Dinner Cross-Legged or Otherwise
We touched down at Noi Bai Airport, cleared immigration, located our local guide with placard, made the intros and the first unanimous request of the 6 Gorge(ou)s - "we are very very hungrryyy.... can we have dinner first?". I'm very certain that we did not leave Robert (our local Vietnamese guide) with any first impression of dainty proper behaviour. In fact I'm now wondering whether he had any inkling then that this very first question had set the stage for our culinary adventures which eventually earned us that moniker.
Robert's first recommendation that night was Highway 4, at 5 Hang Tre, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi - a restaurant serving traditional Vietnamese food and liquor located in an old colonial 3-storey shophouse (somewhat like our old long and narrow-in-width coffeeshops along Killiney Road and in Chinatown, Singapore). Entering the ground floor, we saw a couple of empty tables and chairs and only one seated couple - hmm.. not a good sign. Ushered up the winding stairs to the first floor, we discovered where the real action was. Low bamboo tables made two parallel lines (cutting the room in half) and straw floor mats with cushion seats were strewn on the floor. Diners were seated cross-legged (with their shoes off) and some lounging against the side walls, with quite a nice din of merry-making underway.
Ordering was easy as the menu is bilingual, Vietnamese and English. Sitting down cross-legged for the duration of dinner required a tad more effort - do stretch and lightly thump the legs once in awhile to ensure they haven't gone to sleep on you, or you may end up with pins and needles!
We started with the Catfish Spring Rolls (a Highway 4 specialty) (Nem Ca Xa Lo4) at 48,000 VND (or SGD4.80). I didn't know it then, but it was actually almost like miniature Cha Ca (grilled fish, which we had the next day) wrapped in rice paper together with some herbs and rice vermicelli. Being my first rice paper rolls for the trip, I did like the combination of meaty fish with fragrant fresh herbs and the light fresh rice paper.
Caramelized Pork simmered in fish sauce in mini-claypot (Thit Kho Tau) 28,000 VND (or SGD2.80) was not too bad either (portion good for no more than 3 pax if light meat-eaters). The pork cubes were tender and flavorful and the sauce went quite well with rice - have no idea what's in the sauce though other than the obvious fish sauce and palm sugar, and maybe a touch of coconut milk or evaporated milk for that milky texture. A very traditional Vietnamese dish, I'm told.
At this juncture, I have to say that the Vietnamese do a splendid job with their vegetables. Apart from their creative fresh salads, their cooked vegetables are never cooked to death until totally wilted and limp. Back home in Singapore, ordering a dish of stir-fried kangkong (water spinach or water convolvulus) can be a 'hit or miss' experience as the kangkong may be cooked too long, or if tender shoots are not used, may end up being quite fibrous. Simple stir-fried morning glory (which is what kangkong is called in Vietnam) or any other green vegetables is beautifully done here, the cooked vegetables retain their lovely green color, tender in texture with a slight crunch and sometimes, one plate is just not enough. Should you have the chance to visit this beautiful country, one piece of advice - do NOT pass on the vegetables even if you are a die-hard meat-lover.
Dinner (which included a couple more dishes) plus juices for 6 pax did not exceed 500,000 VND (SGD 50) in total.
And if you have the time, stay awhile longer, stretch out your legs, order the Son Tinh traditional Vietnamese liquor (comes in various flavors) produced from rice wine (which we tried later back at our hotel, compliments of our most hospitable local guide - a nice warm kick to end the evening) and make friends with your fellow diners at the next bamboo table.