HANOI

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ex­plain the un­fa­mil­iar op­tions.

We opted for the Hanoi Street Food Tour (hanoistreet­food­tour.com), a well-re­viewed com­pany that runs tours in the city’s buzzing Old Quar­ter. We chose the three-hour Hanoi Street Food Tour By Walk­ing at a cost of $20 a per­son. The com­pany also of­fers morn­ing and nightlife-fo­cused tours.

The walk­ing tour starts at the of­fice at 74 Hang Bac St., where you can buy tick­ets. We rec­om­mend swinging by in per­son; we eas­ily got tick­ets for that day, and go­ing there en­sured we were at the right place. In Hanoi, busi­nesses some­times copy an­other busi­ness’ name, like a ho­tel or res­tau­rant, and set up shop. Un­sus­pect­ing tourists can end up at the copy cat place in­stead of the real deal.

Stand­ing back on a cor­ner from the wave of scoot­ers, our guide, Teddy, started by ask­ing about food al­ler­gies and checked to see if we were com­fort­able shar­ing our eats.

Ar­riv­ing at Bun Cha Ta, Teddy ex­plained that most restau­rants are known by num­bered ad­dresses. Many are named solely by their dish — like bun cha, a pork and noo­dle dish — and lo­cals re­mem­ber that dish, and where to find it. In this case, lo­cals would de­scribe it as the place serv­ing bun cha at 21 Nguyen Huu Huan St., as op­posed to “Bun Cha Ta.”

Climb­ing wind­ing stairs, we ar­rived at a small room on the up­per floor, where we dined on soup filled with fra­grant bar­be­cued pork. Our guide ex­plained how to eat it — add a chile or two, but “just leave it” for fla­vor, don’t eat it — and de­tailed the broth’s mix of vine­gar, honey and wa­ter.

In Viet­nam, eat­ing is a process. Small bowls ac­com­pany each meal so that din­ers can per­fect the taste to their lik­ing. It’s nor­mal, Teddy said, to spend 10 min­utes fid­dling with ad­don in­gre­di­ents to get it ex­actly right.

Next, we made our way to a place serv­ing pa­paya and beef salad. A bit dif­fer­ent from other pa­paya sal­ads in the re­gion, this one was light on spice and big on crunch thanks to the peanuts.

Not only did we get to learn about Viet­namese food and how to eat it, we got to see how it’s made. At the next stop, a woman pre­par­ing a steamed rice pan­cake called banh cuon waited pa­tiently as our guide ex­plained the process. Then she picked up a bam­boo stick to ef­fort­lessly cre­ate an ethe­real sheet from the bat­ter.

Here is where stom­achspace ra­tioning be­gan. Af­ter just three stops, we were all stuffed. And next on the list? A plate with four dif­fer­ent fried foods, in­clud­ing the sweet dough- nuts that ven­dors sell on the street.

Sens­ing our fill­ing stom­achs, Teddy started dish­ing out tips. The next place, we’d be eat­ing crab noo­dle soup. The money, she said, was in the broth. Skip the noo­dles if need be.

Flex­i­bil­ity was an as­set for this food tour. When, for ex­am­ple, an Amer­i­can teach­ing in Bangkok men­tioned how she loved black sticky rice and yo­gurt, our guide subbed that in. And when jack­fruit came up, she asked a pro­pri­etor to slice some sam­ples of the gi­ant tree­borne treat.

Beer, of course, was also on tap. Our guide joked that the bia hoi, or draft beer, could be likened to wa­ter. None­the­less, we tried some on a slim street filled with tiny ta­bles and wait­ers prof­fer­ing menus.

Stuffed with food, information and res­tau­rant rec­om­men­da­tions, I con­sid­ered this a great crash course in the nu­ances of lo­cal cui­sine. Peo­ple on a food tour can typ­i­cally trust they will be taken to stom­ach-friendly places — happy tourists aren’t sick tourists.

That said, if you ac­ci­den­tally swal­low a chile af­ter the guide’s warn­ing not to, that ad­ven­ture’s on you.

Ali­son Bowen, Chicago Tri­bune

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