As the bus made its last turn into the station, I woke up to the speakers’ blare: “Welcome to Hai Phong, the city of flame flowers...”
This is how Hai Phong always greets me: the sound of generic descriptions about the city, some xe om (motorbike taxi) uncles asking me where I want to go, a street full of vehicles creating their own buzz.
In this third largest city of Vietnam, two hours east of Hanoi, I don’t intend to look for something spectacular. It seems to me more of a workplace, but a bit calmer and slower-paced.
Yet the city carries a “hidden gem” that locals take for granted, and visitors do not pay close attention to, typically – its savory cuisine.
Standing ready to facilitate my food therapy was Minh, a self-proclaimed gourmet and 20-year Hai Phong resident.
She met me at the bus station, and we began our expedition without further ado.
Leaving the station, we headed straight to my favorite "banh da cua" place on Pham Ngu Lao Street.
"Banh da cua" is the name given to a dish featuring flat, brown noodles cooked with crab meat, shrimp, pork meatballs, pork wrapped in piper lolot leaves, morning glory, green onions and other veggies.
The broth is especially nourishing with an aroma characteristic of crab meat, vegetables and spices. The piper lolot leaf wrapped pork add a salty note to the bowl. And there is more than enough greenery in the food: a shredded lettuce always accompanies the sizzling hot bowl.
In another version of the Hai Phong crab noodle soup, mantis shrimp and steamed pork can also be major elements. There is even a dry mix version for those who are broth averse, for whatever reason.
Just ask, and Hai Phong locals will point with alacrity to famous "banh da cua" eateries on Pham Ngu Lao Street or Cau Dat Street. For VND40,000 – 50,000 ($1.72 – 2.15), this is just the dish to soothingly warm up your insides in the morning.
After walking around for a while, Minh was already ready for an early lunch. Her choice: "banh mi que" (breadstick) on Le Loi Street.
The breadsticks are best served with with the special chili sauce from Hai Phong.
These indigenous breadsticks, ruler-sized baguettes, have a distinctive taste. Its filling, "pate," or ground pork paste, with a special chilly sauce, just explodes in your mouth. I had wondered why Minh had ordered a sweet soup along with the breadsticks, but I was wondering no more.
A sip from the glass of the "worm" jelly sweet soup is the perfect antidote to a bite of the spicy breadstick. In fact, it is a savior, because I was just thinking about standing up and saying, no more.
The burn eased out promptly at the first spoonful of the sweet soup. The light sweetness of coconut milk and elastic, juicy jelly playing around in the mouth kept me seated, even ready for more breadstick bites. Now I could say, “bring ‘em on.”
I told my friend, “Now I know why they always sell these two together. They keep us hungry for more.” Minh just giggled at my Eureka moment and calmly took her purse out. Our lunch bill was incredibly modest - VND10,000 ($0.43) for each glass of sweet soup and VND2,000 ($0.08) per breadstick.
"Banh duc tau" is a version of jelly rice cake, served with fried shrimp, pork, cubal papaya; all soaked in a sweet, chilly vinegary sauce. The cake has a very smooth texture.
“Do you want it to be spicy or less spicy?” asked the seller. We did not realize it was a rhetorical question.
As we both opted for the less spicy option, fearing for our stomachs, we were given a disapproving look: “It’s not as good when it’s not spicy!”
But we were glad we played it safe: the dish was mellow, and for just VND10,000 ($0.43), it played to perfection the role of an appetizer for a main course later in the day.
We reached a seafood stall deep inside an alley off Lach Tray Street at around 5 p.m. Even at this time, seats and tables arranged on one side of the alley were filled, testifying to the stall’s popularity.
Another thing that surprised me was that none of the customers seemed to mind the cacophonic honking of motorbikes asking for more space to go through.
The place sells a wide range of snail dishes for VND60,000 to 130,000 ($3-6) per plate.
While I tried to recollect my knowledge of mollusks at the counter, my food guide and master placed the order in the most decisive way. I could not thank her enough, the diversity already made me dizzy.
We had the common periwinkle (sea snail) cooked in salted egg sauce and the mud creeper, another snail species, stir-fried with copra slices. This is an impressive dish, with its yellow egg sauce, buttery and rich, complementing perfectly the soft, elastic snail flesh. There were also some baguettes for dipping in the egg sauce.
Eating snails is an acquired skill. For the first type of mollusk, we used a triangular metal piece to poke out the snail flesh, but the one with a more tubular shell, a pincer and a little determination is required.
The quail embryo eggs are stir-fried with tamarind sauce.
Quail embryo eggs in tamarind sauce was the third dish Minh had ordered. For this dish, the sweet and sour tamarind flesh is cooked with chilly sauce and fish sauce, and seasoned with fried onions, shredded laksa leaves and copra slices. If you are queasy about the embryonic state of the quail, this can be a bit difficult to swallow, but if you try it, the combination of textures, flavors, sweet, sour and spicy, will bowl you over.
As daylight dimmed out, we hurried to the last dish of this extraordinary foodie expedition: "dua dam" (coconut soup).
Coconut soup is served in glasses from late afternoon every day.
Minh firmly ignored my incoming bus, and insisted on a take-away cup of this coconut soup.
“I know it is trending in Hanoi, but you have come to its home. Try it.”
Coconut flesh, coconut milk, condensed milk, jelly and pearls – the way these things combined, fresh, sweet and cool, created sensations on the palate that eased the spiciness of the earlier meal in such an ideal manner that I was glad that Minh had insisted I try it. This dessert is usually sold from the late afternoon onwards for VND10,000 ($0.43).
This dessert consists of coconut flesh, coconut milk, condensed milk, jelly and pearls.
As I waved goodbye to my foodie companion and left Hai Phong, I thanked the stars for such a fulfilling culinary expedition, which renewed my belief that the port city’s extraordinary delicacies were definitely worth a trip by itself.
It was time well spent. My stomach said it, and my heart seconded it without any hesitation.
Story and photos by Bao Ngoc