A street shop in Hanoi is special in more ways than one: it is run by possibly the oldest hawker in the world and it serves the simplest yet most unique snack -- raw jellyfish in natural red dye.
Nguyen Thi Gai, now almost 90, serves the snack in the mouth of an alley along Hang Chieu Street.
She sits under an old mahogany tree with two large basins in front. One of them is full of red jellyfish and the other has ingredients like fresh aromatic leaves, grilled tofu and pieces of coconut flesh to roll with the jellyfish, and lemon, red chilli, and fermented shrimp paste to make a dipping sauce for the roll.
Gai gets her supply from the nearby coastal city of Hai Phong, where people catch and clean jellyfish before soaking them in water together with the bark of bruguiera, a kind of mangrove tree, to give them the red color.
The jellyfish is transported to the capital in closed bamboo baskets, and they can stay for months without going bad.
Gai just has to put the jellyfish in saltwater before serving it to customers.
She cuts the jellyfish into small pieces with a bamboo stick, saying that helps reduce the odor better than a knife.
“The arms are crunchier, the bell is soft,” she says, giving both to some customers who try the dish for the first time.
“So next time you can tell me which kind you prefer.”
When the customers praise the cool fresh rolls as tasty, she smiles confidently.
“I know it; people have kept coming for all these years.”
Gai started the business when she was 19, selling three basins of jellyfish every day.
Her two daughters used to help with her little street shop, but now they have their own jobs, one as a domestic help and the other as a worker in the city’s environment company.
There is a season for jellyfish and her basins are only available between February and September.
A street vendor said she is addicted to the snack and eats it every week if Gai opens.
“I’ve been eating here for almost 20 years, ever since I moved to Hanoi.”
Gai charges VND25,000, a little more than a dollar, for each nutritious dish.
Some customers are willing to spend half of that to leave their vehicles at a parking lot to eat.
She only has a few plastic tools and so many of her customers order takeaways.
“A family books a shipment for its daughter in France once in a while. I have to put the fermented shrimp paste bottle in ten layers of covers,” Gai says.
Despite the large number of customers, she says she has never thought about opening a restaurant since she is too old and too poor for that.
She also believes the snack is attractive because of the simple settings.