It seemed an unlikely place to be going for breakfast, as Cho lead us into a little low building with mud and straw walls and a corrugated roof, on the main street of Yen Minh, a small rural town in Ha Giang Province, N.E.Vietnam, sandwiched between several taller buildings.
The owner, Ninh, from the White Tay minority, came out to greet us and welcome us inside.
Predictably, Cho had something up his sleeve, and unbeknownst to me, I was about to sample a local delicacy.
Inside this unassuming little building there were several low tables and benches set out, and in the corner was a wood stove, on which was set a large pan of boiling water with cheesecloth stretched tightly over the top, where Ninh sat and prepared a popular N.Vietnamese favourite, bánh cuốn.
Bánh cuốn, or steamed rice pancake roll, is a speciality often eaten for breakfast, and is made from a thin wide sheet of steamed fermented rice flour.
The batter is ladled over the stretched cheesecloth, and spread out with a bamboo stick to make a very thin and flimsy pancake which is nearly see-through.
Ninh then covers it with a lid while it steams, and has a minute to catch up on the local gossip.
Then comes the tricky bit where she uses the stick to strip the delicate sheet from the cheesecloth and roll it into a pancake.
It’s then transferred to a large oiled plate where she rolls it up with whatever filling you’ve requested, stir-fried ground pork, beef, egg, vegetables, minced wood ear mushroom, or tofu.
She then puts it back on the stove briefly before serving it, steaming hot, fresh and delicious.
Topped with fried shallots and coriander, it’s eaten using chopsticks, with a side dish of cucumbers, and a chilli dipping sauce or nước chấm, which is apparently sometimes flavoured with cà cuống, or giant water beetles, but I’ll pretend I didn’t know that.
Unfortunately, having watched it being made, I was so keen to tuck in and try it that I forgot to take a photo of the finished product. Suffice to say it’s not a great looker, but it makes up for that in how it tastes, although the slightly glutinous texture takes a bit of getting used to for the Western palate.
It was clearly a very popular little spot, and while we were there lots of locals popped in for a quick bánh cuốn and a chat with Ninh on their way to work or school. It reminded me that one of the simple pleasures I enjoy in Asia is watching street food being made and enjoying it, freshly cooked in front of you and eating it in very simple surroundings along with all the locals. What a great way to start the day – I can smell it now!