Viet Nam News
By Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
After thirty years of major economic reform, Hà Nội has found its own way to integrate with the rest of the world, in terms of tourism.
The city’s bustling Old Quarter can be considered as attractive as any counterparts in other tourism hotspots like Barcelona, Prague or Lisbon. The narrow streets are constantly abuzz, day or night. There has even been talk of lifting the night curfew because in bigger entertainment cities, night life starts after midnight.
Last year, then US President Barack Obama visited a Hà Nội’s bún chả [grilled pork with rice vermicelli] eatery for dinner with globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain, which made Bún chả Hương Liên a household name. For a couple of hours, the small street of Lê Văn Hưu in downtown Hà Nội was packed with curious local onlookers, but the image lingered online for many days after the event.
Even today, you can’t walk past the restaurant without having to avoid selfie-snapping tourists.
Last month, my teenage daughter asked me to take her to the ‘Obama Bún chả’ shop just to get a glimpse of her K-Pop idol, who had been there an hour before.
People have changed the small hole-in-the-wall eatery name to ‘Obama’s’ and demand soared to such a level that you could order bún chả morning, noon and night.
It was not only Bún chả Hương Liên feeling the glare of the spotlight.
The same thing happened to a little street stall selling snail noodle soup, tucked in small winding alley Hàng Giày in the Old Quarter. Chef Bourdain was pictured having soup there perched on a knee-high stool, holding a bowl of boiling hot soup in one hand and chopsticks in the other like any true street connoisseur of Hà Nội.
The snail soup is now also available all day long despite the fact that snails belong to the cold food group and it is advised to consume them in the morning. Having the dish late at night can upset your stomach.
The tides of tourism and curiosity have been so strong and powerful that they washed away all local nuances and habits regarding the city’s culinary tradition.
The same thing happened to Hà Nôi’s phở long before the Obama madness. Traditional phở spots serve the soup only at breakfast and supper. It’s not a lunch and dinner meal but rather a late night treat.
When I posted the photo of Obama having bún chả with a bottle of Bia Hà Nội on facebook, a Japanese friend of mine, who used to call Hà Nội her home for several years, commented, “You cannot have this dish after 2pm!”
That is no longer the case.
At the weekend, the area around Tạ Hiện turns into an extensive outdoor snack area. Closed to traffic, it’s called a walking street but looks more like a sitting street. If you go there after 7pm, it’s nigh on impossible to find a table and you can barely walk between the tourists and locals sat on tiny chairs, having a good time chatting among themselves, sipping on cheap draught beer to accompany dried shredded squid.
I used to walk around busy places like these and told myself I’d never do it again because it looks so uncomfortable when you stand outside and watch.
But when you actually sit down with your close friends on a Friday night, you end up having a good time without having to spend a lot of money. It’s actually a very social occasion, as you’re forced to squeeze in next to strangers, and inevitably begin conversations.
Perched on a little stool and chatting with your close friends or family, it makes you feel that everyone is within reach, warm and friendly. To the people who sit next to you, it makes everyone feel they are on the same level, no one cares about how you look or dress or how much you can boast because the food costs so little.
Really, for better or worse, tourism has changed the city’s lifestyle. VNS