Hanoi is weird cold.
Temperatures don't drop much below 10c, there's no snow, frost nor much nipping wind. Yet clothes don't seem to be very effective, even those made from impenetrable materials, as the cold in Hanoi bypasses clothes, takes a circuitous route and somehow ends up in direct contact with the bones. Houses here are draughty, built of concrete and tiles and have the kind of insulation that, at times, seems to have the opposite of the intended effect. That is, after a run of cold days, the temperature inside the house becomes by degrees colder than the air outside. Heating is problematic too; twelve foot high ceilings mean reverse-cycle air-conditioning only works if you're actually living upside-down on the ceiling. Or it may exist in only one room, meaning that one has to rug up to use the bathroom and, indeed, go through serious deliberation before taking a shower (could I go without for one more day?). Other heating options include Chinese bar heaters that one must practically sit on (mind the dressing gown doesn't catch fire) to receive any warmth.
Warming food experiences can help. My recent experience eating the Hanoi stew, sốt vang, gave some respite on a particularly brittle cold day. Getting together with a group of friends around a hotpot is not unlike the medieval concept of the hearth, with the heat emanating from both the portable gas burner where the cooking occurs and the communal closeness of this style of dining, not to mention the compulsory shots of rice liquor. Though they have a tendency to burn rather then warm!
A couple of weeks ago, I sought solace in snails. At the top of an alley syphoning a rigid wind up off Hanoi's West Lake, there is a one woman snail operation set against the wall. As I waited for my snack to be assembled I was jogging on the spot in business attire to stop the onset of icy numbness. The snail vendor was rugged up like a woolly mammoth, her back to the lake draught, her hands working a hook into the tiny spiral shells to remove the edible curlicues.
Behind, she placed a few ladles of a diluted nước chấm into a saucepan over a single gas flame. In front on her tiny stainless steel plated workplace, where I'm also to sit once the food's ready, she pinched a smattering of finely sliced lemongrass and pins of lá chanh (Kaffir lime leaves) into my bowl. The warmth of the dish was beginning to take shape so I stopped my idiotic jumping up and down, and sat.
Vietnam's most versatile noodle, bún (fresh rice vermicelli), is either served separately on a plate alongside the bowl of snails swimming in the heated nước chấm, for dunking, or combined as in the photograph at top. The tangy zest of the lemongrass and lime adds a very likeable aspect to the hot sauce-soup. The snails are gently but not confrontingly chewy, easily swallow-able whole even. In warmer weather, the nước chấm is served cold and the dish has a rather cooling effect.
On this day, I wanted none such thing.
Bún ốc chấm
Ngo 120 Phố Yên Phụ
West Lake, Hanoi