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Published: November 12th 2015
Arriving in Hanoi around 1130 pm, the visa formalities went smoothly and in no time we were outside in the 27deg air with our driver from the Impressive Hotel. By now we had been up for close to 20 hours (13 hr flight from Vancouver to Guangzhou, China with a 5 hour layover before another 1.5 hour flight to Hanoi) so we were ready for a good sleep.
A wonderful breakfast (included in the room price) of fresh fruit, coffee and noodle soup, the latter being a classic Hanoi breakfast set the mood. Although it is ( supposedly) the dry season, it was raining lightly but that did not stop us stepping outside for some exploration. Whenever I think of Vietnam I think of cone hats and women selling produce - and there they were, amongst the vehicle traffic!!!!!! After getting some cash ( instant millionaires) we promenaded around Hoan Kiem Lake. At the northern end is the Ngoc Son Temple sitting on a small island that is connected to the shore by the red Huc bridge. Lots of red and gold statues among the ceramics and incense.
Next we booked a walking street food tour with Food on
Foot and starting at 1130am we ate and drank non stop till 3pm. With Lily as our guide we walked and sampled food from some of her favourite eating places in the old quarter (Hanoi's historic center). Some places were simply holes in the wall, where there was just one or two items on the menu. These places were family run and each had a secret recipe that was handed down - so while you might eat the same dish somewhere else, it would not taste the same. With limited space, everyone sits on the teensiest stools around small tables - not the most comfortable for those of us who are not used to sitting on our haunches . The food was extremely healthy ( lots of greens like lemon mint, cilantro, basil, purple mint) and a gluten free diets dream as there was no wheat anywhere, just rice. The only way I could remember the dishes was to take a photo of the menu and then of the dish and in hindsight I should have also taken a photo of the restaurant name - if there was one. Quite simply, if you have a table and chairs ( even
on the footpath) and some means of cooking, you have a "restaurant". Sometimes it just does not pay to wonder how the food is cooked or how the dishes are washed. We meandered all the over the place and had no idea where we were most of the time. We also ate at " fancy" places with real chairs and tables and a more extensive menu. While everything we tasted was delicious, the two winning dishes were crispy pancakes with pork ( bang xeo) and meat balls on lemongrass (nem lui). With bellies full to near bursting we finished with some rather "interesting" sweets and a cup of egg coffee - here is some info from Wikipedia - An egg coffee (cà phê trứng) is a Vietnamese drink which is traditionally prepared with egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and Robusta coffee. The drink is made by beating egg yolks with sugar and coffee, then extracting the coffee into the half of the cup, followed by a similar amount of egg cream, which is prepared by heating and beating the yolks. The Giang Café in particular is known for serving the drink. The cup is served inside a bowl of hot
water to retain its temperature. And yes, we had this coffee at the Giang Cafe.
Along with the eating we got an overview of Hanoi's Old Quarter with its many streets and alleys. Each street section seemed to sell the same items - from straw hats to tin boxes to mirrors to toys. Later on our own exploration we found mechanics streets, stainless steel streets etc. And the sights were not all at street level- Lily explained the French influence that resulted in many yellow buildings with balconies - along with the ever present asian electrical system - a spaghetti mess of electrical wiring everywhere. Buildings used to be taxed according to the width of the street frontage and in order to avoid these taxes, most of the building are very narrow with long rooms.
We didn't need dinner and settled for an early evening coffee on the balcony of the Coffee Club which gave us a 4th floor viewpoint over the traffic chaos below us at the intersection . Cars, scooters, pedestrians all merging together on the streets. While just watching was entertaining the real excitement is getting amongst the traffic yourself- wait for a relative slow
down and just get out there. There is no way the describe the feeling of scooters and cars barrelling towards you from all directions - but it all works. Lily had been very protective of us crossing the streets, always making sure we were all there before stepping off the curb into the oncoming traffic. She said that putting your hand out let drivers know your intentions, but personally, I don't think they paid much attention.
The next morning we did a practice walk to the train station to make sure we knew exactly where to go later that evening in order to catch the train to Sa Pa. Apart from a few minor backtracks the route seemed simple. At that time of the day we were dealing with rush hour traffic ( thank goodness for traffic lights, or we would never have got across some streets) and also limited footpath space to walk on with so many early morning "restaurants" taking up space as well as large numbers of scooter parking lots.
On the way back to the hotel we visited the Hoa Lo prison museum. The prison was built by the French in 1896 and was
used to house prisoners during the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France. It was also used for American pilot POWs during the American (or Vietnamese depending on which side you were on) war. Many of the displays could also be described as interesting propaganda depending on who you thought were the good guys.
After checking out of the hotel we left our packs there and went on a walking mission to find the savoury donuts that we had sampled the day before. Many streets and hours later we finally found them on Luong Ngoc Quyen but were somewhat disappointed to find they were actually the sweet version not the savoury. However we still have one more day in Hanoi before heading south so maybe we will get lucky then. On the plus side, we did find deep fried bananas, perhaps my favourite street food of all time. We did see/do a few other things while on the donut hunt - the Dong Xuan market which is 4 floors crammed with non touristy whole sale items; hung out on a park bench at Hoan Kiem Lake getting accosted by sellers; ordering a hot Vietnamese coffee and getting a cold sweet
one instead ( delicious); and generally finding all sorts of nooks and crannies and scooters trying to run us down.
Our trip to Sa Pa for two days of trekking to see some of the northern minority tribes amount the rice terraces had been booked quite a while before with Best Price Vietnam. We had a voucher for the train and had to be at the station at least 60 minutes before the departure time of 9.40pm to exchange the voucher for real tickets. The station for trains heading north is located behind the station for southbound trains and the entrance is tucked down a side street ( hence the practice run in the morning ). The Orient Express was a soft ( define "soft" in Vietnam) sleeper train meaning each carriage had a narrow corridor along one side with each compartment having 2 sets of bunks. Not a lot of leg room for 2 people sitting on each of the lower bunks (seats). Railway tracks here are narrow gauge and as soon as we left the station, the train was rocking and rolling which made me grab a Gravol, fearing the worst. Luckily the ride smoothed out and
it was a pleasant nights sleep. The thick comforter provided great protection against the blasting air conditioning.
To be continued.........
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