HANOI, Vietnam—It's just a suggestion, understand, but this might be the place to play down the usual claim that you're up for eating anything new. Your Vietnamese guide gets the silent giggles and nods at the day-hire driver and then next thing, you're standing in the courtyard of a small restaurant outside of town watching some guy get ready to kill a cobra for your lunch.
Well, stop right there.
It's not that I've never made a meal out of reptile before, having dined on a few morsels of alligator down Louisiana way and a portion of fried rattlesnake a long time back in West Virginia. But as I've come here to try real Vietnamese food at the source, this particular culinary excursion -- an expensive, blood-n'-gut's-n'-all ritual traditionally consumed to increase virility and increasingly aimed at the tourist market -- is not the right introduction.
Eating well is one of the best reasons to come to this capital, but perhaps it's better to start off more gently. This is a cuisine famous for the fresh, sprightly flavors of lime juice and green papaya and a caramelized sugar crust layered over slices of salty pork. Almost every dish is served with a flowery heap of fresh green herbs and lettuces, giving crunch to noodles or forming a blanket around pieces of barbecued beef.
And the quest for vivid, fresh food -- so, so far from the over-processed meals at home -- is satisfied everywhere in this city.
You could start with the raw ingredients, as I did, at the 19 December Market, named for the date on which the Vietnamese declared independence from the French. The baskets of lotus and orchids for sale at the entrance gave the market, located on a side street off of Pho Hai Bai Trung close to the cluster of foreign embassies, a spiffier look than the somewhat shambling interior; but they're a sign that life is going on inside.
NO DOUBT IT'S FRESH
Boy, was it ever. Whole snakefish flopping in blue plastic tubs of water. Damp crabs, both claws secured by raffia bows to keep the pincers from making one last objection to their captors. Live eels looking for slither space among two dozen other tub mates. Chickens, their free-range days over, sorrowfully shedding feathers in a wire coop. If any bird wanted to know what was next, a large metal pan streaked with blood sat below.
And sheltered, but still baking, under the corrugated metal roofs of the stalls, bamboo poles propping up everything, the vendors sat and crouched by their wares, gently fanning away the steam rising from the hosed-down pavement. One proffered a spoonful of cabbage pickle to sample, another held up suggestions. Green coconut? Pineapple? Maybe this limpid stalk of peeled bamboo shoot? One woman didn't need to make any pitch; she just stood among a throne of bananas like a Mardi Gras queen.
If you are just passing through for a snack, the market does have a meals-ready-to-eat section selling packages of sticky rice and sausage, seasoned bean curd, cooked dumplings and rice noodles.
But if you want to turn some of the fresh finds into a meal of your own, consider cooking classes offered at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel. When it opened 100 years ago as the Grand Hotel Metropole Palace, this colonial rendezvous was the place where Somerset Maugham came to work on a novel; more recently, it's where actress Catherine Deneuve stayed while filming "Indochine." But luxury Western-style hotels are springing up all over the city, so the Metropole has turned new energy into becoming a food-lover's destination.
One of their operations is the Spices Garden restaurant, featuring a superb menu of classic Vietnamese food, such as chicken grilled in fresh lemon leaves, braised cinnamon beef, or fish and rice baked in a clay pot.
But a great morning was spent letting Metropole chef Nguyen Thi Kim Hai take me shopping for food and then heading back to the hotel's kitchen for a lesson in making deep-fried spring rolls, marinated pork grilled in banana leaf bundles and greens sauteed with garlic. My lesson was strictly one-on-one, with the shy chef doing her best to understand my communications in French and attempts to roll dumplings at the same time. She never let on which was mangled more.
BRING ON THE CHA CA
At other times it's best to let other people do all the cooking. A requisite stop is Cha Ca La Vong, famous enough that other Western faces will be in the room, but respected enough after more than a hundred years in business that the entire street is now named after the restaurant. I headed upstairs to take a seat at one of the plain, rickety wooden tables by the window. A menu? No one offered one. The only thing to order is the cha ca.
I was equally in the dark about what was coming, even as the waiter began to set out condiments of hot chili paste and nuoc cham, the fish sauce-based dipping sauce found at every meal. Then came a bowl of fresh rice noodles and a plate heaped with fresh cilantro and parsley. A cast iron brazier was set before me, the coals already smoked to gray and stoking a red fire. Then, with a slam from the swinging kitchen doors, the waiter strode out with a small iron skillet sizzling the whole way, the cha ca, or fried fish, popping in a slick of turmeric-scented oil and a tangle of braised whole scallions.
I couldn't eat it fast enough, stirring the herbs and condiments into the skillet, picking up pieces of fish and noodle with alternate moves of the chopsticks, dreading the moment the sizzling died. By the time I looked up, face aflame from the heat, the waiter was back with an understanding smile and a second cold Coke.