do to make more money?" is pondered by affluent and impoverished alike. Things happen here. And when they stop happening, they get hit with a hammer until they start happening again.
This rush forward is no more in evidence than in the retail and restaurant sector. With so much cheap labour available it's not impossible to get a shop or eatery fitted out and operational in no time. Carpenters and handymen can be picked up on the side of the road in the manner of a hitch-hiker, their saws and rudimentary tool kits the thumb to indicate they're looking for a ride to a day's work. Building laws are somewhat lax so the quality of the workmanship is hardly if ever inspected and even if it is, compliance can be obtained by the contents of a white envelope, appropriately thick. Of course, the fixtures may come down and the pipes might spring a leak but...hammer, sticky-tape, and a shonky repair job will have everything operational again within minutes.
Whack up a sign, hire a few young kids from the countryside, tell all your friends you've opened up a shop, light a few incense sticks and open up the doors for business.
Okay, so I might have over-simplified that slightly but there is a naivety that is at times admirable and refreshing. And at other times, it is just plain silly. I've witnessed 17 year-old girls open up a shoe shop in a crack in the wall that can't be seen by passers-by. On a larger scale, I've seen huge colonial villas in prime locations gutted, renovated, lavishly adorned in silk, lacquer, porcelain and bamboo and converted into restaurants. Months later, with no customers but still the full compliment of staff, they close.
On Saturday, I found that someone has established a little touch of Japan in an unlikely - and potentially unpropitious - location, way out of the Old Quarter by the side of a stagnant pond across from which is the Ngoc Ha community house. Other than those who know of the cut-through from Ngọc Hà Street to Đội Cấn Street, this is basically local traffic only and as far as I know the area is no 'little Tokyo'. I'm not sure of the target market and I'm not sure that the proprietor is either.
But in this location, the place has an edge, an open-air izakaya vibe and Hanoi alley chaos to boot.
The house specialty is purported in signage and menu to be bánh xèo, the fantastic rice flour pancake, yellow and crisp with a filling of shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Here, the pictures and the product presented on the sizzling iron plate tell a different story, a crispy battered outside criss-crossed with mayonnaise, scattered with beni shōga and finely chopped spring onions. Inside, a filling of shredded cabbage and pork is hot and luscious.
In my mouth, it is the multi-syllabled flavour mish-mash of okonomiyaki; a creamy, rich, spicy, crunchy everything all-at-once - much more Japan than Vietnam.
In a clever up-sell just as I was wiping the mayo from my lips, the takoyaki were just being pronged out of their electric tray. I don't know about you but little fried balls of batter containing squid, when offered, are not to be refused.
I'm hoping this funky little take on Japan in the 'burbs of Hanoi is still open the next time I pass by.
Bánh Xèo Nhật Bản
23A Ngo 158 Ngọc Hà
Ba Đình District