If you’re looking for Hai San Thang Ngoc, don’t bother searching for any signage or its TripAdvisor page. You won’t find a page for the restaurant on Facebook, nor will you find this hidden gem in a guidebook on travelling in Vietnam. Your best bet is to go to Unicorn Pub at 2a Hang Than in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District and follow your nose. After a few deep whiffs you should be drawn across the street by the sumptuous aura of grilled seafood, towards a few small plastic stools and tables, set on a raised part of the sidewalk. If you’ve followed your nose this far your taste buds are about to reap the rewards, because Hai San Thang Ngoc does some of the best damn shellfish either side of the Red River.
Located at number 1 Hang Than Street (though it’s easier to go to Unicorn Pub from Yen Phu and look to your left), Hai San Thang Ngoc has been serving up delicious oysters, crabs and clams to the people of Hanoi for the last 15 years.
Like most street food spots, Hai San Thang Ngoc is no frills, with the focus on serving delicious food. There’s no written menu, the seats are tiny plastic stools and a long bench placed against the wall, and the sounds of the bustling street corner serves for ambient music.
What it does have though is much more important, and that’s fresh shellfish grilled on a piping-hot barbeque. Owner Nguyen Thi Bich Ngoc opened the restaurant because she already had a connection to seafood flown in from south Vietnam, which her friends would send up to her via plane to be sold on to other businesses. Tired of being the middle woman, Ngoc opened her own restaurant and still serves shellfish from the south and closer Quang Ninh Province.
The family-run restaurant is invariably packed when it opens in the evenings, often with large groups of Vietnamese young and old eager to enjoy a cheap, delicious communal dining experience. While the lack of a written menu may make things tricky for Western customers (it’s probably best to go with a friend who speaks Vietnamese), Ngoc says the waitresses reading the menu aloud to customers speeds up the order process and keeps things moving at the busy joint. The system does indeed run smoothly, with order to eat time about five minutes.
According to Ngoc, the miến cua (crab noodles) are very popular particularly among foreigners. The dish comes in either a large or small size, with glass noodles, egg and beansprouts topped with crab meat. The crab is of course the star of this dish, and it’s especially enjoyable to be able to eat some crab without having to tear it from its shell, which if you’re as clumsy as me is no easy feat.
While Westerners may love the crab noodles, Ngoc says her Japanese customers gravitate towards the sò dương nướng mỡ hành (grilled oysters). The oysters are hefty and come fresh off the grilled, so maybe let them cool down for a second. Topped with greens and crispy fried onions (which are stored in a biscuit tin before being served), the oysters are a meaty seafood delight.
I also tried two types of clam, one served closed, the other open. The closed clams, sò huyết (blood clams, due to the colour of the meat), are easy enough to open but again, let them cool down before diving in. These are best eaten after dipping in some chilli sauce or the ubiquitous MSG, salt and lime combo placed on your table.
Finally, the ngao nướng (grilled clams) were a refreshing end to the meal, topped with the same garnish as the oysters to make them a lovely light bite.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the underrated benefits of a shellfish dinner: the childlike joy of throwing the shells away into the bucket beneath the table. The clang they make on each other as they crash into the bucket is oh so satisfying, and anyone who disagrees has lost all perspective.