The secret to crossing a busy street in Hanoi without getting clipped by one of the $300 Chinese Honda motorcycles flowing past you at a steady 800-per-minute rate is to temporarily shut off all of your sensory apparatus. If you maintain a slow-but-steady pace as you cross, carefully and deliberately placing one foot in front of the other, your movements become predictable. The 60-year-old man with a family of four and a bag of live frogs balanced on his back fender can then quite easily swerve around you at the last second.
If you, on the other hand, vary your pace by one fraction of a second—if you allow your eyes or your ears trick your natural self-preservation instinct into kicking in to make you either hesitate or make a run for it, you've had it. Mopeds can sense fear, you see, and an accident involving at least a half dozen bikes, several children, and a good cross-section of the diverse species of consumable animals in the region is likely to ensue.
Finding good food in Hanoi is an altogether much less harrowing experience: just stop at any one of the hundreds of portable burners that dot the house-fronts and street-sides, pull up a battered plastic seat, and point at what you want. Your choice is pretty easy: most places serve only a single specialty.
While various styles of phở are the mainstays, the single most delicious thing I ate while in the country was bánh cuốn—steamed rice rolls stuffed with pork and mushrooms, served with a fried shallot-based version of nước chấm, the sweet fish sauce and lime-based sauce that tends to be much thinner and milder in Vietnam than the cloyingly syrupy version that comes with your spring rolls Stateside. If you find yourself in Hanoi and see a cook manning a metal steamer with a long bamboo stick in his hand, sit yourself down.
If you've ever eaten the beef or shrimp-stuffed rice rolls at a Chinese dim sum (they're called chang fen), then you've got the basic gist of these, but bánh cuốn are far more delicate and more complex in flavor.
After steaming a paper-thin pancake of rice batter on top of a fine wire mesh set over a steamer, the cook carefully stuffs it with a cooked mixture of pork and wood ear mushrooms. Rolled up and sliced, they come served with a few slices of mortadella-esque, warm-spiced Vietnamese terrine (a staple ingredient in cold-cut bánh mi sandwiches), along with the requisite handful of fresh herbs. Check out the slideshow above for a full run-down of the process.
Like most Vietnamese food, they are delicate, light, and intensely aromatic. I could eat dozens of these (and only spend a couple of bucks doing so) if there weren't so many other delicious aromas calling me down the street...
Million dollar question: Does anyone know where to get great bánh cuốn in New York or Boston?