I spent time discovering an array of street food in a quiet alley away from the hustle and bustle of Dong Xuan Market. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Francis Roux. The article was published on Word Hanoi Issue May 2013.
Dong Xuan market. Maybe you’ve been there, maybe you haven’t. Merchants packed into every possible centimetre of pavement, customers claiming any remaining space. It’s alive and chaotic, there are deliveries, shouting, motorbikes, honking, pushing, collisions. If you’re in need of escape, a few quiet minutes, head east, keep your eyes peeled and you should soon see it. Dong Xuan Market alley. But go slow or you might walk right by, it’s so small it’s easy to miss. The pedestrian alley, which connects the market to Hang Dieu, is blessedly free of motorbikes and honking., No-one seems to know exactly how old this alley is or how long it has been a place to grab a quiet lunch. According to locals whose families have lived here for generations, merchants from all regions gathered at the eastern gate of the market. As the market expanded peddlars brought food on shoulder poles, making the most of the opportunity provided by hungry merchants and buyers. Gradually, less transient stalls were established and this hidden alley became known as a place to find good Hanoi street food.
One option is the combi lunch, a streetside buffet. There’s a huge array of food to choose from; crab paste vermicelli, snail noodles, charcoal-grilled pork wrapped in herbs, mixed pho, eel noodles, pillow cakes, sweet gruel, snail and steamed crab and more. Just point to the dishes that look appetising and in the blink of an eye a plate of mouth-watering food will be in front of you.
Walking down the narrow alley it becomes apparent that bun oc or snail noodles is one of the most popular cuisines here — there are three stands to choose from. Ba Nhung, in her sixties, runs the most popular stand. “Our family has sold bun oc in this place for two generations,” she says. She is proud of the family recipe. “The secret to a tasty snail noodle is the sour stock, created from dam bong, a special vinegar made from cooking Vietnamese wine. It is the dam bong that creates the delicate contrast — the taste of the broth on your tongue is sour and a bit sweet.” The snails are carefully selected and cooked to ensure that they are crispy, fresh and rich. In the alley all three bun oc stands have kept to the traditional way of serving the dish; topped with cooked green bananas and crispy fried tofu. “Time flies,” says Ba Nhung. “I am 60 now and the taste of bun oc has not changed a bit since I was a young girl.”
The alley is also famous for a less traditional cuisine; pho tiu or mixed pho with pork, vegetables, herbs and peanuts. Pho tiu is an unusual hybrid, not widely known even by born-and-bred Hanoians. “From what I know, the pho tiu comes from hu tiu, a dish with Chinese origins.” Co Hanh, a pho tiu stall owner explains how it is made. “Rice noodles and bean sprouts are quickly boiled, then thinly sliced pork meat added. The thinner the pork meat is, the tastier it is, as sauces can be absorbed inside it. The pork meat should not be roasted for too long because it dries.” As with many dishes, the trick is in the sauce. Plus, of course, generous toppings of tasty fried onions, vegetables, herbs and peanuts. Like many other mixed dishes such as sweet and sour grated salad or nom, pho tiu reflects the style and diverse influences of Hanoi’s traditional specialties.
Dong Xuan Market alley is located at the East of Dong Xuan Market. This food alley is especially crowded during lunchtime. The price of bun oc is VND30,000. Pho tiu is VND25,000 to VND30,000