After a trip almost 36 hours long, including connection and short city tour in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, we finally arrived in Hanoi, the heart of northern Vietnam.
Our hotel was somewhere in the middle of the Old Quarter, Hanoi’s historic and cultural city centre. The room had no window, and we were glad it didn’t. The city’s charm if you will, lies in the hustling and bustling of hundreds of thousands of motorbikes whizzing through narrow streets lined with street vendors, restaurants and people using the sidewalk for anything from sitting around, drinking and eating to cutting huge steel sheets for the manufacturing of new kitchen utensils. There is only one thing you can’t do on a sidewalk in this city; actually walk. That’s what the street is for, a crammed place you share with scooters, cars, buses, bicycles and rikshaws.
We had about four days here, which is definitely enough, maybe even too much. If it were not for our favourite street corner bar where we would sit, sometimes for hours, on our plastic chairs, drink beer and just watch the crazy traffic on the junction, it might even have gotten a little boring…OK, probably not.
I like beer. A specialty in Hanoi, although it can be found in other parts of the country as well, is the Bia Hoi; fresh and light, not pasteurized home brewed draft beer with a crisp taste. It’s a good idea to drink it in a well frequented place as hygiene in regard to the beer dispensers can be an issue but otherwise “go for it!” and have several, it’s very cheap and cointains only about 3% alcohol.
Once or twice there was police patrolling in an effort to tidy up the streets and we had to move our table from the street into the tiny bar. That usually didn’t have a lasting impact as we were told that we could sit outside again as soon as the police turned around the corner. And although the bar wasn’t much bigger than an oyster, it had a toilet which, much like the sidewalk, was also used for other purposes than initially planned. In this case, the lady washing the clothes of guests of a nearby hotel had to evacuate before I could relieve myself of a few beers.
In terms of sightseeing, Babs and I didn’t go nuts. We went to see the most important things, like the Den Ngoc Son temple located on a tiny island in the small lake in the Old Quarter, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, the Literature Temple and the remaining parts of a prison complex dating back to the French colonization which was later used to imprison American soldiers during the Vietnam War. It is also referred to as the Hanoi Hilton, apparently because of the extremely nice conditions the Americans faced while imprisoned. Propaganda pictures show them playing table tennis and enjoying movie nights etc.
Coincidentally, our friend Patricia who has lived and worked in Hanoi for the last four years but recently moved back to Switzerland was back in the city for the weekend. That was a great opportunity to head out of the centre and to the shores of West Lake, the up and coming area where many of the newer and posher apartment buildings and hotels are located. We met her and a few of her friends in the Sunset Bar of the Intercontinental for some drinks and later headed back to the old town for dinner together.
Food is a topic often discussed here. While many people are openly enthusiastic about the variety and freshness of the local cuisine, not everybody shares that love. Barbara for one didn’t. The wide use of cilantro and questionable hygiene in many places ruined the tasteful adventure for her. I myself wanted to know more and participated in one of the many street food walking tours guided by a local. And although I have found several dishes that deserve some recognition, like Pho, the classic breakfast noodle soup with chicken, or the Dry Beef Salad with Mango, I will not be the “OMG, Vietnamese food is so awesome!”-type of guy.
Of course generalizing is literally not the most distinguished thing to do, I think it’s alright to say that the Vietnamese are coffee fanatics. People drink it black, but much more common is cold coffee with condensed milk and ice, Café Sua Da. And if you feel fancy, just go for an egg coffee, basically coffee with something I would describe as liquid custard on top.
Our first Vietnam adventure outside Hanoi took us to Sa Pa. Have a look at it in the next post to follow shortly.