Leaving Hanoi without trying some Bun Cha would have been criminal, we just could not do it. The mere thought of Bun Cha is enough to send me into full blown salivation mode. We decided to go with the highly recommended(by at least a half dozen people) Bun Cha Dac Kim(aka #1 Hang Manh). By watching the constant stream of motorbikes parking and leaving, and the foot traffic, you knew that this was the "right" place.
An SRO(Standing room only) crowd of customers, wedged elbow to elbow, on 4 floors no less, speak to the popularity of the place.
All this activity going on in one small space. Check out the cooking/prep area. Somehow, when I read about restaurant designers discussing "Open Kitchens" I don't think they have this in mind. Check out the heavy duty wristband on the gal manning the "fry station".
You'd better bring your "A" game, when ravenous customers are practically looking over your shoulder!
As good as this Young Lady was, she had nothin' on the gal assembling the Bun Cha.
Twisting, turning, moving, at a high rate of speed within tight quarters, she had more moves than Richard Simmon's stunt double!
After waiting for a short while, we were guided up the narrow stairwell that reminded me of the time I toured a submarine, and ended up on the third floor. They managed to squeeze us in at the end of one of the tables, and I sat; "half cheek" style. We placed our orders, well, this place serves Bun Cha and Nem Cua Bể(Fried Crab and Pork Spring Rolls) so there's not much "ordering" to be done. There was one Woman who ran the floor, with 3 "runners".
And blam-blam-blam, everything arrived in a flash. Fresh herbs and lettuce.
What seemed to be the standard Bun(Rice vermicelli) in Hanoi, mushy and sticky.
A mild fish sauce with pickled papaya.
And the star of our show, the meat! All to complete the ubiquitous Bun Cha, classic street food gone good....
As the grilled ground pork meatballs and thin slices of grilled marinated pork covered in broth arrived, it hit me. Here I was, having what I consider to be one of the 2 or 3 "classic" Northern Vietnamese dishes, what I've often times ordered as "Bun Cha Hanoi" on various menus....in Hanoi! Reality was a bit different. The meat was a total polar opposite of what I'd thought it would be. Going against character, the meatballs were very, very soft, like Mom's best meatloaf, . The slices of pork were much more tender than anticipated as well. The broth and Nuoc Mam Cham(fish sauce based dipping sauce) were very mild, almost borderline bland.
The Nem Cua Bể were nothing like any Cha Gio I've ever had.
The very thin rice paper was light and crisp, and without any hint of oiliness. The filling was light, like an airy crab mousse. The Missus dumped all Her meat into my bowl, and went to work on the Nem Cua Bể......
While eating we noticed something that we saw repeatedly in Vietnam and Cambodia; greens and vegetables were eschewed. More than half the people left all the fresh herbs and lettuce untouched. This was explained to us later; "we are a poor country, most times our standard meal is vegetables and rice. When we go out, we want meat." Duh(smack to my forehead)....I shoulda been able to figure that out myself.
Total for the meal 80,000 VND(approx $5 US). This was the most stuffed I felt in Hanoi.
Off to Sapa we go.....
After a full day visiting the Museum of Ethnology and Hoa Lo Prison(aka "The Hanoi Hilton"), we had to head off to catch our train to Sapa. Banh My in hand(that's a whole 'nother post) we were dropped off at the train station. As we walked toward the station, the Missus heard me humming:
"What are you humming?"
"He's leaving, on the midnight train to Sapaaaaaa..."
"How about.... When my Baby, When my Baby smiles at me I go to Sapa..."
"Just stop it, Okay!"
And this is where our next "adventure" began. We entered the train station, and could find no indication of trains headed to Sapa.
I had remembered reading that there was a separate station for destinations North of Hanoi, so I went outside to look around.
And to the right of the main building stood the "Hall of Passengers Before Entering Into Railway Station for Northern Lines"(what a mouthful). So we walked into the waiting area. We had been told that we needed to "exchange" our tickets for "real" tickets, but couldn't figure out where. Finally, we saw a group of tourists enter, and their Guide (Danny from Saigon) explained the process to us. Before the train leaves, the Ticket Agent will man the "counter" and exchange our tickets for boarding passes, and he told us he'd give us the "high sign" when the time was right. Just as always, after some confusion, everything worked out. (Thanks Danny...) About a half hour before boarding time, we got the sign....but no one was at the counter! Danny pointed at the stairs:
And there She was, motorbike helmet and all, our Ticket Agent, sitting on the stairs handing out boarding passes. Now here's where Beach had really helped us out again; even though reservations were tight, he had arranged for us to have an entire 4 berth cabin (all the 2 berth cabins were sold out) to ourselves. Thank God! It seems that all Vietnamese Males like to chain smoke, drink, and talk really loud. And for some reason, our cabin kind of reminded me of something I saw earlier in the day.
Happily, our cabin did lock from the inside, and I wouldn't have to be worried about getting "shivved" in the night, nor anyone getting "too familiar" with me..... In fact, water was provided, and the bedding smelled like bleach, which in this case, we were happy about. Just be glad none of the photos of the "WC"(No, not that "WC") came out......
Due to the noise factor we didn't get much sleep, so we were ready to go when we arrived and people were being roused at
The Gulag Lao Cai at 5am.
As we had experienced before, the arrival was controlled chaos. It was pitch dark at the Lao Cai train station, and we were herded onto mini-vans for the hour-and-a-half drive to Sapa.(30,000 VND, just under $2/ US)
We had not made plans for Sapa, other than what Beach had done for us. And we could see nothing in the darkness as we drove. We would just be dropped off at a destination of our choosing in Sapa. Would things work-out for us?
Would it be worth the effort?
Well, here's the view from our $15/night (versus the $10/night - no view) room in Sapa:
What's the verdict???