Highway 4

Trip Start Nov 02, 2006
Trip End Jun 21, 2007

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, March 11, 2007

During our stay in Vietnam, Mike and I took it upon ourselves to try some of the restaurants recommended by the lonely planet website.  To encourage people to actually buy the books the site only listed a few restaurants, one of them being Highway 4.  What caught my eye wasn't the food but the promise of traditional (and not-so-traditional) rice wines that could be found only in Vietnam. 

Our first attempt to dine at Highway 4 was extremely disappointing.  First of all, Mike was fighting off being sick.  We arrived a bit late and both the downstairs and upstairs sections were full.  Trying to please us, the waiters set-up a table just outside the door of the restaurant.  Anyone who has been to Hanoi can understand how much different it is to dine outside compared to being within a restaurants peaceful walls.  It was clear that our waiter wasn't fond of English-speaking (or should I say non-Vietnamese-speaking) patrons.  We decided to make the most of it, though, and began with a taster-set of their fruit wines and an appetizer that would make my Arizona-friends squirm.

A while later our waiter set down a small plate with four delicate cups filled with apple rose, passion fruit, apricot, and mulberry rice wine.  Then he placed our appetizer on the table... two big black scorpions served with a dipping sauce made of salt, red chilies and fresh lime juice.  Mike's face lit up as he broke off a pincher and popped it in his mouth.  I just couldn't do it... but he informed me that it tasted kinda like crab.   

Shortly after our first round arrived a table was cleared in the dining room.  We re-located ourselves inside (much to the waiter's dismay) and ordered our meal.  It was around this time that Mike started to feel even worse so we decided to play it safe with the dishes.  Half-heartedly we ate lemon chicken and fried garlic stems, I finished off the rice wines, and we left.  Not exactly the culinary experience I was looking for.

Our last night in Hanoi we decided to try Highway 4 again, and this time we came with a purpose!  Although it was a Saturday night we found the restaurant to be surprisingly slow, and we were able to snag a seat upstairs.  We took our seats on floor pillows arranged around traditional Japanese-style tables that stood about eight inches from the floor.  We began by ordering the Mountain Breeze rice wine sampler which featured Nep Lam (sticky rice), Chuoi (rose apple), Ong Den (black bee) and San Lunk Thoc Nep (unhusked highland rice) wines. 

---Let me back up a bit. Upon entering Highway 4 you immediately see the bar area.  On the shelves are huge glass jars filled with rice wines and their various flavor-adding ingredients.  Ginger, young rice, black bumblebees, snakes... almost anything you can think of is infused with the liquor.  So when I say black bee rice wine, I literally mean that I drank wine that was fermented in a jar containing about a gallon-jugs worth of bees.---

After deciding that the Nep Lam and San Luck Thos Nep were the best, we ordered sauteed morning glory and a dried beef appetizer.  This time the food was amazing!  I can't even explain how good the jerky-like beef was after we squeezed an entire lime over the plate. 

To round things off (or so we thought) Mike and I ordered a rice wine sampler featuring Ran Ngu Xa (2 cobras, 2 kraits and one grass snake), My Tuu (herbal?-- I thought it tasted like the bark-wine from Sapa), Minh Magn (made for the emperor of the same name.  supposedly he had over 100 children from countless concubines) Bo Sa Pa (made from 30 different ingredients from the Sapa region), and Vuong Tuu (which was made in honor of a Chinese Empress).  All the wines had a an almost spicy flavor that was a bit too harsh to my palate. 

As we finished off the wines, I noticed that a few tables near us were occupied by western looking people.  While Mike was in the bathroom I overheard a younger looking girl exclaim "Totally" in an all too familiar accent.  Evidentially she was from Tucson and was working in Hanoi for the Clinton AIDS foundation.  Mike and I relocated to her table and spent the remainder of our time at Highway 4 talking with two Americans, a British man named Mark who lives in Moscow and his companion Nadia.  We continued to drink our favorite rice wines and trade traveling stories.  After the American girls, I bought a bottle of the wine and then the four of us hit the town.   I'm so glad we gave Highway 4 another chance...
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