By the time we leave for Canada on April 16, we will have spent a total of 10 days in Hanoi, interrupted by two trips away – one to Halong Bay and one to Sapa. We are halfway through our final week and the best advice we received was from a Travelfish article called, “Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi.”
Of all the places we have visited over the past few months, Hanoi is one of our top contenders for “most favourite.” Parts of the city are 1000 years old. The streets are narrow and chaotic, with alleyways leading to what? Opium dens? Are there even such things as opium dens any more? Hanoi feels slightly seedy and illicit in parts – we may not partake, but it’s fun to know it’s there.
We have been to a few museums, but we think you’ve had enough of the guided tours. We know we have – we want to stick to the street theatre.
In Hanoi, the action is all in the street. Most people live in small places, so the sidewalks and parks become an extension of their homes. We’re close to Hoan Kiem Lake; a city treasure that is encircled by trees, gardens and benches. If I was so inclined, I would get up at 6:00 am to join the tai chi exercises on the lake, but I’m not, to we have enjoyed our afternoon and evening strolls and people-watching instead.
It is very common to see people of all ages wearing pyjamas at all hours of the day and night. Women wear loose two-piece outfits, usually in a small floral print. They may call them something else, but they’re jammies. The older gents can’t be bothered to pretend.
You don’t often see Asian men with long white hair. Cell phones, on the other hand, are everywhere. The poorest vendor will be texting while waiting for business.
No need to be stuck away in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time.
Also a common sight – a tiny matriarch guarding her turf. This woman was barking out stern instructions to a young man trying to park his scooter. He listened.
Why not make a joyful noise at 9:30 in the morning? Karaoke rules in Vietnam – we’ve often run across wannabe singers in stores and markets.
Dogs rule in Vietnam as well. Most of the cats we’ve seen look starved and matted, but some of the dogs live at least as well as their owners. They ride on scooters, they eat yummy leftovers and they get their hair done.
There is no shyness around private ablutions and personal grooming right on the street. We’ve seen many men peeing, small children squatting down in parks, and our favourite – the public cleaning of teeth with toothpicks. I think it gives the men something to do – sit on a park bench for hours and pick their teeth, punctuated by spitting on the ground.
Picking lice out of hair is another thing we often see – one woman bent over another woman’s head, carefully picking through with tweezers. It makes sense – quarters are cramped, buildings are old, it is hot and humid, and bugs thrive.
With few exceptions, the Vietnamese people have lovely feet. Their heels are smooth, their toes are uniform and their nails are well-tended.
A travelling pedicurist, complete with a small fan for the customer’s comfort.
If you were walking down the street, and suddenly realized your hair needed a trim, you’d be in luck. There are plenty of barbershops and hair salons, but you have to admire the resourcefulness of anyone who sets up a chair and mirror on the sidewalk. (And the bravery of their clients.)
Shopping in Hanoi is mind-blowing. There are day markets, night markets and street vendors. There are gift shops and fake North Face stores by the hundreds. Luxury boutiques showcase tiny perfect dresses in their windows.
Even the vendors tend to specialize. If you want feather dusters, this lady has you covered.
The Old Quarter in Hanoi has a section called “36 Streets” – a carry-over from the old guild days where specific trades and crafts had designated streets. You can go to the shoe street, the silk street, the basket street, etc. – a very logical shopping process. Or, you can come across a business that mixes it up a bit. This men’s clothing store also sells rice by the pound.
The war may be over, but you never know when a hankering for camo will strike. Don’t- mess-around gear, or fun outfits for the whole family – your choice.
We stumbled upon a mannequin street. At least a dozen stores devoted to the sale of mannequins, which prompted us to wonder about the business plan of setting up such a shop. How many mannequins does one need to sell to pay the rent, and what is the demand?
It’s not all low-brow fun though. We passed by a very fancy white and gold shopping centre, complete with uniformed doormen, shiny tile floors and elegant brass trimmings.
Home to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Cartier, this was a look-don’t-touch excursion for us. We’re pretty sure these precious items are not knock-offs. The mall was almost empty, but possibly 8:30 pm on a Monday is not the optimum time to shop for a $2,000 handbag.
It was a pleasant change to escape the traffic and heat and stroll through air-conditioned luxury for a few minutes, and I did spritz my wrist with j’adore on the way out.
Hanoi is also all about the food and street food is everywhere. A lot of the typical Vietnamese eating happens on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalks. There is usually just one selection, so you squat down and eat what’s put in front of you. You will also need to change your attitude about hygienic conditions, but it’s best to stick to places that are crowded.
On the other hand, you want to keep a few standards – what works for a Vietnamese tummy might not work for you.We would not eat anything that came out of this little hole-in-the-wall. It’s probably fine, but I can’t help but wonder where the rats are. Btw, I saw my first city rat last night – running down the lane leading to our hotel. I discovered a talent for high jumping I never knew I possessed.
Last September, Anthony Bourdain took President Obama out for dinner in Hanoi to one of his favourite no-frills restaurants – Bun Cha Huong Lien. By all accounts, the locals were beside themselves. Obama is a hero to many Vietnamese and the fact that he sat on a plastic chair and slurped soup in a working-class neighbourhood joint was beyond.
Naturally, we made the pilgrimage. This is a place that could best be described as “modest.” See the four items pictured on their sign? That’s the menu. The restaurant was well-known before for their bun cha – the Hanoi speciality of fragrant broth, slivers of tender grilled pork, tiny seasoned pork patties, and noodles, served with a heaping plate of buttery lettuce and fresh herbs. But Barack and Bourdain have made them famous and now they’re packed every night.
This is not date night – service is brusque, turnover is quick, the tables are sticky and the floor is dirty. Walls are unadorned except for a few photos of Obama. In less than an hour we had finished our dinner of bun cha, a skewer of grilled meat and a couple of seafood rolls. The food was outstanding and set us back $10, including two beers.
“I’ll have what Obama had” – no doubt the first time the girls heard that from a tourist.
Banh Mi is another Vietnamese staple, and there are a number of variations. This one was a baguette served warm and crusty, spread with rich pate, then filled with thinly sliced grilled pork, an egg omelet, cilantro, cucumber, shredded carrots, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and chili sauce. Washed down with icy beer.
Hanoi coffee culture is a huge deal – cafes are on every corner and four to a street. They all have their own atmosphere, but what they have in common is exceptional coffee.
Coffee drips from a metal press into a small cup – it takes about 2 or 3 minutes, but is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe sua da) is served cold, in a glass filled with ice, a 1/2 inch layer of condensed milk and topped with strong coffee – highly addictive. Neither of us ever take sugar in our coffee – this has changed everything.
Hanoi has a few other coffee specialities – coffee with whipped egg white on top (like drinking creme brûlée), coffee with frozen yogurt on top, and my new favourite – coconut coffee. Coffee with condensed milk and coconut milk mixed into a slushy on top. Oh, you have no idea how delicious that is – coffee and dessert rolled into one.
I thought I would leave you with something sweet! I will get another quick blog posting out to you in a couple of days. There are so many more images and small stories to tell.