Day Two in Hanoi

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day Two in Hanoi: If Memory Serves

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the fourth part of the story.

Sitting here in the Pink Tulip Hotel in sweaty Ho Chi Minh City, it’s not hard to be a bit nostalgic for the cold nights back in Hanoi. At this point I’m doing my best to remember day two in Hanoi, which was one of our busiest, back when we still had energy to spare.

Amazing bun cha Hanoi

The day started at Bun Cha Cua Be Dac Kim, which is thoroughly reviewed at @ZWC. I don’t have much to add. This is a place that does one thing and one thing extremely well: bun cha. Their version is perfectly grilled pork floating in a mild fish sauce laden broth, a pile of fresh herbs, a pile of fresh noodles and a bunch of chopped chili and garlic. With ultra-fresh crab spring rolls, it comes to about $3 a head and maybe $1 per beer. As an early lunch, this was dangerously close to causing sluggishness but instead fortified us for a crazy day of sightseeing.

Turtle at Temple of Literature

We walked from the bun cha to the main tourist drag where we saw Lenin’s Statue, The Temple of Literature, and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Of the three, I found the Temple of Literature to be the most interesting. It was the center of learning in old Hanoi, a place for scholars to gather and share their wisdom. There were several groups of students present on this day celebrating their graduation amongst the beautiful architecture and statues of great thinkers. Apparently the turtle is a symbol of knowledge here, as many scholar’s chairs were fashioned in the image of turtles.

The Mausoleum was a bit of a bust because it was closed to the public. A bit dejected from that turn, we walked the long walk back towards the hotel, got our laptops and then sought out a Lonely Planet-sourced coffee shop from which to try the local coffee and get some live-blogging done.

Ca Phe pho co

The coffee shop (Ca Phe Pho Co) turned out to be one of the great successes of the trip. You have to go through an old silk shop to find the entrance where a woman takes your order and then you climb a spiral staircase to be greeted by an incredible view of the lake and much of Hanoi. Coffees are only about $2 US a pop and are of a very high quality. I got the hot coffee with egg, which is apparently egg white whipped into the coffee so it achieves a dense foam. The coffee itself, like much of its Vietnamese ilk, was rich, dark and sweet. This was truly a great way to unwind and reflect on a day well spent.

After regaining our senses (and checking out a cool island in the middle of the lake), Mikey and I sought out another highly recommended restaurant: Net Hue. Our logic was simple: our literary didn’t allow for us to visit Hue itself, so why not try this highly lauded restaurant that serves Hue food?

The most significant hurdle was the fact that Trip Advisor reviews noted that the restaurant was hard to find, on an alley off Hang Bong. This worried us and we ended up circling the area a bit before actually finding the place. In reality, this shouldn’t have been an issue. It’s on a highly popular little walkway off of Hang Bong, the first left if traveling westward on Hang Bong from Ngo Cam Chi. The sign is prominent and the restaurant is just upstairs. No problem.

Having never had Hue-style food before, this is a difficult place to evaluate. The restaurant staff was extremely friendly and helpful. Moreover, it’s a trendy place with lots of Vietnamese hipsters present. Their English is good and they proved helpful guides for the menu. We ended up trying the signature Bun, highly recommended banana leaf wrapped rice paste, and a fried stuffed pancake.

fried pancake things at net hue

Again, I have no reference point, but I found the bun a bit bland. The rice paste was very interesting, a gummy but pleasant texture (reminiscent of tamale), and the frying on the pancakes was superb. I realize this is a terribly terse description, but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances.

net hue

After Net Hue, Mikey and I checked out the night market, which was largely a bust, and grabbed some “bia hoi” or home brewed beer sold at little outposts around Hanoi for 25 cents a pint. Cheaper and fresher beer one cannot find.

Day Three in Hanoi

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day Three in Hanoi: Buses and Trains

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the third part of the story.

Day three in Hanoi was largely spent on a bus to the Halong Bay. A tremendous tourist destination billed as one of the wonders of the world, I hold that would have been a lot better in the Summer. As it was, it was cold and misty – not at all like my trip to Phi Phi about a month prior.

Still, Mikey and I had a good time meeting a bus full of interesting travelers and enjoying the commentary from our young and earnest travel guide “Johnny” (referencing Johnnie Walker) who even sang a couple of Vietnamese songs for us.

Halong Bay Kissing Cocks

Despite the musical interlude, the highlight of the trip was probably the kayak through some caves in the Bay. We also got to see the famous kissing cock islands and had a nice lunch of spring rolls, cold French fries, stir fried squid and vegetables, whole steamed fish, tofu, rice and fruit. The final stop, before another brutal three hour bus ride back to Hanoi were some caves, mostly interesting for running into a mysterious and alluring fellow traveler named Jessie. She was the source of a great deal of late-night rumination.

Upon returning back to civilization, Mikey charted a course back Gia Truyen where we sampled, perhaps for the last time, the impeccable pho described earlier. The rest of the night was mostly about logistics. We made it back to the Royal Palace, booked a hotel in De Nang, got directions from the De Nang train station to the new hotel, and used the last free wifi for a while.

Mikey picked up a pate banh my on the way to the train station, which he swears was one of the best he’s had. Indeed, an elderly woman, well practiced in the art of banh my made it and was quite generous with the pate.

Train

And here we are, on the train. Mikey is snoozing. The older gentleman is yelling into his phone. A younger guy sleeping under Mikey’s bunk is on his iPad. And I’m feeling another nap coming on.

The Rest of Day One in Hanoi

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
Day One in Hanoi: The Leftovers

Chin to Chin chronicles my explorations of Vietnam and Hong Kong with Mikey (from @ZeroWritingCredits). This is the second part of the story.

The rest of day one in Hanoi Mikey and I walked around the old quarter, dodging motorcycles and trying to find something interesting at the various shops and stalls. It’s mostly bad knock-offs and bootleg DVDs (which I have to imagine were bigger sellers before p2p file sharing). Eventually we ended up in the drinking district and did some bar-hopping.

good morning vietnam 034

It’s common here to sit outside on stools, drinking Hanoi beer and eating snacks – a perfectly acceptable way to pass the time. We met a few interesting groups of tourists and a couple of locals, walked around some more – I had two different street banh mys of varying quality (the second was a winner with lots of spicy sauce, egg, and pate). We made it back to the hotel around 11 and crashed hard, fortifying ourselves for another day of Vietnam touring.

good morning vietnam 036

Pho Gia Truyen

Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin
A Phodown in Vietnam
Pho Gia Truyen
Address: 49 Bat Dan, Hanoi Vietnam
Date & time of visit: November 22nd 2013 + 8:00pm
Price (only one size): 50,000 dong (~$2.50 CAD)

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 9.5 | Beef: 9 | Noodle: 9.5 | Condiment: 8 | Service/atmosphere: 10 | Overall: 9.2

Mikey

Broth: 8 | Beef: 9 | Noodle: 9.5 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 10 | Overall: 8.7

Overall Rating: 8.95
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 3.58

Pho Gia Truyen Exterior

Write-up from Jason:

Although I’ve travelled a bit in the Far East, I had never been to Vietnam until now. And let’s be real for a change – I’ve been putting myself out there as a pho expert for quite a while now with little in actual credentials to back up that claim. So it was about time that I tried pho where it was born, because if there was no Vietnam, there would be no pho. And if pho didn’t exist, neither would the phodown. And what kind of pathetic shell of a man would I be in that case?

So, on this day, I finally tried pho’s platonic form, if you will (and please do).

Mikey and I arrived in Hanoi late Thursday afternoon, worked out our visas at the airport and were transported to the highly-recommended Royal Palace Hotel. The friendly hotel manager, Mr. Tong, got us set up, hard sold us on a few tour packages, and treated Mikey and I to a watermelon juice and a lemonade, respectively (and respectfully, for that matter).

After all that preamble, we struck out to a pho restaurant highly recommended by both the internet and Lonely Planet for making what some claim to be the best pho in Hanoi. A true family-run enterprise, here an aging pho master, his wife, and son run a store front with limited seating in Hanoi’s old town. Mikey navigated Hanoi’s labyrinthine side streets ably and we found our way to what I can only describe as the pho Mecca.

Pho Gia Truyen Interior

Well, I can actually describe it a lot of different ways: white walls with wooden wainscoting; wooden tables and stools; a single fan; an old mission; a man standing behind a tiny stand with dry-aged beef on his right, stock pots furiously boiling on his left nearly overborne by the flames from an overclocked burner; a wife; she plates the noodles, garnishes, pours in the lovingly made broth; he chops raw meat; he chops the dry-aged brisket; he plates the meat; we take the pho to our table.

Simply put, it was the best pho I ever had with Mikey and I agreeing on nearly every component except the broth.

Pho Gia Truyen Pho

I’ll start with the beef, fresh and plentiful (given the scale of the portion, which was extremely small by western standards but a steal at $2.50 CAD). I couldn’t knock the beef much. Noodles were also near perfection with clumpiness a non-issue and the doneness just shade beyond al dente.

Condiments were the toughest grade for me because I’m used to a very different standard. Northern-style pho is condiment-sparse, while the Southern brews are regularly accompanied by mounds of fresh herbs, peppers and lime. I’ve only been to a Northern pho once before, for the Vancouver Phodown (now defunct). I forget how I dealt with the lack of condiments there yet still held to the empirical rigor of the phodown. Here, I’m aided by the fact that the fried savory doughnuts you can get with pho here are pre-fried and cold (some serve fresh ones), which is an easy downgrade. Still, some homemade chili sauce and freshly chopped yellow and red pepper at the table were a fun way to spice up the pho towards the end of the meal.

Broth is where Mikey and I disagreed most, although we do agree broth is always the most important factor. I gave it a 9.5 and Mikey gave it an 8. His reasoning is that while he’s probably never had better, he can imagine better. Personally, I think this comes down to this being his first phodown.

From my point-of-view, this is my benchmark for broth going forward. The pho-master here has been interviewed before, noting how important the bones are to his enterprise and how hard it is to get it right day after day. He’s dead on. This broth is superb.

The sheer time put into is remarkable, the broth coming out nearly gelatinous in texture, easily the richest I’ve ever had. The balance is also remarkable, the only possible ding coming from a restrained hand with the spicing (although this is a feature of the North as well). The lack of condiments and other spice (cardamom, etc) is overcome by the generous garnish of onion and cilantro, which go no farther than highlighting the complexity of the broth. It’s a masterpiece.

Beer at Pho Gia Truyen

In terms of the always challenging service/atmosphere category, Mikey and I agreed. It’s a ten.
The place is a well-oiled machine. When you go to the restaurant of people so serious about their craft, there is always the danger they’ll be gruff and curmudgeonly (e.g., the Soup Nazi). The family here is friendly and inviting, clearly proud of their creation. The son who brings beer (at ~75 cents a pop) is kind and attentive. And who wouldn’t want to eat pho out of a building that seems like an old church?

Pho Gia Truyen you should get down here and try it for yourself, before they decide to stop making it.

Introducing Toronto Phodown Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin

It’s an absolute pleasure to introduce yet another feature here at Toronto Phodown (as if 100 Dates of Summer and Eastern Promises were not enough).  And today is a special pleasure because it involves a much awaited trip to Vietnam with my brother Mikey (@Zerowritingcredits).

Here’s the deal: Mikey came to visit me in Hong Kong a few days ago – I introduced him to a few of my favorite restaurants, and now we are eating our way through Vietnam. So far, it’s been a revelatory trip and we are doing everything we can to keep the momentum going.

So here it goes…

Eat Toronto Presents, Eastern Promises Presents: Chin to Chin

Ippudo (LAB Concept)

Eastern Promises 12: Shockingly Good Ramen at Ippudo

easternpromises

Ippudo, at 93 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong; call them at 2527 3526.

Ippudo Ext

One of my first meals out in Hong Kong was at Ippudo, a hyper-popular and quickly expanding ramen chain. I tried the location at the LAB Concept, a mall next door to the building where my classes are held. This night, Eric, Melanie and I stopped by after class one evening prior to heading to our respective homes via the MTR.

After having some extremely good ramen back in Vancouver during its ramen renaissance of 2008-2010, I was dubious of this chain. And to be honest, I’ve always felt there is really only room for one East-Asian soup in my life (Pho, natch) and have never been over the moon about ramen generally.

Long story short (too late), Ippudo changed my view on both of the above notions and was the best ramen I’d ever tried up until a few weeks later when I had the legendary Butao. Who knew Hong Kong would do ramen so well?

Ippudo Ramen LAB Concept

I tried the shiromaru ramen, Ippudo’s signature, which is a deep and cloudy pork-based ramen. I opted to add the recommended toppings including seaweed, egg and pork slices. This combination rang in at $88 HKD or about $12 CAD, so not not cheap by any means but also not unsustainable as a dinner option. We also availed ourselves of their 2-for-1 beer promotion, which offered a bit more bang for the buck.

Ippudo condiments

But as for the ramen, it was a nearly perfect harmony of rich pork flavor, salt and spice. The noodles, egg, pork and seaweed were similarly well-executed and served as excellent grace notes for the broth. I also greatly enjoyed the wide array of condiments including whole bulbs of garlic that could be pressed, via hand presses provided at each table, directly into the soup. Being something of a garlic-fiend I left the restaurant absolutely reeking, but also invulnerable to Hong Kong’s sizable vampire population. Interactivity – the joy in seeking the perfect combination of condiments and sauces – is one of the reasons I love pho, and the combinations possible at Ippudo are similarly exhilarating.

This is a rather simple tale. Ippudo, although a chain, has seemingly maintained an extremely high level of quality and its success is well deserved. I should add that although we showed up thirty minutes prior to closing (and nearly made it out before it shut its doors), the staff was friendly if a bit hesitant.