Midnight in Hoan Kiem. While the insomniac revellers on the Ma May strip are still be lolling about in their own spilt beer, the majority of the city seals their doors and battens down the hatches till the break of dawn. One last refuge remains for those seeking a proper midnight munch, with food, drinks and mischief served up 24 hours of the day, seven days a week. No rest for the wicked down these forgotten alleyways. Strolling through the narrow streets of Ngo Cam Chi and Tong Duy Tan at night, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone in the celestial department of maintenance forgot to turn the sun back on – from midnight to the point where daylight claws its way back up through the sky, it’s as busy as any bun cha joint’s lunch rush on these streets. I set out to investigate the inner machinations of this untouched land – known colloquially as Food Street – where cafes, bars and restaurants flourish in the darker hours.
First question. Why is this street allowed to continue operating outside of the curfew? “Cause it’s Food Street,” laughs Vu Nhat Ha, owner of Nhat Ha restaurant. “It’s been the late-night food street for long before you were born, at least from the 90s, but maybe even before that.” Vu’s vague about the origins of this late-night oasis, so we set off in search of some more concrete answers.
Ky Dong – a family owned restaurant run by chirpy husband and wife duo, Nguyen Quoc Anh and Pham Minh Tu. It’s Nguyen who fields my questions as he nonchalantly fries up some banh cuon. “This street is only open because the city government allowed it to stay that way and if the city allows us to do it, then why not?” It’s hard not to admire his enterprising attitude, even if both Nguyen and his wife look fairly worn out – at just 1am, with two more hours left on their shift. “We close at 3am, but my brother-in-law comes in at 6am to pick up the morning shift, by 3am the customers are almost all gone so we take a quick rest.”
Nguyen seems to know his customers and their habits well enough, but what of the origins of this strange little gem on an alley? “I think it was about two years ago that we started opening up late into the morning, this street has only been allowed to stay open this late for about two years, but plenty of the other restaurants around here have been staying open late for long before that – they just hid from the police every time they came around, now they don’t have that problem.”
Scarpering from the police seems to have been a national pastime for many Hanoian restaurateurs, but here on this secluded little spot – there are no loud-speakers to be heard nor any well-pressed green uniforms to be seen. Diners and their hosts can eat, drink and cook free from fear. Somehow someone somewhere has convinced the city government to grant them this one slither of unadulterated nightly pleasure.
Quan Ba Beo is brimming with giddy groups of young Vietnamese sharing hot pots and chugging beer with reckless abandon. Daughter to the owner of Quan Ba Beo, Ngo Huong Giang is operating the restaurant until 4am tonight and sits wearily stirring at a cauldron. Unidentifiable birds are bobbing around in a black sauce, which despite appearances, gives off a rich scent that wakes my stomach from its slumber.
“I think it’s because there are so many bars and clubs around here,” explains Ngo, “It’s always been like this, we get a lot of hungry people coming here after a night. It’s historic, but I think it’s only this street that has this kind of agreement with the police.”
After draining a post midnight beer, I’m left to ponder the mysteries of this street. No one really seems to know how it started or where the origins of Food Street begin, but rumours drift about the place that this used to be where government officials came to drink, others point to the August Revolution where the French were roundly thrashed and chased out of town. There are whispers that this intersection of alleyways was where the Vietnamese living under French occupation would get together for clandestine meetings, but nothing concrete surfaced. Maybe it’s best to just enjoy it. Echoing Vu Nhat Ha, this is Food Street after all and despite the mystery surrounding the whole area, it’s still the best place in the capital to wash a late-night meal down with four or five beers. That’s good enough for an insomniac reprobate like me.