Oct 23, 2013

    Beyond pho: Going off the eaten track

    AT 8.35AM on a recent Friday morning, Mr Justin Yap stood in the lobby of his hotel wondering what he would eat for breakfast.

    He had travelled to Vietnam on business, but he had nothing scheduled until 3pm. Mr Yap, a Canadian who is based in Istanbul and works in international development, was taking most of the day off to eat Vietnamese street food.

    He was greeted by Mr Mark Lowerson, an Australian food blogger and co-owner of Hanoi Street Food Tours, a local business offering visitors a taste of the Vietnamese capital's most eclectic sidewalk eats.

    Mr Lowerson - who moved to Hanoi in 2002 and runs the tour business with his Vietnamese partner and business colleague, Mr Van Cong Tu - said he enjoys introducing tourists to culinary and cultural nuances that they wouldn't otherwise discover.

    "It's very easy in Vietnam for people just to get railroaded in a particular direction when they're travelling," Mr Lowerson said. "People gravitate to us because they feel like they're getting under the surface a little bit more."

    Mr Lowerson, 48, and Mr Tu, 36, went into business together in 2009 on an ad-hoc basis, after dozens of tourists e-mailed the former through his food blog, Stickyrice, requesting guided tours or street-food recommendations.

    Their half- and full-day tours are US$75 (S$93) and US$135 per person, respectively, and most of their clients are from Australia, the United States and northern Europe.

    Guests from several countries have raved about the experience, saying it was a good way to get off the beaten path in a city with so many tourists.

    Mr Lowerson led Mr Yap to an unassuming sidewalk eatery where a vendor was cooking a dish that fused two local favourites: bun rieu - noodle soup with tomato and crab paste - and bun cha - noodles with grilled pork in a sweet-and-sour fish sauce. The blogger ordered for his client and invited him to sit on a tiny plastic stool.

    "It's a little bit non-traditional - in fact, some Hanoians would be horrified that they're actually combining these two dishes," Mr Lowerson said as the soup pot bubbled. "But it's a really good combination."

    Mr Yap took out his camera, saying, "I swear I'm not one of those people who take pictures of food." Click.

    The tour continued with bites of chicken cooked in a soft-drink can with chrysanthemum greens and goji berries, followed by sips of Vietnamese egg coffee: raw eggs whisked with sugar and placed atop a highly caffeinated robusta brew.

    Mr Lowerson then purchased a snack made from pounded young rice and mung beans from a sidewalk vendor. Mr Yap, who was born in Singapore, said the dish reminded him of desserts he had eaten as a child.

    Farther down the block, the tour guide ordered plastic cups of yogurt with fermented wild rice.

    "Wow. This is not what I was expecting," Mr Yap said, after a few bites. "I've never had fermented wild rice before. It's like candy."

    After a few more food stops, where Mr Yap downed a bowl of fish-noodle soup, coffee served over frozen yogurt, steamed rice crepes filled with pork and mushrooms, and stir-fried cassava noodles with eel, he discovered that he had just a little more space in his stomach for the next item: a glass full of crushed ice, tapioca balls, mung beans, jackfruit slices and chocolate shavings.

    At 2pm, when Mr Tu - who had taken over the tour from his business partner somewhere along the way - hailed another taxi and suggested yet another dish, Mr Yap said he had eaten too much and needed to quit.

    On his next business trip to Hanoi, he would feel more confident about ordering street food on his own, Mr Yap said.

    But, he added, he was beginning to think that signing up for a full-day tour had been, in retrospect, a bit ambitious.

    "I have dinner plans tonight that I won't cancel," he said wearily, just before the taxi dropped him off at his hotel. "But I won't eat."