More Hanoi – same-same but different

“Same-same but different” is a phrase that is ubiquitous in SE Asia, and its meanings vary depending upon the speaker. A vendor trying to convince you that the North Face jacket is not a fake, or a chef trying to explain the taste of a tropical fruit you can’t find at home – same-same.

In my case, same-same but different means this posting about Hanoi will be similar to the last one – more stories and images about people and places that have touched our hearts. Hanoi is a city we can’t get enough of and yet it is so exhausting and all-consuming we are finally ready to head home.

The next two photos tell a sad story – legions of young and middle-aged men who seem to have little to do. We see them gathering in groups like this or sitting on their motorbikes, checking their phones. What becomes of a country that is emerging into a new level of prosperity if so many are left behind?

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This game is popular – we see it on street corners and in parks, being played by men at all hours of the day. We noticed money exchanging hands with this game.

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These little kids are Vietnam’s hope for the future.  Rock, paper, scissors is apparently an international favourite.

IMG_1241A young man playing the violin in the park by the lake. There are not a lot of buskers, which we found surprising.

IMG_0789The dancers, on the other hand, are out most nights. There are traditional dances and small performances and then there is the dance-off. It seems to be open to anyone who wants to get up and twirl around. The kids were certainly up for it, and there were a few couples who appear to have had some practice. Smiling not allowed.

The lake is quite close to our hotel and is a magnet for night-time entertainment. There is a gorgeous restaurant that offers outdoor lakeside seating, and as is the strange case of so many restaurants of its ilk, it has a great view and mediocre Western food – soggy pizza and limp fries. We snagged one of the front row seats and ordered (expensive warmish) beer.

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Speaking of food, we had an exceptional meal at Don’s Bistro, situated on West Lake, a much larger lake just north of the Old Quarter. Don is an expat chef who happens to be a dear friend of a friend, and so we popped by for lunch, a visit and a bike ride round the lake.  Don’s Bistro has been around for a number of years and is the go-to place for locals and tourists alike when they want a bit of a treat meal, as it overlooks the lake, has stunning decor, flawless service and is still very affordable.  As is often the case when I have beautiful food put in front of me, I get so excited I forget to take photos. I did remember to take a shot of our desserts.

Passionfruit creme brûlée ( served in scoured-out passionfruit halves), and vanilla bean ice-cream in chocolate cup.

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After lunch, we borrowed two of Don’s vintage Japanese postman bikes and rode around the lake – about 17 km.  The first part of the ride was through ex-pat neighbourhoods and nicer homes. This is one of the few places in Hanoi you can ride a bicycle and not encounter much traffic.

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And now for some random shots of buildings. There are many really gorgeous buildings in Hanoi, but they are often partially blocked by high fences. I was able to take several unobstructed shots of very interesting buildings and homes in Hanoi, and initially they will appear to be shabby, but they are the heart of the city.

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This is an example of a Vietnamese and a French colonial roofline. The French (on the right) has high windows and carved embellishments. The Vietnamese has a low roof and tiny window. Apparently, this style developed because citizens were not allowed to look at the King when he passed by, so they built these tiny windows so they could sneak a peek without being detected.

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Many buildings are narrow and tall – built that way to avoid paying higher taxes (smaller footprint); resulting in some fanciful structures. We’re wondering – one flat to a floor? Two? I would love to go on a house tour in Hanoi, if there are such things. As is the case with so many densely populated cities, so much is hidden from sight and drab doors open up to reveal surprising beauty.

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Not a lot surprising beauty here, I wouldn’t think.

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A banyan tree, common to SE Asia, among other countries. So beautiful.

IMG_1267 We took a walking tour of the Old Quarter with two students who were practicing their English. The Old Quarter began as the merchant area (still is), with 36 guilds. Over time, the guilds have changed, but the streets are still representative of certain trades and services, which makes shopping very practical.

On Tin Street, our guides told us about the furnace-type objects sitting on the ground. They are used to burn fake money to send to their deceased loved ones. This will help them out in the afterlife.

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The students were very sweet and tried very hard, but English was still as struggle for them. It didn’t matter – they pointed out a number of things we wouldn’t have known about, including the herbal medicine street. It used to be run by Chinese, but when they fled after the war, the Vietnamese took over. Fascinating, although I could not find anyone who spoke English, so buying a big bag of herbs would be out of the question.

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The fruit vendors ride around on bicycles and carve pineapple right in front of you. A whole pineapple for just over a dollar,  and carved in a spiral in about a minute.

Pay close attention to the size of this street – it has to do with the next photo.

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Let’s pretend you own a Bentley. You know, the car so exclusive it goes by one initial. If you owned a Bentley, would you honestly drive it through the tiny streets of The Old Quarter, with hundreds of motorbikes, bicycles, cars, delivery trucks and grubby tourists brushing by it? Well, if you had a Bentley it probably comes with a driver, but still… So you can imagine our surprise when we turned a corner and came upon this sight.
At first we thought, “must be a knock-off”. I don’t think so – even the Vietnamese aren’t this talented. So why is a Bentley parked in the Old Quarter? Another imponderable.

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Still in the Old Quarter, we came upon this funny little bar – Hang-Over. Aptly named, I’m sure, as this is the ‘hood for 50 cent beer, but the mother in me reacted right away. “Young people, do not get a tattoo or piercing in a bar called Hang-Over. That approach to over-drinking may extend to the tattoo “artist” and you’ll be sorry.”

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Weddings here can be elaborate affairs that require pre-wedding photos, well in advance of the actual date. Today, we saw not one, but two pre-weddings – one of them photo-bombed by a little kid on a bike.

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Our trip is over. So many more stories and photos left on the cutting-room floor, but it is time to go now. At least for the next few weeks. We’re flying out tomorrow, and will spend the next five or six weeks in B.C.,  seeing dear family and friends again. After that, we’re on the road again – driving across the country in search of big Canadian 150th birthday stories, and hoping that not every campsite and motel room has already been booked. I’m sure we’re not the only ones with the same idea.

We’ll see you back on the blog mid-May, and hopefully see many of you face-to-face over the next several months.

Thank you so much for coming along with us, and for your emails and blog comments. It meant the world to us. See you soon!

How to do nothing in Hanoi

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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No need to be stuck away in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.