An Economist’s Guide to Eating Out in Hà Nội

3 Jun

A wise man eats phở cuốn exclusively on 'phở cuốn street'

Mark Twain once wrote of the Chinese settlers in California that they “eked out a precarious existence by washing each other’s laundry”.

‘Oh God, what on earth is he rambling about now?’  I hear you say.

Well, my mind works in mysterious ways, and for some reason that particular phrase bubbled up from the depths of memory the other day when I was considering what to eat for lunch – a daily dilemma. You see, Hanoi seems to have more eating “establishments” per hectare to choose from than anywhere else in my known world. If at any time you have to walk more than fifty metres to find somewhere to eat, it probably means that you’ve strayed beyond the city limits.

In fact, it appears sometimes that the entire city’s commercial energies are primarily focussed on providing breakfast, lunch and dinner; its denizens “eking out a precarious existence” by selling each other phở. And there it is, dear reader: my bizarre, ‘thought-segue’ is completed for you.

Certainly, phở (pronounced “ĭn’kə-rěktly” by myself and most foreigners) is a meal you can buy anywhere in Hanoi and from seemingly anyone. I live in mortal fear of mistaking some unsuspecting family’s ground-floor dining room for a particularly well-appointed phở joint and simply walking in, sitting down, and placing my order. But for the dishes which are less staple (and I have, incidentally, encountered what looked and tasted like a staple in my food) the best place to enjoy them is their specialty locale.

Bún (like phở) is utterly ubiquitous; and here accompanied by Mọc (pork and mushroom dumplings)

So for the definitive cha cá (grilled Red River fish) go to “cha cá street”; for fried chips go to “fried chip alley”; and for kem ca ra men (crème caramel – sound it out and see) seek out “kem ca ra men corner”. Obviously, those aren’t necessarily the official names of these locations but they provide a useful shorthand.

These ‘cuisine clusters’ might seem peculiar to some – why set your snail soup shop up next to five other snail soup shops? – but I suspect that there is a partial explanation in an economic theory called ‘Hotelling’s Beach’.

The economist Harold Hotelling gave the story of a beach with two ice-cream carts on it. If beach-goers are spread evenly along the beach and they have no preference between the rapidly melting wares of the two ice-cream sellers, where will the carts set up in order to assure that they each sell the maximum amount of ice-cream?

You might be inclined to guess that the two carts will set up a quarter of the way from each end, in order to share their customers equally and save them from walking too far. But that would allow one enterprising (ie. unscrupulous) ice-cream seller to trundle towards the middle of the beach and thereby ‘capture’ more customers by being the most convenient cart to them. The only way for each cart to be assured of claiming at least half the potential ice-cream lovers is for both carts to set up side-by-side in the exact centre of the beach.

Certainly, Hanoi has more than two ‘ice-cream sellers’, and features a slightly more complex geography than a theoretical, one dimensional beach as well, but I reckon that the concept is still helpful in explaining why everything from dog meat to exercise equipment has its own little concentrated neighbourhood. And now, after all this theorising, I’m in the mood to traipse half-way across the city for a 10,000 vnd (50 cent) kem ca ra men.

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3 Responses to “An Economist’s Guide to Eating Out in Hà Nội”

  1. Dave June 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    Glorious ramblings again Mikey. 5 Stars.

  2. June Maitland June 7, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    Mike,

    Your thoughts on the local food scene are quite enlightening! Is there any where to buy “normal food”????

    June

    • Mike Pope June 7, 2011 at 10:41 am #

      Well, ‘normal’ is very much in the eye of the beholder, but if you mean Western food, then yes it is certainly available. You just have to expect it to cost four-times the price of local food – though that will still mean it’s cheaper than in Australia.

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