Saigon is not the most cordial city in the world. It's a little rough-and-tumble, a bit jagged-edged, pretty aggressive. Energetic, exciting, adrenaline-pumping - yes. Warm and gooey? Not exactly, and especially not when compared with the larger cities of its Southeast Asian neighbors. When you're a resident, the place starts to wear on you a bit.
Hong Hanh was our Saigon oasis of niceness. From our first appearance at the top of the precariously steep and narrow flight of stairs that lead to Hong Hanh's second-floor perch we were never made to feel anything but welcome. We didn't speak a word of Vietnamese (shame on us, but that's the way it was) and no one at Hong Hanh spoke a word of English, but we weren't brushed off as the pain-in-the-arse foreigners, ushered to a corner table and then ignored for the duration of our stay. We were treated like every other customer: efficiently, affably, and with lots of smiles.
(We don't suppose it hurt that we often ordered the equivalent of several meals at one sitting and cleaned our plates every time.)
Our memories of those smiles - and of its mostly Hue-influenced specialties - carried us directly from hotel check-in to Hong Hanh's doorstep. We were happy to find that, other than the young staff's average height, little has changed over the past couple of years. The food's still fantastic, and the welcome is still warm. We were remembered, and even greeted with tears by Hong Hanh's proprietress. We got a little choked up ourselves.
Then we set to work and started ordering.
Hong Hanh's menu - which had been translated, with varying degrees of success, into English during our absence - is extensive: various noodles and banh cuon (rice flour 'pancakes' with various fillings) compete for attention with banh da (rice cracker) dishes, nem nuong Hue (sour fermented pork sausages with a chili kick), and a few miscellaneous snacks. We stuck with our favorites and were gratified to find them as scrumptious as we remembered.
Hong Hanh's bun thit nuong is simply stellar: room-temperature bun (rice vermicelli) topped with grilled pork, carrot and daikon radish pickle, peanuts, and fried shallots. The pork in this version is sliced extra thin and lacquered with a sweet fish sauce and black pepper marinade, chewy and tender at the same time, and exceptionally smoky. Beneath the bun lies a generous mound of pickled vegetables and shredded herbs.
Banh can cua is thick, round tapioca starch noodles in a crab broth made viscous by the addition of tapioca flour. Hong Hanh's version boasts an exceptionally rich, complex broth courtesy of the addition of pork bones (one of which will end up in your bowl, sporting tender meat) and plenty of black pepper, and each serving is crowded with generous chunks of crab meat, crab and pork dumplings, a rectangle of pork blood, and a slice or two of daikon radish. Chinese deep-fried crullers do a good job of absorbing all the goodness the bowl has to offer, and the ubiquitous 'side salad' of bean sprouts and green leaves freshens things up a bit.
Less well-known than pho and bun are Vietnamese mien (bean starch noodles). Hong Hanh's mien preparations include a fine mien cua nuoc leo, a delicious concoction of crab meat, crab balls, slivered bamboo, mushrooms, pork blood, and mien in a meaty-shellfishy broth.
No meal at Hong Hanh is complete without at least one order of banh da (black sesame seed-studded rice cracker), here eaten with miniscule clams sauteed with copious amounts of lemongrass and chopped green onions and peppery polygonum (the dish is called banh da xuc hen; a version with snails - xuc oc - is also available).
Served with peanuts and fresh polygonum on the side, this Hue specialty is just the sort of combination of textures, temperatures, and strong yet complementary flavors that Vietnamese cooks excel at. Sitting at our table-with-a-view, we had to marvel that food this ethereal could be churned out by Hong Hanh's color-coordinated staff (Friday is pink day for gals, brown day for guys) from such a cramped and basic 'kitchen' and prep area. It's dishes like this that drew us back week after week, sometimes days in a row, for two-plus years.
That, and those smiles.
Hong Hanh, 2nd floor 17A Nguyen Thi Minh Kai Street, Saigon. Morning to night, with a break between 2 and 3pm.