What’s the point of a street food tour, anyway?
A while back I was sat at one of my favourite Bia Hoi (If you want to know more about the glorious institution that is a Bia Hoi, check out our “What is a Bia Hoi, exactly?” blog post) having a few beers with some of my friends. This weekly meeting has become somewhat of an unintended tradition, due to the fact that this particular Bia Hoi is on the way to each of our respective homes. So it almost always happens that one of us stops for some quick refreshment on their way home after a long day’s work. The next punter on his/her way home would then see one of our merry little crew already having a beer and join them. This process will repeat itself until we are a party about ten or fifteen souls strong. What happens next is inevitable, given the constant flow of beers and good company – someone will order some food. This will create a chain reaction during which we all suddenly realize that we are a bit peckish, with our bellies now sufficiently lined by the light and refreshing Vietnamese lagers.
It was exactly at such a point that something happened which made me question what I knew, or thought I knew, about Vietnamese food. It started because of a simple question, asked by one of my friends to his girlfriend: “What’s that dish I like, the one with the fried noodles and beef?” without skipping a beat, I answered “Pho Xao Bo.” then I hesitated a moment, seeing the glassy-eyed expression he was sporting. “Wait…” I said, “were the noodles wide and flat or yellow and curly?” Suddenly there was life in his eyes again. “Yellow and curly!” he exclaimed. “Then it’s mi xao bo.” I promptly replied. That should have been the end of it really, but what followed was some critique from the rest of the table, mainly asking my Mi Xao Bo loving friend how he’s been in Vietnam for a year without knowing how to pronounce his favourite dish? There were a couple of jokes and jibes before the conversation turned towards the Vietnamese food tradition… And all of a sudden I found myself doing most of the talking. Without any real effort, I was explaining the different philosophies behind the Vietnamese cuisine, how to know which noodles you’ll get with different dishes and whether a dish was grilled over a fire, or just fried in a pan.
It was as if I was channelling the spirit of some great deceased Vietnamese chef extraordinaire, and I didn’t really know how or where my information was coming from… My wife, on the other hand, knew exactly what and who I was channelling. When we got home about an hour or so later, I was about to turn to her and say “Wow, I was on fire!” when she smirked and said, “You know you were just basically repeating word for word what Trong told us.” I stared at her a good moment, wondering who this Trong was and how has he invaded our personal lives in such a way to impart vital knowledge about Vietnamese food before promptly disappearing? She must have seen the cognitive cogs turning because she helped me out: “Remember the street food tour… The street food tour which you said was a waste of time… The street food tour of which you declared ‘what’s the point of street food tour, anyway?’” And at that moment I felt like quoting Celine Dion with: “It’s all coming back, it’s coming back to me now…” because at that moment I remembered…
I remembered my wife’s insistence that we should go on a street food tour, my not so subtle irritation regarding her insistence on this fact. I remembered the pair of us making our way to the tour agency office, my wife with a skip in her step, while I trudged through the late winter rain, muttering “what’s the point of a street food tour, anyway?” Then a face came into my minds-eye, a face to match the name Trong. His face immediately brought a smile to my face, closely followed by a sense of guilt, owing to my cynical approach to what ended up being an unforgettable, and apparently super informative, evening. The main reason I could recall his face was because it was markedly different from the faces of other tour guides I’ve encountered throughout my journeys. Usually, the face of a tour guide is reminiscent of an aged St Bernard suffering from canine diabetes. It’s the hallmark of an industry in which tour guides are overworked and underpaid, and the first thing that goes out of the window is enthusiasm. But that was not the case with Trong. He was happy, genuinely and unabashedly so. From our first encounter, a hearty greeting and enquiry about how we were it was clear that he loved his work, he loved Vietnam, and he loved sharing his love with his guests. His warm and hospitable manner thawed my cynical attitude and within moments I was laughing and joking along. My wife took this moment to shoot me a knowing smile, the subtext being “See, I told you this was going to be good…”
What followed was a 2 and a half-hour romp through the chaotic streets of the old quarter, searching out and visiting Trong’s favourite plastic stool ladened haunts. I can’t exactly remember each and every dish that we tried that night, because there were just so many. I think it totalled about fifteen dishes, with some speciality drinks thrown in for good measure. These dishes ranged from those which we already knew, having lived in Vietnam for a while, to brand new and exotic dishes, which we’ve never even encountered, nevermind tried… What I do remember, however, was the bubbling passion with which Trong presented the tour. He made every dish come alive, explaining how they related to the culture in Vietnam, and especially to him personally. The humble Banh Mi suddenly took on another dimension, as he told us of early morning getting ready for school, with his parents quickly stopping for a delicious Vietnamese sandwich on their way. When it came to spring rolls, a mainstay of any Vietnamese street food tour, he gave us the insight of his family settling down to make this speciality for the celebration of Tet, explaining how each family member had a specific role in this process. In a moment I was reminded of my own family dynamic when we’re making pancakes and a rainy South African afternoon, and I saw the similarities even through our vast differences. In short, Trong didn’t just explain the Vietnamese cuisine to us, but rather, he gave us a glimpse into the life of the people actually making the cuisine – ultimately a priceless experience. We walked away from the tour satiated on both a physical and cultural level, and it caused me to look at Vietnamese food in a totally different manner.
That day at the Bia Hoi made me realise that I could just as easily have been the one asking: “What’s that dish I like, the one with the fried noodles and beef?”. If not for Trong and his presentation during the Real Street Food Experience, I probably would have. Trong and the Real Street Food Experience made Vietnamese cuisine come alive for me in a way which it never would’ve if I had been left to my own devices. And most importantly, the entire experiences answered the question I was mumbling on my way to the tour. I now know exactly what is the point of a street food tour, and I would encourage everyone to go find this answer for themselves… With a little help from The Real Hanoi Street Food Experience and their dedicated guides along the way, of course!
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