I had been back in Hanoi now about a week and was talking to a local about the obscure or exotic eats in the area or surrounding regions. Of the many suggestions made, this one soup in particular sparked my interest. I was pointed north, high up in the secluded mountains of North Vietnam. Amongst the rice paddies in the small village of Lao Cai, I was bound for the Sunday market.
This is where I found Thang Co, bubbling away in a cast iron wok over an open flame. Eight or so ladies bent over, laboring over their individual hot pot of Thang Co. Each one slightly different than the last, the intricacies of the spices and herbs known only to them. Dozens behind them in a pavilion slurping away at their portion. Laughter and conversation filled the air along with the spiced, heart-warming aroma while the simple delicious things in life were savoured with each mouthful.
When this dish was explained to me, it was plainly put… horse stomach soup. This led me to an understanding as to why most people steered clear of it. Even he was making faces of displeasure while telling me about it. He really wasn’t selling it well, but this had my attention all the more. Translating to meat soup, this is traditional of the region and the ethnic people within it. The main ingredient of horse also being the main mode of delivery and transport at the time, it was originally a dish saved for holidays and festivals. Now it can be found in some restaurants throughout the region and horse meat is sometimes replaced by pork or beef. Fairly simple to prepare, the meat and a combination of spices are placed in a pot and boiled for hours.
Based on the crowd I was the only foreigner interested so I chose my bench and was greeted by a barrage of smiles and surprised looks. A shorter elderly women came over with a grin ear to ear and placed a bowl in front of me. I knew to expect tripe, but that was about as far as my expectations ran. The bowl was heaped with a melange of meat, bones, cartilage and delectable bits of innards all sitting in a rich meaty broth. This accompanied with a small bowl of herbs and another of a chili condiment, I barely knew where to begin. I dove in tearing the meat off the bones, crunching through the cartilage and chewing through the edible viscera.
I took my time working my way through this unique bowl of soup. A bowl I wish had no end. In that moment everything was bliss. These are the simple experiences I love most while traveling. A meal of something completely foreign to me in a place unknown, yet homey. I feel comfortable in these places for a reason I have yet to completely put words to. I felt like I could relate to everyone eating, even though from very different walks of life. Simply sharing and savouring that moment everything seems understood without words. While I’ve loved traveling the past couple years for a multitude of reasons, it’s the moments like this that I search for and for a time, life is easy.
I’ve never heard of a dish like it!