In Hanoi, space is a valuable commodity. Why waste a perfectly good enclosure just because it’s traditionally used for another purpose — especially in such a prime location?
So every night, after the children leave, this cozy schoolyard on the edge of the Old Quarter turns into a lively restaurant. As the crooked Quan Ngan Hien sign hanging in the doorway indicates, the specialty is ngan. Often mistranslated on Vietnamese restaurant menus as swan or goose, ngan is in fact Muscovy duck. Its meat is leaner and more tender than regular duck, lending itself equally well to the grill and the stewpot.
You’ll find the eponymous Hien, 53, chopping boiled ngan just inside the entrance with the rapid fingerwork acquired from years working at a food and beverage manufacturing company. The idea to open a ngan nuong, or barbecued Muscovy duck joint, occurred to her in 1990, as many entrepreneurs were opening shops and restaurants in response to the sweeping economic reforms that loosened restrictions on small businesses. Hien was on maternity leave, and she used the time to do some market research — of sorts.
“I tried ngan nuong in a few restaurants. I thought it was yummy, so I gave it a try!” the native Hanoian says.
Many street eateries serve Muscovy duck meat boiled in soup. Signs for bun mien ngan, shorthand for bun or mien noodles served in ngan broth, can be found all over the city. But grilled ngan is, um, a rarer bird. To make the dish, Hien immerses fresh ngan meat in a homemade marinade of garlic, oyster sauce and soy sauce for an hour or two before grilling it over charcoal. Other places might steam or boil the meat first, but hers, she says with pride, is so fresh it doesn’t need to be cooked in advance. Charred but still tender, the bite-size morsels are served on a zesty bed of bean sprouts and pickled cucumber.
Licks of the Trade
Like bun cha, the dish comes with a warm dipping sauce and rice vermicelli. But when asked what’s in the sauce, Hien shakes her head, unwilling to compromise trade secrets. A sniff, however, is revelatory: a whiff of nuoc mam, along with the unmistakable aroma of pickled bamboo shoots.
Those shoots play the starring role in canh mang, a golden broth of bamboo and boiled ngan stock that not only rounds out the meal but also makes an ideal warmer on a chilly evening. The herb-flecked soup comes heaped with stewed meat and thick slices of tiet luoc, blood boiled until crimson and gelatinous. You can add either bun or mien, threadlike glass noodles made from mung bean flour. If you prefer your soup deconstructed, order the noodles, meat and broth served separately (bun cham).
Emerging from the restaurant into the windy night, it’s hard not to look back wistfully. Maybe Hien didn’t choose the kindergarten location solely because of space constraints. The warm lighting and decorations make this setting feel cosier than the typical sidewalk eatery — almost like home.
Quan Ngan Hien is at 75 Hang Bong (near the corner of Phu Doan), Hoan Kiem. It’s open from around 6pm to 10pm