Little ladies, lumberjack shirts, bamboo baskets and a conical hat. If the description sounds familiar, then you will no doubt have spent some time either avoiding or indulging in the scoffing of stale donuts around Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
More persistent than a winter cold and peddling food more unappetising than anything with the word “gruel” in it, the donut ladies of Hoan Kiem are masters of making you realise that actually, yes, you do want some questionable donuts.
Baskets of Balls
The donuts in question come in a few different forms, some more likely to provoke positive feedback than others.
“The most popular type is this one,” says Sen, 37, who has been selling donuts around this area for 12 years.
She hands over a small, twisted, rope-shaped donut on a stick. It’s a bit stale, a bit glazed, and generally not bad. It tastes like a donut should taste, albeit a few days past its expiration date.
“We start work at 4am, and then start selling them at 6.30am,” explains Sen. “Then we go home to make more, and sell them again from 4pm until they’re all gone.”
Other varieties in her basket of wonders include sugar-coated donut balls stuffed with green bean paste and sesame-coated donut balls stuffed with the freshest Hanoian air. On average, each donut seller will get rid of two baskets of donuts a day, and take home around VND4 million each month.
“I can’t sell them in my hometown,” says Sen. “People there are too poor, even though they’re just VND5,000 apiece. So I have to stay in Hanoi.”
“We’ve learnt not to do anything in Hanoi without getting a price first,” says Tamara, a first-time visitor from Russia.
No one wants to have their name attached to how much they paid, probably due to the embarrassment of finding out how much the donuts are meant to cost, but prices seem to fluctuate considerably.
As most of the sellers will just bag up a variety of their doughy goods, the buyer is none the wiser as to the quantity or contents. All of the dozen or so visitors I spoke to paid between VND60,000 and VND150,000 for a bag.
When I bought some with my Vietnamese colleague, they were VND40,000 for the same bag.
“Never take anything from anyone until you know how much it costs,” suggests Australian tourist Rhiannon.
“Of course we vary the prices depending on the customer,” admits donut seller Tuyet, 35. “Tourists have more money to spend on them, but locals buy them more often.”
“For dong beginners, the VND100,000 and VND10,000 notes look very similar,” says 23-year-old Lucas, at the end of a very familiar story about not getting the correct change.
These Are Not the Donuts You’re Looking For
The sweeter, green bean-filled donut balls got the worst reception from the groups I spoke to.
“Oh my god,” says Rhiannon, as a glob of green paste makes its way to the floor. “It’s disgusting!”
The overall consensus is that the green bean filled donuts covered in sugar, banh ran ngot, are way too sweet, to the point of being sickly.
The sesame-covered donut balls, with nothing inside, are more tolerable, but still suffer from the same problem as the glazed twists-on-sticks; freshness.
“The ones on sticks taste like Yum Yums,” says Lucas, “but only once they’ve been left out for a while. They are totally stale.”
Photos by Trung Del