It's the Year of the Horse, my second in Vietnam, marking a full Chinese/Vietnamese zodiac cycle spent in Hanoi. Twelve years! Twelve transformative years, in many ways. My toil in these pages here has enabled me to reinvent myself in ways I never planned when I first penned a post back in 2005. That post was about a dish and vendor I'm still patronising regularly today, a pauper's lunch of fried tofu with noodles and herbs in an alley in the Old Quarter that now has traces of my shoe leather.
This blog, which started out as a creative outlet combining my interests in food and writing, now enables me to pursue those passions as a career. I now experience great pleasure at the delight expressed by the many people I introduce to Hanoi's rich street food culture. Easing travellers down onto the city's plastic stools, de-mystifying and de-constructing the dishes and the eating environment and pointing out the diverse layers of texture to life in this city, in addition to feeding my rice-hole, is now what I do for a living. I feel privileged. And sometimes, I feel fat.
But I never feel bored. Because I, too, continue to discover miniscule pinpricks of Hanoi tapestry; a thread of a food tradition, a deep tunnel with a coal brazier firing up a home-cooked speciality, a second floor balcony with a dozen shiny aluminium pots gleaming in the sun. In a familiar street, if I turn my head in a new direction, at perhaps a different time of the day, I see the lady funnelling blood and gristle into intestines. Or the mobile tea vendor shoving a fresh pot of tea into her putrid styrofoam tea-cosy, ready for another lap of the Đồng Xuân market. In an alcove that I blinked while passing yesterday, today there will be a tap pouring a stream of water into a contraption which grinds glutinous rice into a paint-like liquid for making steamed rice pancakes.
Almost every day, there is (my kind of) magic. And even though I'm far from new in this town, I do like it when I'm treated like so. This week I entered an eatery I'd been in once three years ago. While I'm notorious in certain alleyways in Hanoi, these people had their 'shit-it's-a-foreigner-what-do-we-do' faces on. Even the handful of other customers, in this situation, are somewhat ill-at-ease, perhaps thinking that they will have to participate in the puzzle of finding out if I know what I want. Each of them is looking into their soup. I order, in Vietnamese, and the atmosphere is lighter immediately. Always, one person will remark that I can speak Vietnamese (I can't really!) and a bit of conversation occurs, about me.
"He speaks Vietnamese"
"He's eating crab noodle soup with tofu."
"Now, he's putting chilli into his soup"
I ask the boy next to me for the vinegar. Mirth is now in the air. Vietnamese, again from a white face. How about that? We eat. They stop talking about me. They are now not sure how much I understand. On the way out, I request a toothpick. Someone says, "He must be fluent."
God, I love Hanoi.
Bún Riêu Cua Đậu
43 Bát Đàn