I curled my fingers around a cup of gritty black coffee and watched a group of students sitting along the pavement on plastic stools. In the midst of their huddle was a steaming pan of freshwater snails. They took turns to pluck them out dexterously, some with chopsticks, others spearing them with sticks of lemongrass. One young woman caught my eye and offered me a pair of chopsticks so I could join in.
Eating on the street is one of the most intimate ways to experience the culinary assault of Vietnam, particularly in the capital Hanoi. This is democratic dining: businessmen, schoolchildren and grandmothers alike squat on tiny plastic furniture to eat a swift, cheap lunch. Stalls serve dishes such as banh cuon, steamed rice pancakes stuffed with minced pork; bun cha, barbecued pork patties in noodle broth; and nem ran, fried spring rolls. Afterwards, adults retreat to the nearest café for coffee, called cà phê, and a smoke.
You can find more than classic Vietnamese dishes too. I strolled around the west bank of Lake Hoan Kiem, in the shadow of the neo-gothic St Joseph’s Cathedral, and bought a crusty baguette called banh mi, an echo of the French pain de mie. It was filled with pork liver pâté and doused in chilli sauce. The baguettes are stouter than the French variety and baked without salt but the flavour piques with the addition of nuoc mam, a fish sauce used as seasoning throughout Vietnam.
After nearly 100 years of French colonial rule – Vietnam achieved independence in 1945 – the influence of French cooking on the country’s eating habits is also easy to identify in its finest restaurants. The last time I met French chef Didier Corlou he was chef at the colonial-style Sofitel Metropole hotel, easily the loveliest place to stay in Hanoi. Since then he has gone solo in the same city with his own restaurant, Verticale, which draws together Vietnamese ingredients and techniques, and French culinary heritage.
Corlou told me the most significant fusion dish might bepho, a consommé made with shallots, sliced meat, rice noodles, handfuls of fragrant herbs and nuoc mam. Diners can add lime, chilli, herbs and spices.
“The Vietnamese burn shallots to make the consommé for this broth, like the French burn onions,” Corlou said. “This was fusion before I started doing it in restaurants.” According to some, the name pho originates from the French dish “pot au feu”.
It had just stopped raining when I accompanied Corlou to one of Hanoi’s bustling markets, Cho Hang Be. Jumping puddles, we dodged between motorbikes laden with pails of shellfish, traders balancing on their shoulders long poles weighted at either end with baskets of vegetables and gnarled old women gripping shopping bags.
“We [the French and the Vietnamese] eat so many of the same things,” Corlou said, pointing out trays of cold-water fish, buckets of eels, snails and live frogs. There were slabs of cured sausage, smoked ham and aspic, too. “They charge more here for pig’s blood than fillet. People love it, like in France. We don’t see any of this in China or Thailand.”
Why has Vietnamese food not had the success abroad enjoyed by other Asian cuisines? First, it may be down to the country’s smaller diaspora rather than a lesser cuisine. A second reason may be the necessity of sourcing quality ingredients, as Vietnamese cooking relies heavily on fresh greens, many of which I have never come across before. Herbs are often torn up, uncooked, and tossed on to a dish at the end, while cooking times are short and vegetables are served crunchy.
That evening I take a table on the second floor of Corlou’s Verticale. As well as salt and pepper, beside my chopsticks are ground chilli, star anise and black cardamom. The tasting menu begins.
Two bowls arrive. In one, soft flakes of sweet and sour fish are countered by a crunch of dried seaweed and golden sesame. In the other is Mediterranean gazpacho – but a spoonful of fermented black rice lands me back in Hanoi.
I notice, on the walls, black-and-white photographs of Corlou’s Breton family and his Hanoian wife’s forebears. His life, as well as his repertoire, is one of contrasts.
Next, seabass escabeche is feather-light and paired with a heady wasabi broth. A tangy tamarind sorbet separates the dishes before a whole braised piglet comes with scallops and plump prawns, and a citric burst of kumquat undoes the sizzling fats.
There is even a cheese course; Corlou’s home-made cheeses are dotted with mountain spices and grains of young green rice. In a final flourish, his sumptuous “Mother’s chocolate cake” arrives with a grating of cinnamon bark. She would be proud.
It is no wonder that Corlou gets the call when the Vietnamese government needs to prepare for a state dinner or international summit. Their selection of a non-native to cater for visiting heads of state says a lot. Later I learn that when former French president Jacques Chirac visited Vietnam he asked Corlou to provide him with food for the return flight to Paris.