As one of the very few cities to escape World War II's carpet bombings, Prague in the Czech Republic is packed with stunning, centuries-old edifices. Throngs of tourists flock there year-round to see them.
Visitors for years have choked the streets of the city's Old Town, which is no longer a place for native Czechs. "It's too expensive," I was told, for the average Czech who lives on 770 euros (about $913) per month. In the tourist zones, the hearty, meat-and-potatoes fare that Eastern Europe's frigid climate demands is the same as it is on the outskirts of town, minus the markup. Huge, steaming pans are packed with dense, warm potato dumplings, cut by strings of tangy sauerkraut and nubs of pork leg picked from the huge roasts that slowly spin over open flames.
But something urges you to escape the scrum. Out in the suburbs, which are dominated by sprawling blocks of apartments covered in a rainbow of pastel paint, the unexpected awaits. An hour by subway and bus to the city's south is the sprawling indoor-outdoor Sapa Market. Named for the idyllic, terraced farming town in Vietnam's north, the collection of warehouses sells everything from belts to bags and packs of lamp shades. The market doubles as a supplier for Vietnamese shops that dot the area and a kind of Costco for Czechs, who flood in to buy cheap bulk goods.
At the market's center is the highlight: a collection of small, mostly one-cook stalls serving a bursting array of northern Vietnamese specialties. The only differences are the variety of herbs and the fact that everyone is clad in puffy down jackets and wool hats.
In one stall, a pack of men crams into a cigarette-smoke-filled box to gamble and sip sweet hot Vietnamese coffee. There's the constant ting outside of bicycle delivery men, who shuttle between the cafés and shops while delicately balancing hot bowls of soup or towering stacks of empties.
This fish sauce spiked wonderland emerged thanks to the Communists. Ho Chi Minh's government shipped thousands of its citizens to the former Czechoslovakia for work training. After the Soviet Union's collapse and the country's split into two states many Vietnamese stayed put.
In one four-seat café a pair of women chatter and effortlessly roll out row and after row of Bánh cuốn. Every two or so minutes, one spreads a rice flour batter onto a mesh screen stretched over a pot of boiling water. She waits a moment, then slips a chopstick under the razor-thin pancake and tosses it to her partner, who sprinkles on a mixture of ground pork and dried wood ear mushroom before rolling it up and garnishing it with fried shallots. For about $2, you receive six of these little packets with a few slices of steamed pork roll and a steaming bowl of nuoc mam cham, a pungent, satisfying blend of fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and chilies for dipping.
Around the corner the specialty is Bún bò Huế. The dish, which appears similar to the iconic pho, comes from the country's ancient seat of power in its central region. The noodles are thicker and rounder than what you'd find in traditional pho, while the broth is laced with significantly more lemongrass and fish sauce as well as daubs of pork blood and fiery chili oil. In addition to the succulent fatty slabs of brisket, the soup also features a juicy chicken meatball. At least a dozen people crammed themselves into this tiny auburn stall, slurping and watching music videos streamed from Hanoi showing women clad in green military uniforms glorifying their loved ones' wartime exploits.
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It's a perfect, comforting meal on a freezing day in the middle of winter when the sun hardly climbs higher than the horizon. The only thing that's missing is a steaming cup of mulled wine. For that, it's an hour on the bus back into town.