The charming capital of Vietnam makes quite the impression on the first time visitor, with its busy streets where hundreds of motorbikes head in your direction as you try to cross the street and fail miserably, vendors call out to you selling cheap eats and pretty conical hats and well-heeled ladies squat on street corners of the Old Quarter exchanging stories over steaming cups of coffee. I have never felt the strong sense of cultural differences anywhere else in Asia as much as I have in Vietnam, whether it was in the misty town of Sapa or the busy city of Hanoi.
Imagine my surprise when I first saw people squatting on the street, sharing a quick snack from a vendor or a hearty bowl of Pho bo (noodle soup with beef) which was also being cooked on the street. I had seen street stalls in Asia selling food before but nothing like Hanoi’s street kitchens. Proper meals were being cooked on these tiny stoves around which there were little low stools that I am convinced are made for children. These places were packed with suited executives, teenagers getting high on Bia Hoi (local beer), families with kids in tow and the odd tourist, extremely busy even on rainy nights with water dripping all around and sometimes through the flimsy plastic sheets that had been placed on the frames of the roofs.
“Street kitchens are an important part of local culture, the locals…we eat on the street, no matter if you have big job or big car, this is where we meet our friends”, explained Anna, the receptionist at my hotel. After walking by several street kitchens in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, I finally walked into one for a bowl of Pho ga for dinner one night. While the pho was not the best I’ve had in Hanoi, the energy of the place was quite remarkable with sounds of friendly banter, serious discussions, intense debates and the occasional drunken argument, the stall packed with people seated on the stools or squatting on the ground with bowls of soup in hand. People waited outside for those inside to finish their meals quickly so they could find a spot to settle down in. On some tables, there were no meals, just bottles of Bia Hoi as the voices of patrons grew louder. Some ate quickly and left immediately after while some enjoyed their meals at a leisurely pace while exchanging accounts of the day with their companions.
The culture of street kitchens in Hanoi is more about community and bonding over meals than it is about food. These places do brisk business every day even with pouring skies, understandably because they’re considerably cheaper than cafes and restaurants but also because this is where the locals have been going to eat for years, before the country opened its doors to tourists and newer establishments showed up.