Winter Break: First Full Day in Hanoi

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Our first night in the hostel could have been better. Between two buildings located across the street from each other, Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel sleeps well over 100 people, most of them in community rooms, however they also have a handful of private rooms. I scheduled our trip very early, and even still, all the two person rooms were booked. So we ended up with a 3 person suite, which unfortunately, is at the top of the first flight of stairs, just above the main lobby of “the other side” of the hostel. The lobby has 4 computers available for patrons which are alone keeping Skype and Facebook in business. This night, an Australian traveler, no doubt lit up from too many bia hoi draught beers, woke us up during his early morning Skype session. After some tossing and turning, my better half finally hollered at dude from our door, to which he kindly responded by zipping it up. All this said, anyone that expects a peaceful night of sleep in a hostel needs their head examined.

Back to bed, we actually slept in to a decent hour, barely catching the free hostel breakfast in the morning. The French influence is alive and strong in Hanoi, and one of the best things about staying at the hostel was the delicious baguettes provided in the morning. Also complimentary was the Vietnamese version of the ramen noodles I survive on while living in Asia. Real western style breakfasts are also available, cooked to order for a very good price.

After another cold shower because we were too lazy to locate the hot water switch just outside the bathroom, we set off for our first full day in Hanoi. We wanted to accomplish as much as possible because we would be departing the following morning for a 2 night cruise of Halong Bay. 1 night on the boat, 1 night on Castaway Island.

This city is crazy. Motorbikes, motorbikes, motorbikes. When you need to cross the street, you just go for it and pray that the motorbikes swerve around you, and they do. And all the motorbikes leave the air less than desirable to breathe. All those pictures of nasty Asian polluted cities that you see on TV… that’s what it felt like. Tons of fun to visit, but I’m not sure how people live in these places.

We went back through the streets of the Old Quarter to see it in the day time and to do some more shopping. We eventually made our way north to the Don Xuan market. Not a touristy place at all, but more a place where locals do business and trade on a daily basis, I don’t think we saw any other foreigners inside this place. It’s a 3 level, fire hazard of a building if I’ve ever seen one, with tight aisle walkways, too many people, and stacks and stacks and stacks and piles of shoes, clothes, fabrics and knick knacks. We made our way up a level, and wandered around until we popped out the back, overlooking another outdoor market, more geared towards food. The cats, dogs, birds, turtles and other wildlife being sold right next to fresh vegetables made me think twice about where my sustenance was coming from.

But, when in Vietnam, you’re supposed to eat, and I kept reading that some of the best food is cooked at the humble little food stalls, so we set out to find a recommended Bun Cha place. This meal consists of sticky white rice vermicelli noodles with barbecued pork in a broth and various greens. It was absolutely delicious, probably the best tasting meal we ate in Vietnam, but man did it take some guts, dedication and an open mind to get to that point. And this is coming from someone that eats anything and everything that you put in front of him in Korea.

I don’t need a luxurious setting to enjoy my food, and this was definitely far from it. We took the last two seats in the back of this tiny room that had 3 tables, each able to seat 4-6 very snug. It’s the kind of place that only serves one thing, and has been doing so for years and years, so there is no need to order. As soon as we were acknowledged and accounted for by the staff, meaning that they would soon be delivering our food, the biggest table in the place emptied and quickly filled with a family. The little boy in this family immediately caught our eye. He was young, barely able to stand on his own, however he was like a little man and a big kid for his age. A minute later, he was puking on the floor. And again. And again.

I try so hard not to do this, comparing and judging my encounters in Asia to the western standards back home, but it can’t be avoided in this circumstance, it was just too odd. Where I’m from, the parents would have swooped him up, got him outside, and the mess would have to be cleaned up immediately, before every single patron either lost their own lunch, or departed in disgust. In this instance, the family laughed, pushed the mess under the table and continued upon their merry afternoon. Repeat. Repeat. Seriously? This kid is ill and there are tears streaming down his big face. He is repeatedly emptying his stomach on the floor, the same floor you are sitting 2 inches above on little plastic stools, and there are other people trying to eat here as well. What was their solution solving the puking toddler debaucle? They turned him around to face us, the funny looking foreigners. The pointing and laughing wasn’t malicious and I honestly don’t think they were making fun of us. I really think this was their way of trying to cheer up the poor little guy, finding something different to show him, take his attention off his upset gut, make him chuckle… and that just happened to be us.

Feeling extremely uncomfortable and unwilling to catch some Asian flu virus, we walked out. Noticing that they had not yet prepared our food, we asked them if we could sit outside on the sidewalk. Many of these places have people sitting all over the sidewalks, however this one didn’t. At first they did not want to accommodate, but after seeing the madness going on inside, and probably realizing that whole scene was not sitting well with these two foreigners, and that we were a split second from walking, they scrounged up an extra table and stools and hesitantly placed us on the corner of the street.

And the food was amazing. The broth was flavorful and a little sweet. It had little pork patties, almost meatbally but less spherical, that were cooked on a grill as well as thick bacon like pieces. We put the greens and the vermicelli in the bowl with everything else to soak up the flavors. You know it had to be good to overlook the chaos that ensued inside this place pre-meal.

After lunch we set out for Hoan Kiem lake. Before circumnavigating it, we sat at a lake side park bench in an attempt to toss out a line and reel our sanity back in. That lunch experience was something else. But we quickly realized this could be the wrong place to sit and chill because we were approached by person after person trying to sell us stuff, beg for money, ask for English lessons…. you name it. My favorite product being peddled all over Hanoi? Lonely Planet travel books. We got hit up so often that we started saying to each other jokingly, “You want some books?” But, these are not merely Lonely Planet travel books. Apparently, found inside is marijuana, Mary Jane, ganja, pot, the sticky, whatever you wanna call it. How do we know? After repeated turn downs, the sellers started flat out saying, “Marijuana. You want smoke?” Some of these guys got pretty pushy. I got used to saying, “Don’t need any books man.” Then, I had to start saying, “Don’t smoke man.” One dude looked at me with a straight face and said, “I don’t think so.” What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t believe that I don’t smoke? You don’t believe that I don’t want to buy the illegal drugs that could land a foreigner in the slammer and getting deported from you? Get out of my face.

So we stood up started our walk. We located the water puppet theater and tried to buy tickets for the night’s performance, however they were sold out a few days in advance. We walked across the footbridge to the Ngoc Son island temple, but decided against the 10,000 Dong entry fee. This is well less than $1, so obviously we weren’t all that excited at seeing yet another temple.

The lake is very central and full of people at all hours of the day. On this Saturday, we saw 4-5 wedding parties getting photos taken on and around the lake. Couples were taking leisurely strolls. Others were getting exercise. Families were out playing in the grass. About ¾ of the way around we stopped at the Hapro Coffee kiosk for a break of coffee and snacks. We also found a hidden bakery that sells little loaves of the most delicious banana bread.

Later that night we journeyed in to the French Quarter for dinner. We gave ourselves plenty of time to walk around and take it all in before deciding on a place to eat. After consulting the travel books, and checking a few places out in person, we settled on Chim Sao for what was described as Contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. The menu had all kinds of interesting things that we were not adventurous enough to try, such as eel, snail, pigeon and dog. We went with a selection cabbage and garlic, sautéed sweet potato leaves, spring rolls and beef and vegetables. The first bite was delicious, and then it got old in a hurry. Everything was cooked and covered in butter. I’m thinking it must be something to do with that French influence again.

Even if we would have eaten all the food, we would have been hungry again later in the night. So we actually got a couple of pizzas at Pepperoni’s, which is located right around the corner from the hostel. Earlier in the day we made fun of the other foreigners we saw running to a pizza place in Hanoi, and within 12 hours, we were doing the same. We also stopped for a baguette. My girl and I love our bread, and the thought of boarding a vessel bound for the inner depths of Halong Bay the next day without it was frightening.

Our night ended by scarfing down a mediocre pizza, re-packing our bags for the Halong Bay cruise the next morning, and one last cold shower.

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on January 9, 2010.

4 Responses to “Winter Break: First Full Day in Hanoi”

  1. This brings me back. We’re pretty brave to have eaten at that restaurant!!! It was pretty delicious though 🙂 Can’t wait to travel with you again babe.xo

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