Vietnam is renowned for its street food, but many Western visitors miss out on ever experiencing it. Worries about hygiene, along with the "exotic" nature of many of the dishes (yes, they do eat frogs and sparrows) means that most tourists prefer to play safe and eat at one of the country's numerous restaurants serving more familiar, international dishes instead.
So I was delighted to discover on a recent visit to the capital, Hanoi, that Intrepid Travel runs a Street Food tour in Hanoi via Urban Adventures. I signed up immediately for their neighbourhood reccie, which included seven tasting sessions and the perfect (and safest) opportunity to see what I'd been missing.
I met my guide in front of Dong Xuan Market, smack bang in the middle of the bustling old quarter, and after a quick and informative brief, we moved to our first food stop, Banh Mi.
A French-influenced bread snack with a pork pâté filling, chilli, herbs and fresh cucumber (sold by two local women using customised hot dog stands) was our first stop. It was a tasty start. We then circled the perimeter of the market, dodging the hundreds of mopeds that permanently keep the city abuzz, to get an insight into the popular and more exotic local produce: the vibrant colour of dragon fruit, the artful shape of Buddha's Hand and the pungent smell of dried fish (you can whiff the latter from a 100 paces).
Next up, a gander through the lively streets of Hanoi. As day turned to evening, the cafes, bars and street vendors started jumping to life, popping out of nowhere. Fresh beer flowed freely and the lights started to glow on the capital's cool mustard-coloured French colonial architecture.
The atmosphere took my senses by storm.
We passed a stall which comprised of nothing more than what appeared to be two red hot smoking dustbin lids. My guide beckoned me to take a seat (like the ones back in infant school) and told me to prepare to try the most delicate stuffed rice pancakes in the world. This mouthwatering appertiser was made before our very eyes, making the taste even more exquisite.
The tour continued as we snaked down various streets (or 'Hangs'), each specialising in purveying one particular product, from tyres and bamboo to silk and religious offerings. The colours of lanterns and glittering gold paper money added to the atmosphere.
My appetite was now ready for the main event: a full-on Vietnamese BBQ.
A hat shop by day transforms itself into the most amazing food haven where frogs, eels, pig stomach and sparrows are on offer. My guide told me he grew up on frogs with a bowl (or two) of steamed rice. I begin to sweat. Was it the humidity or fear hitting me?
I plucked up all my courage and grabbed some eels and pig stomach together with some less daring choices: tofu, king prawns, stuffed crab, okra, and a couple of beef skewers thrown in for good measure.
The verdict? It was so good, I found myself insisting we stayed for a second helping, washing it down with a cold local beer.
Strolling past some more stalls selling chicken feet and silkworm cake delicacies, we took a sharp turn up some stone steps onto a hidden railway line with shack houses running by its side.
Suddenly we were in a part of 'real' Hanoi not normally visited by tourists. This is where the locals live and eat, and I soon spotted a family sitting on the floor of their small front room, enjoying the same foods I'd just been eating. I had finally got a real taste of real Vietnam.
A maze of neon streets took us to the heart of the backpacker area. This wasn't my idea for the best place to eat street or any kind of food - but I was wrong, again. A dark walkway tucked in a tiny corner played host to another Hanoi-an speciality: fermented pork kebabs. It was delicious, and set my taste buds alight. I was ready for pudding.
I've never been fond of fruit, but my guide cajoled me to sample the fresh mango, dragon fruit and lychees with tapioca, condensed milk and crushed ice. I was converted. It was sweet heaven in a bowl.
With the end of the tour fast approaching, my guide said the evening wasn't complete without coffee, and led me into a silk and painting shop with a glint in his eye.
I followed him through the back into an old Chinese house and up a spiral staircase where speciality Egg Coffee is served on a great little roof terrace overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake (pictured above).
Legend has it that a 100 year old soft shell giant tortoise lives in the middle of the lake, one of only three of his kind in the world. My guide claimed to have seen it more than once. It was a fitting end to one of the most magical and enjoyable and adventurous evenings I'd had for a long time.