I’m writing to you from the north of Vietnam, where we spent the whole of today getting lost around and outside of the Old Quarter. It was a meandering sort of day, the Himesama and I walking in mostly silence as we dodged motorbikes, stomped through puddles and grew ever more rain-sodden in the relentless drizzle.
Hanoi still feels and sounds just as chaotic as it was a few years ago on my last journey here. Nevertheless, time has wrought its changes. I discovered this morning, much to my dismay, that the pho place on Au Trieu near the cathedral – dearly beloved in my memories as my first taste of real pho – was nowhere to be found. Another pho place on my list on nearby Nha Chung also seemed nonexistent (though if I’m wrong, please set me straight). Dejected, we trudged back to third-choice Pho Ly Quoc Su, as recognisable as it was years ago by its cheery orange sign and permanently full tables, and sat down to a distinctly mediocre bowl of beef little improved by the tired-looking condiments on the table.
Some things haven’t changed, however, and I was happy to find that my favourite, my one and only creme caramel is still as delicious as it was five (six?) years ago. A stone’s throw from where Hang Than meets Hoe Nhai, Duong Hoa Kem Caramen is the only place you’ll want to get your fix – and the neverending stream of customers who stop by for take-out creme caramel is testament to the way it tastes.
First, find your way to No. 29 Hang Than, and stare shyly at the front man in his crew cut and cigarette sticking out of the corner of his mouth. Ask your friend what “how much” is in Viet. She does the talking for you, and you thank the stars multiple times, taking consolation in the fact that if you are getting stiffed, it’s better than not being able to communicate at all. With his arms folded, one hand gripping a fat stack of bills, he tells you it’s 6000VND a pop. Nod, and indicate you’ll be eating it here.
One of the young boys carefully squeezes the flan out of its plastic-cup mould onto a red plate, and crew cut guy unceremoniously plonks your custard on the chair in front of you. Admire it. Photograph it. Shake your plate and entertain yourself for a good half-minute by watching it ripple and wobble voluptuously, like breasts made luscious and edible. (Actually, better. Breasts really aren’t all that interesting) Take a mouthful and curse its silky-smooth, milk-light texture, the way the thin, dark caramel sauced the whole concoction ever so perfectly. Devour all too quickly, mentally cursing all the while.
You get the idea. The Platonic ideal of creme caramel? Very possibly. Afterwards, we lingered for a good half-hour or so, watching rain-sodden folks on their scooters barking out requests for takeaway kem caramen. One petite lady with a Louis Vuitton wallet (real? fake?) swathed in a black plastic sheet carried 9 custards and chè away with her, leaving acrid smoke in her wake. I hope she ate them all by herself.
Duong Hoa Kem Caramen
29 Hang Than
33 Nguyen Khac Nhu
Note: They also do a bunch of other desserts, including what is possibly caramen nếp cẩm (according to travel companion MQ’s guess) which appeared to be a parfait-esque assembly of translucent pink jelly-stuff and an upended creme caramel in a clear plastic Slurpy-sized cup, topped off with coconut milk. I spent quite a while being mesmerized by the dark caramel sauce trickling down the sides of the cup and into the jelly.
Also, I found this place years ago thanks to Sticky Rice’s blog. Without it, I wouldn’t know what to eat in Hanoi.