Her friends call her “The Food Champion” because Thao always knows the best places to go for delicious food in Hanoi, Vietnam – at the best price.
Article by Karletta Marie
In all the years I have been traveling from Australia to Vietnam, I have never doubted Thao’s amazing food discovery talents… until this one time when she suggested we go to a Vietnamese “Buffet” …
“The buffet starts at 11am Chi and finishes at 2pm, so we need to be there early when it starts. I’ll meet you there in the foyer at 11 o’clock. Is that ok Chi?”. (Chi means sister in Vietnamese). I’m not really a “buffet” person, unless it’s Sheraton Hotel & Towers on the nights where they serve king prawns on ice in those lovely silver bowls sitting on the white-clothed display table. So, when my friend Thao invited me for a traditional Vietnamese buffet I almost declined. I had visions of one hundred Vietnamese families squeezing into a square whole in a cement wall, sitting at stainless steel tables on red vinyl covered stools.
I could see it now – a Vietnamese food frenzy. Mrs Tam, would be there at the chafing dishes, surrounded by her three children holding plates high above her head loaded with fried rice and chicken feet. I could see old Mr Nguyen, back bent over his Pho noodles; a set of chopsticks in one hand, his other occupied with a pinkie nail far up his nostril. Then there would be a large round table or three of Vietnamese men, yelling “mot, hi, ba, YO!”. They’d clash their glasses together before sculling beer and throwing their empty cans on the floor. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy conversation because the noise would be deafening. ??I push these exaggerations to the back of my mind and console myself with knowing that the food would be GREAT! After all, it was Thao, our Food Champion, that had invited us. She’s proud of the Vietnamese cuisine, the whole nation is – and so they should be – it’s amazingly delicious – to me, one of the best in the world!
We agree to meet at 11 am. I arrive with John, my husband, at 11.30am, right on time, according to typical Vietnamese ‘rubber time’. The foyer reception area was packed with Vietnamese families jostling at the counter where they waited to be assigned their table number. We are the only foreigners in sight. John and I take our place in the queue, that wasn’t really a queue. In Vietnam you don’t queue – whomever shoves the best, who calls out the loudest, wins!
So about now, my earlier imaginations are coming true. It did feel like the entire population of Hanoi had descended upon the famous Sen, Ho Tay Buffet. One young Vietnamese guy with a pudgy face, shoves me aside with his elbow and leans over the counter. John jumps in, “Excuse me, we are next”. The guy’s eyes dart from me to John, with an incredulous glare of “what’s your problem” and right before it starts to get too awkward, a young man, wearing a white-shirt and black trousers steps in and says. “Come with me please Sir, what’s your table number?”
Our white-shirt savior whisks us past the crowds, through double doors that open-up into an elegant, traditional style banquet room where we are greeted by our gracious waitress. She seats us at our table, which rather than being the stainless-steel type I’d imagined, was a traditional wooden table, beautifully set complete with linen napkins and wine glasses.
I take a moment to soak up the atmosphere and aromas while we wait for Thao and another friend, Wafa to join our table.I stand up and look around, my mouth salivating at all the delicious morsels I’m about to savor. I first spot the fresh seafood bar. As soon as John sees me eye those oysters, he orders a bottle of white wine – he knows I won’t need much more to have my moment of complete buffet bliss! I start on the oysters before Thao and Wafa arrive.
It’s not long before Thao arrives with two full plates in hand. There is a massive BBQ selection on the open terrace and on her way she’s grabbed a delicious selection for all of us to share. We feast together on grilled oysters, squid and baby octopus. The BBQed prawns are my favourite with their crispy skins that crunch and crackle as you bite through to the sweet white flesh.
At one point, I recall John saying, “I wish I had a second stomach”.
But seriously, you would need four stomachs to taste all the dishes on offer. In addition to the salads,
vegetables and chao, there was all the traditional Hanoian food specialities – hot and cold, like Nem, Pho Xao, Bun Cha, Banh Cuon, Xoi and more, I’d fill an entire page with all the foods that were on offer.
When we’d had our fill of savory, we started on dessert, or should I say desserts.
There wasn’t one dessert bar, but two to satisfy every sweet tooth; the traditional Vietnamese Che and then the French favorites like crème Brulee, sugar coated donuts, cheesecake, sweet yogurts and exotic fresh fruits. There was a counter dedicated to ice-cream. The durian flavored ice-cream was a true taste sensation like cool, caramelized apple mixed with savory crème. I finished off this delightful lunch with a second helping, to savor the flavor.
The Sen Ho Tay, Hanoian Buffet, in my opinion was exceptional. In my eleven years of traveling to Vietnam, it would be my most memorable dining experience. The most surprising of all, was the price. It cost $12US per person, not including the wine. Besides the incredible food, the service was warm and friendly, with a constant supply of fresh plates and cutlery. I’m not sure what happened to all the crowds outside, but it’s as if they dispersed into the different areas of the restaurant. Sen, Ho Tay has a number of dining halls including an International Buffet which is also very popular. Perhaps the crowds and the guy that shoved me had gone there for lunch?
In any case, I thank Thao, my dear Hanoian friend, the Food Champion for this most memorable buffet lunch. True to her word we left at 2pm, making the most of our Hanoian food experience. She certainly lived up to her reputation!
Sen Tay Ho webiste
Karletta Marie: World Traveller, Explorer, Believer, Story Listener, Sharing inspiring short-stories from women (and some honorary men) I meet while traveling the globe.
Photographs by: Wafa Faith Hallam