What in the hell is an old Irish guy, raised in the fog in San Francisco, doing in Hanoi during monsoon?

Perspiring profusely, among other things.

My birthday was Sunday, July 5th, and I arose early (6:00 am) to walk around beautiful Hoan Kiwm Lake. This particular morning seemed to be dedicated to badminton, and the streets and parks around the lake were littered with shuttlecocks and badmintoneers – young and old, hale and infirm – playing with an enthusiasm quite unbecoming the time of day.

Heavy rain soon scattered the aspiring Olympians, and as I walked around the lake a second time (under the protection of my new best friend – the umbrella), I heard oddly familiar music accompanied by Vietnamese lyrics. Then I saw it. Under a nearby gazebo were dozens of couples, waltzing to taped music!

Where am I?

Hanoi/Viet Nam – places I spent a great deal of energy in my youth trying to avoid. There seems little reason to stay away today. Viet Nam is cool (not literally). The people are friendly, with few hassles in shops or markets. Drivers are maniacal, but not as homicidal as the Chinese. Beer is plentiful and cheap, especially the fresh brewed Bia Hoi Hanoi. Wine is not as catastrophic as it is in China, and we have found potable Bordeaux Blanc and Listrac Rose. The Russian River Valley is represented by a 2006 De Loach OFS Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($110), and a 2006 De Loach OFS Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($150). We’ll wait until we get home.

Breakfasts are the best. Vietnamese coffee and tea accompany fresh yoghurt, lychee, dragonfruit, sopadilla (like apricot/persimmon), pomelo, rambantans, star fruit, mangosteen, mango, crepes, dim sum, pain chocolate, pastry and baguettes, cheese selections, bacon and eggs, pho and on and on and on.

We have tried a number of well regarded Hanoi restaurants and have experienced decent to very good French food and good Vietnamese fare. I find I am looking for much stronger concentrations of cilantro, lemon grass, fish sauce, and especially lime. The search continues. I must comment on a feature in the restaurant WILD RICE. One plain stone wall in the dining room had a simple water feature. On the wall was projected a series of classic black and white slides of old Hanoi. Stunning!

July 6, 2009 Maison D’Hanoi Hotel

We left the world class serenity of the Hotel Metropole (depuis 1901) for the maelstrom of Hanoi’s old town Huan Kiem District. Whatever you may be looking for can be found here, usually in a dizzy number of variations.With just a couple of days to go, Anne (daughter in law), Lisa (sister in law), Paul (Lisa’s amuse bouche), and I enrolled in the Hoa Sua School – good cooking for a good cause. And it is. The school trains 350 orphaned youth as chefs and hospitality workers. It is a non profit organization, which helps support itself by running a cooking school, restaurants, a bakery and pastry shop, laundry, catering firm, and sewing and embroidery workshops. Good stuff.
Our class involved a trip to a major Hanoi market, where head chef Nguyen Phuong Hai pointed out the ingredients we would be using to create our meal: green papaya with BBQ beef salad; fried spring roll; fresh spring roll with pork and shrimp; and sweet black sticky rice porridge. We left the market for the school’s modern facility, where Chef Hai and students led us through the meal preparation.The results were amazingly gratifying, and I look forward to recreating the meal at home – in spite of the 60-70 separate preparations involved. This food screams for Taft Street Sauvignon Blanc and Russian River Valley Riesling.

July 8, 2009

We finally found what we have been looking for – authentic Vietnamese food in a fun local setting. The folks at the hotel suggested QUAN NGON, a cavernous building/courtyard jammed with locals. Line at door – good sign. Quick turnover – good sign. Icy beer – good sign. Prompt and friendly service – good sign. Great foot at cheap prices – very good sign! We left the restaurant an hour and a half later – sweating, mouths afire, and deeply satisfied.

I must confess to being a cookbook junkie. What started as a mild addiction has in the last couple of years grown out of control. When my wife joined Sur la Table several years ago, she and her friends provided me with dozens of books to read and evaluate – a most dangerous game as it turned out. Now I cannot visit a place without a cookbook to calm my nerves and sooth my spirit.

So I visited the cookbook section of Hanoi and found a couple of books I already own, and a smattering of books like Betty Crocker does Viet Nam in 30 Minutes. Then I spotted several copies of Bobby Chinn’s WILD, WILD EAST. I see that he has lived in San Francisco and even attended one of my alma maters (St. Mary’s College), and he is currently the bad boy of Vietnamese cooking. Then I see crossed out lines – this book has been censored!! The book is part narrative ( a plus) and when he gets into Viet Nam war history, he evidently crosses the line. The great thing is that you can usually read through the silver magic marker, and see what the tempest is all about. Signed and censored – what a find!

This morning dawned with a clear blue sky and the lake park was jammed. My favorite sight was a tiny (4’6″) Vietnamese woman in a wheelchair with silk pajamas and bright lilac crocs swaying back and forth to the beat of some questionable fusion music. God, I’m gonna miss this place.

Until next time,
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