Lan Chin offers real flavour of Viet Nam

On the lookout for a bit of raw culture? Marianne Brown heads to Lan Chin Restaurant to get a taste of what it really means to be Vietnamese.

Clear your throat, sharpen your elbows and get your drinking hat on – ready for the Lan Chin dining adventure.

Any day-tripper to Viet Nam can tell you that eating lau (hot pot) is an obligatory part of the Vietnamese culinary experience. But there’s a bewildering choice of eateries sprawled out on countless streets in the capital. Strip lighting, stained white walls, mysterious prints of romantic landscapes and plastic seating seems to be uniform for most lau restaurants so how can the luckless newcomer tell what’s best? The answer: follow the locals and in Ha Noi everyone seems to be heading to Lan Chin.

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If you didn’t already know, eating lau involves choosing your dish from a list on the menu, vegetables and all, which are then served up raw in bite-sized chunks on a large platter. Then comes the steaming bowl of broth simmering over a portable gas flame and it all starts to make sense. You have to hold back for a few minutes until the water is boiling and then you can toss the odds and sods in and wait until all is tender. Once it’s ready, you fish out the pieces with your chopsticks, dip it in your choice of sauce and gobble it down. It’s a great way to drip boiling water on your friends and stain your trousers.

Patience is key, at the beginning at least. I’ve been to tens of lau restaurants in the city and I have to say Lan Chin is the only place I haven’t had to tell the waiter to adjust the flame or get more gas to heat the water faster to appease my rumbling belly. Lan Chin has gas cylinders, which is another plus, there’s nothing more off-putting than a drunk friend smearing a block of paraffin fuel on what is about to be your dinner as they try to squeeze it through the hole in the stove to feed the fire.

It’s best to quell your hunger as you wait for the stove with a few nibbles. At Lan Chin my favourites are deep fried corn, the ubiquitous plate of roasted peanuts and slices of pickled peppers good for dipping in soya sauce. The snacks are by no means filling but they keep your fingers busy until the main meal arrives.

Reliable gas stoves and good starters aren’t the only things that makes the restaurant stand out from the crowd.

This beggars the question, how can a pile of raw meat really differ from one restaurant to another? Most restaurants offer the same type of flesh; everything from beef to eel. You can also put a whole fish over the stove and scoop bits out as it cooks. My favourite blood red to a thin brown when cooked.

Other predictables are fried tofu, fresh tofu and flat brown noodles used to fill up the last corners once the meat is gone. But none of these things would be tasty if they didn’t have the right stock and it’s this basic that Lan Chin excels in.

‘Thom’ in Vietnamese translates as ‘fragrant’ but I wouldn’t use frato describe Lan Chin’s soup – the word isn’t strong enough. The stock is rich, with flavours of cinnamon, beef and the exotic sweetness of various fruits you can still see floating around, like star fruit and pineapple. But it’s also light. I’ve been to other lau restaurants where the stock is either too spicy or too bland but at Lan Chin they get the balance just right, ensuring everyone around the table is sipping their bowls dry by the end of the night. It’s a secret recipe they keep close to their chests, manager Nguyen Thu Lan says.

“Our lau is the most delicious in the city, that’s why everyone comes here. I’m not going to tell you how we do it, then everyone would copy us!”

It has certainly proved its popularity. The restaurant at Tang Bat Ho is the main one of six scattered across the city. Lan heralds the place as having “clean, delicious food that’s safe. All the men in Ha Noi know about my restaurant.” It’s also cheap. A good meal with starters, veggies and a small bottle of vodka usually costs around VND250,000 (around US$15). Of course, the more people you go with, the cheaper your share of the bill will be.

Aesthetically pleasing it isn’t, especially if you go at rush hour when everyone is finishing work. And because everyone knows this restaurant, it’s always crammed packed in the early evening. The tables are stuffed full of people, leaning over each other and bellowing over the clamour to be heard by the person next to them and the floor is strewn with all the inedible bits of the meal. Some might define this jostling atmosphere as the antithesis of ‘relaxing’ but relaxation is the very reason most people come here, one diner Le Ngoc Son says.

“Lau represents one of Vietnamese people’s most famous characteristics – friendliness,” he says.

“People come here after work with their friends or colleagues to relax, have a drink and enjoy themselves. You can’t eat lau alone. People would think you were crazy.”

Inevitably, alcohol is a must. The restaurant offers a variety of beverages, from snake wine to vodka. At Lan Chin the joviality often spreads to the waiting staff too, most of whom are young teenagers. The last time I went to Lan Chin it was late and the ten or so waiting staff had little to do so they amused themselves by fighting each other with a pile of chopsticks. They could be sacked for that in a western restaurant but submerged in the bubbling atmosphere of a lau restaurant, no one really cares. Good, cheap food is very welcome, Son says, but the most important thing about eating lau is your friends.

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