As I listen intently to the persistent cry of this pre-recorded message, edging ever closer and louder, I can no longer fight the craving. Winter chill be damned! I scramble out the door in just a light jacket and shorts, and, like a hungry bloodhound hot on the trail of a fresh scent, I track down the source of the racket.
I’m greeted by what could barely be called a working bicycle, welded and fused together to fit several large pots leaking steam. I watch as a lowly old man navigates this weather-beaten apparatus. The whole contraption seems so disproportionate. I’m sure that if the old man weighed any less, the entire thing would flip up as if he were on the lighter end of a seesaw.
Inside his rickety mobile steamer sits of one of Vietnam’s oldest and most famous snacks. A subtly sweet and succulent white steamed bun injected with a savory filling of seasoned ground pork, shiitake mushrooms and a quail egg. I buy one of the fist-sized treasures for VND6,000 and hold it delicately in my hands, breathing in the warm steam that radiates from the bun as it makes contact with the cold December air. After taking a bite, I inquire of the old man, whose name is Ong Hung, whether he has made these himself to sell at this ridiculous hour. “Khong,” he replies, saying that he purchased them earlier in the day at a banh bao factory in the Hai Ba Trung District. One of many, apparently. Immediately, visions come to mind of an opulent, white Willy Wonka-esque building; a magical place where fluffy white machines churn out fluffy white buns en masse.
The heat of the cart and the warm bun in my hands feels so cozy and inviting. I decide to stick around and strike up a conversation with the vendor, asking him if he knew the origins of this ubiquitous snack that I’m stuffing into my face. I could tell, however, that Ong Hung is impatient with my gabbing as it is keeping him from his pilgrimage through the near-deserted streets of Hanoi. There are hungry insomniacs like me to feed, so he is eager to be on his way. To appease him, I buy another bun, an act that quickly remedies his mood.
Originally brought to Vietnam by Chinese immigrants, the banh bao is the larger cousin of the baozi, a dumpling still popular today in Chinese dim sum. Other than this tiny tidbit, Ong Hung isn’t too sure of the exact origin of the banh bao, which he started selling six years ago. But it seems that most Asian countries have their own version of this delectable treat. Thailand has the salapoa and China has the cha siu bao, which looks practically identical but is filled with sweet, red barbeque-pork instead. I thank Ong Hung for his time and buy a third for the walk home.
If your cravings for banh bao become too intense for you to wait for the randomness of a midnight bicycle encounter, head to 59 Luong Ngoc Quyen in the heart of the Old Quarter. The lady here specialises in a very unique banh bao — the buns are her personal recipes, made fresh from scratch daily. And it clearly shows in her price of VND35,000 per bun — a vast difference from her bicycle-riding counterpart. But what you get here is something all together different. The filling is a concoction of either chicken or pork with salted preserved duck egg and Chinese sausage; its outer white shell kissed with the faint aroma of sweet coconut.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend these buns based on value alone. I’d indulge once for the novelty of seeing what you could get for the 600 percent price rise, but for street food, the markup seems a bit much. This is especially true since there are three stalls selling banh bao, all lined up in a row, just a few blocks west on Luong Van Can. The ones here are the usual fare, probably from the factory. They have no hidden tricks but are just as tasty as ever.
The banh bao is not difficult to find and should be tried. There is no sense resisting it, because, even if you don’t search it out, the banh bao will most definitely come calling for you at all hours of the night.