The biggest challenge of the Vietnamese restaurant Dinh Lang was
the menu. Granted, the surprisingly loud live music being played about 6m to my
right made it hard to focus. Hearing Oh Susannah played on tea glasses and a
bizarre rendition of Auld Lang Syne – played in June, complete with a
xylophone solo – was a little discombobulating.
But it was impossible not to relax in the long, narrow
restaurant with the shape and decor of a Ha Long Bay tour boat. We were cooled
down by wonderful gusts of air conditioning, ensconced at a table surrounded by
standard-issue pan-Asian decor like reed curtains and dragon lanterns.
Right-side tables enjoy prime views of Hoan Kiem lake.
The restaurant is a good bet for large groups and families, who
comprised most of the busy restaurant’s clientele the Saturday night I dined.
The kitsch decorations and the location would have made me assume that it was
more a tourist spot, but it was made up mostly of locals. The completely indoor
– and often very loud – Dinh Lang provided a boisterous and lively contrast
to the hushed, verdant gardens of much of the upscale Vietnamese restaurant
After taking in the ambience, it was time to grapple with the
menu. At first, my friends and I puzzled over the fact that all we had were a
drink menu and a set menu. There was a small but serious selection of wine
(bottles starting at VND220,000), a quick two-item foray into champagne (the
apparently contradictorily titled "Russian champagne" and, at
VND924,000, the vaguely titled "French champagne"), juices, and a
pretty standard list of cocktails for around VND60,000.
The set menu, featuring one-person six and seven course meals
for $10-20, appeared to be a good deal, but the time required to read through
the dizzying variety of meal options and the commitment and appetite requisite
in eating seven pre-selected courses was too daunting. Finally, upon asking the
wait staff who hovered around the table in a wide variety of uniforms, ranging
from bow ties to red, yellow and green silk, we managed to snag an a la carte
menu, but there were dozens of separate categories, split up by city and main
ingredients. My eyes blurred by the barrage of choices. I couldn’t tell the
difference between the Ha Noi, Hue, and Sai Gon selections: meat, noodles, fish,
fried, sauteed, braised, steamed, vegetables.... Most dishes even come in two
sizes. Frankly, I found it as large as my general chemistry textbook and as
impenetrable as Finnegan’s Wake.
As a gesture of defeat, we ordered the nom hoa chuoi, or
banana flower salad (VND27,000), largely because it was listed on the first
page. It was a good move, though, as we were intrigued by the far-out
presentation almost as much as the dish itself: it came served on a tray
surrounded by huge purple and while flowers. The dish was nicely spiced and came
with a cool zing.
We also chose crab nem on pineapple, or cha gio cua be
cam thom (VND40,000), though admittedly I couldn’t find it on the menu: we
asked the waiter for nem and he had to find the page. The fried spring
rolls were tasty, well-spiced, and well-done overall. In what struck me as a
tropical island touch, the kind of style that would feel right at home
accompanying cocktails with little paper umbrellas, the nem were attached by
toothpicks to a hollowed-out pineapple shell with a hot flame inside. It was
somewhat disappointing, though, as the pineapple was only present for the visual
effect and the taste of pineapple would indeed have been a nice complement to
We also ordered the thit bo xao can toi, or beef with
celery and leek (VND27,000), which was located comfortingly close to the start
of the menu. Without any wild touches in the presentation, the succulent beef
and crisp vegetables were more than able to adequately represent themselves.
Emboldened by our successes, I ventured further into the menu and ordered fried
tofu, which was a very good deal at VND20,000, and came with a gratis serving of
mam tom, fermented shrimp sauce, which despite an off-putting odour
packed a tasty punch.
We left the restaurant relatively quickly after finishing
eating, having watched as the crowd gradually emptied out and the band slowly
quieted. Dinh Lang isn’t the kind of place to linger for quiet conversation.
Rather, it was an appropriate jumping-off point, as we sped away on motorcycles
into the steamy and wild Ha Noi nightlife, for the long and lively night to
follow. — VNS