I was rather charmed by this little scene outside the back gates of the Hanoi Intercontinental Hotel this evening.
If I hadn’t been reminded of the Kitchen Gods earlier I might have passed by without giving it a thought.
But it appears the hotel’s chefs were taking a quick break to burn their offerings, sending the Kitchen Gods skywards with reports of their activities for the Jade Emperor ahead of the lunar new year.
I was writing recently of plans to gentrify the Old Quarter. I argued that for better or worse there are still large parts of Hanoi that are “real’. In trying to appease tourists you’d lose the very things that make Hanoi special.
This wasn’t a show for customers – though sadly I bet one day it will be.
Working from home more than ever, if I eat lunch then it’s frequentally at the Xuan Dieu bun cha place.
It being deep in the heart of Tayville this is probably the most whitey patronised street food in the whole of Hanoi. The bun cha is good, if not fantastic. The nem though are especially tasty. Despite not quite making it up with the best, I love the place.
I ride past it most days and the staff member out front frying the pork patties always manages to catch my eye. She shouts “bun cha!” to me in the tone of voice that westerners might use for something more calorifically naughty – like a cream cake or ice cream. I’ve noticed that Hanoians literally can’t say “bun cha!” without eyes glinting and mouth smiling. It seems inaccurate even to write it without an exclamation mark. Apparently Hanoians still love it, even if they spend their days shovelling the stuff into bags and bowls in extreme temperatures.
Eating in is straight forward but with the house close-by we often take away. The first time we returned only to find that of the usual two types of pork we only had patties. Next time the old lady told us she thought that’s what foreigners preferred. She’s probably right – like Jack Sprat and his missus, I eat mostly the patties, she eats the fatty pork.
When I stop for delivery there are always nem negotiations. I ask for two, she cheekily suggests three. I stick to my guns but she giggles and puts five in the pan just in case. She then uses the frying time to talk me up. She says four, then a hopeful three again. She’s still appealing to me to up the order as she puts them still sizzling into plastic bag. I wonder why the bag doesn’t melt.
When we take away, the accompanying bag of greens could fill a salad buffet on its own. Both the salad bag and the noodle bags are loosely tied. The soup bag is watertight with a challenging knot. The on-table condiments of ground garlic and chillis are already added. I like spicy but still have to spoon out half a dozen red slices before it becomes inedibly hot. The garlic means I spend the rest of the day averting my breath from people’s faces.
Despite working in what must be incredible summer heat, around grills and boiling broth, the younger women always wear skin tight jeans, high heels and boutiquey blouses. No grease nor sweat marks are apparent.
Sometimes I’ll be passing late afternoon. All the customers are gone and the mess mostly cleaned away but there’s still someone out the front ready to tempt me.
I’m embarrassed to say yes, thinking surely they just want to finish. However if I nod they seem genuinely pleased and start unpacking the food and equipment again. By this time there’s another older woman sat out the front peeling a sack of garlic ready for the next day.
The place must be a little gold mine and yet beyond the money, staff seem to take a genuine pleasure in just feeding you bun cha and having you enjoy it.
All of which sounds a bit soft and yet, none of the normal negative Hanoi expat filters appear to apply.
The Bun Cha! Heroes of Xuan Dieu – we salate you.