Vietnamese cuisine has retained its own character despite a long history under Chinese rule. This explains why there are a number of restaurants selling Chinese-originated dishes inthe capital. But I believe that Hanoian diners care less about the origin of the food and more about whether a restaurant offers qualitycuisinethat will make them return. They also don’t really both with décor or restaurant size. Rather, if it tastes good, that’s all that matters.
The famous Vietnamese writer, Vu Bang, once wrote that Hanoian gourmets believed that delicious pho can only be found on the street, and when these stalls upgrade themselves into big restaurants, the quality goes down. This is thought to be true of many other dishes.
He’s correct. Hanoians are willing to squeeze themselves onto tiny chairs for a bowl of pho, or line up on the pavement to buy a packet of sticky rice, or share a table with strangers to eat a bowl of bun cha.
Bring on the Dumplings
This is particularly true of one street stall in the Old Quarter that sells deep-fried Chinese-style prawn dumplings or ha cao chien. Diners line up, wait for their turn, squeeze themselves on tiny stools on the pavement. And they keep coming back.
This stall, one of the few selling this dish, is on Hang Bo — look for Ha Cao Chien 55 Hang Bo.
There’s not much to this place — a glass cabinet storing fried prawn dumplings and shrimp fritters or banh tom; a stove and a pan of heating oil, a couple of tiny chairs, some plates and tiny bowls. Yet, the stall serves hundreds of diners every afternoon, desperate for their delicious ha cao chien, banh tom and can’t-be-beaten dipping fish sauce.
Many people use pork and prawns for the hacao filling while some use vegetables to make ha cao for vegetarians. Steamed or deep-fried, ha cao is a Hanoi favourite thanks to its taste which is blended with fresh herbs and sauces. Ha cao chien is easy to make and works as both an appetizer or even as a snack eatenby people before heading back home for dinner.
The dumplings are tiny — around 20 pieces fit onto a small plate. The crust is crispy while the filling is soft, rich in taste and is a perfect combination of pork and prawn, seasoned with onion, mushroom, herbs and vegetables.
Size matters here, as the vendor notes: “The smaller the dumpling is, the easier it is to digest, and the more craving you feel for it. You should feel that you want to eat more and more. But you should wait for another time or you’ll get bored of it very soon.”
Baskets or fresh herbs and tiny bowls of dipping sauce with thinly sliced papaya are always prepared for diners to balance the taste of the dumpling deep-fried in oil.
All Good Things Take Time
Impatient diners sometimes pester the lady who fries the hacao to speed up, to which she replies: “To have delicious fried dumpling, your oil must be hot enough. The more you rush, the worse your dumpling will taste. It would be a failure if your ha cao does not have a shining golden and crispy skin, with the filling still soft inside.”
Besides ha cao chien, the eatery is also very famous for it is banh tom, a crispy patty made with sweet potato flour, topped with prawns. Diners like the banh tom here because it is crispy, and not oily like elsewhere. The dipping sauce is also good.
Despite the inconvenience of pavement eatingin the bustling and cramped spaces of the Old Quarter, ha cao chien is still an afternoon favourite, especially when autumn breezes blow or the weather gets a bit colder as the sun goes down.
Ha Cao Chien 55 Hang Bo is open from 2pm to around 6pm every afternoon. Each plate of ha caochien or banh tom is priced at VND25,000. Note: There is a nearby space at Bao Lao Dong or The Labour Newspaper where you can park your motorbike