Hanoi is baking in hot summer sun and there hasn't been much rain about this year to take the edge off the heat. A savage storm or two but long periods with not a drop. The city population seeks respite in the breeze coming off a lake or the down draught from wind hitting the taller buildings. The public swimming pools are seething aquariums in the late afternoons; all neon swimsuits, pitchy kid-noise and chlorine vapour. There was deafening cicada clicking earlier in the summer. And coughing frogs now. Dry coughing frogs.
So as we all wait for rain, I might as well eat a hot bowl of noodle soup. It's not possible to feel any hotter. And then there's this theory that hot bowls of soup have cooling properties. For me, the jury's still out on that one. Let me take my hot noodle soup in the morning before my shirt is at one with my skin.
In one of the Old Quarter's narrower passageways, where a preposterous array of fake flowers is being sold at one end, there is a noodle vendor crouching in a grimy room about the size of a shipping container. Its lime green walls are blighted up high by Hanoi's damp climate and lined down low with a huddle of patient customers. This vendor is old-school, dealing her bowls of noodles from ingredients arranged in baskets, transported here by shoulder yoke. She no longer needs to ply her trade by arduous walking around the streets as she has permanent traction in this alley. In fact, a whole 'infrastructure' seems to have arisen around her, enabling her to serve more customers. The whole community in this alley seems to be profiting from her fame, in one way or another.
In many a previous attempt at getting this vendor's noodles to my mouth, I've been intimidated both by her crankiness and by what I interpreted as the other customers closing ranks on me, the foreigner, in that uncomfortable cupboard where she served. There never seemed to be a parking spot for my motorbike, either. I just wasn't able to time it right or crack the code on the situation. My usual bravado and attempts to ingratiate myself had fallen flat. I'd ride off muttering "fuck it" time and time again.
Today the situation is changed. When I pull up this time, as always, the first priority is to solve the parking puzzle. As convenient as eating street food in Vietnam may be, it has not reached a point where one can just dwell in the vicinity of the stall - on one's motorbike seat - and call for a bowl of soup. Parking protocol must be observed. An old lady from the cupboard opposite says with a smile, "park here". Very shortly after, in a random set of manoeuvres performed by more people covertly in this vendor's service, I am seated in a line of blue and yellow communal tables that have materialised next to a sugarcane juice crank. I am suddenly drinking its outflow.
During a wait that would only be tolerated for Hanoi's best street food vendors, I don't even catch full sight of her. She is obscured by a throng of yet more customers, all subtly and not-so-subtly placing orders and reminding her of orders already placed. There is Hanoi vibe all around; girl children in hello kitty night dresses, perspiration on their brows and not fully recovered from an uncomfortable night's sleep, are staring at me from across the table. A roving vendor selling limes and sour plums is transacting with my new best friend, the elderly parking matron. A bloke with a knife and scissor cart trundles by. He makes a sale, too. Wailing CD music emanates from the cupboard directly behind me, which before long is accompanied by the discordant pipes of the elderly father of the sugar cane juice vendor. Yep, karaoke at 8am.
Money can't buy better entertainment when one is waiting for a bowl of snail noodle soup.
Two kinds of snails feature in this bowl, one small, one large, both chewy. A salty-sour tomato broth is given depth of flavour with a heavy daubing of Hanoi's most contentious condiment, mắm tôm, a pungent fermented shrimp sauce mentioned often in these pages. It needs to be swirled in to distribute it evenly, as does any chilli sauce added at the table. Large bowls of herbs, lettuce, banana stem and curly morning glory stem accompany each bowl. The herbs I pluck out especially for this dish are perilla (tía tô), Vietnamese mint (rau răm) and lemon balm (kinh giới).
At this moment in this summer, getting these noodles down is hot work. Just as many napkins are being used to dab at beads of sweat as those being used for missing one's mouth. Once done, quickly getting wind on one's person is paramount. Cracking the code for payment prolongs matters, however. The karaoke singer breaks off mid-crescendo when he somehow hears me call for the bill. Money gets diverted to all who've had a hand in proceedings, including my kindly parking attendant. Before I mount my bike for getaway, I attempt to get a decent photograph of the vendor's cramped work space. Predictably, she roars at me and waves me away.
Hot and bothered, still waiting the relief of rain, another muttered "fuck it" escapes from my lips.
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