« Previous: | »

Hanoi I

April 21st, 2011 by
Hanoi from the Hanoi Guesthouse

The view from our room at the Hanoi Guesthouse

“Are there any more beautiful women? they drive by on their motorbikes in tight white silk ao dais, slit to the tops of their thighs, black silk pants underneath, driving gloves that reach beyond their elbows, white surgical masks covering their faces, bug eyed sunglasses and conical straw hats. Not an inch of flesh is visible” – Anthony Bourdain (yes, again), A Cook’s Tour

Apparently a lot has changed about Vietnam in the mere ten years since those words were written; nowadays you are much more likely to see young Vietnamese women wearing sequined jeans and super-high heels than the traditional ao dai, despite the fact that Hanoi is supposed to be the bastion of Vietnamese conservatism. The same goes for the young men except more so (since at a certain point women are expected to be more conservative), endlessly preening, sometimes fixing their hair in their motorbike mirrors and decked out in the type of tribal-tattoo-design t-shirts you expect to see at meat-market clubs (in this way they seem similar to most of the younger men we’ve seen in Indochina). But what makes this city so fascinating now (as opposed to the drab straight-forward modernism of Saigon) is the blend of old and new; examples of this are shoved at your senses every second you spend in the labyrinth of Hanoi’s streets. One nearly ran right into us tonight; a woman balancing her wares in a  bamboo basket on top of her head while texting on her phone.

Of course, our camera broke right before I had the chance to illustrate any of this, but more on that later.

IMG_2786To me, Hanoi has all the qualities of a great city: the old co-exists with the new, it’s so whirring with life that you could get literally knocked down any moment if you’re not paying attention, but there are still tranquil areas to be found among the chaos.  Chief among them is Ho Hoa Kiem Lake, which is central (literally and figuratively) to many Hanoians daily lives. It’s one of those gathering points that makes a city actually alive; it seems you can see everyone out there (despite the fact that it really just a shallow pond of muddy water)… couples out for romantic evenings, folks practicing tai-chi or running, groups of businessmen getting drunk after work, families eating ice cream (ice cream is huge in Hanoi, Courtney once had to force her way to the front a rabid crowd to get a couple cones) …


Watching, with the crowd, for a giant turtle sighting

Speaking of the lake, legend has it that “emperor Lê Lợi handed a magic sword … which brought him victory in his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty back to the Golden Turtle God… in the lake and hence gave it its present name”. We had read of sightings of giant (but not teenage, mutant, or ninja) turtles in the lake, but from what we had read their current status was more fiction than fact; there is a stuffed one (found in the 60’s) mounted in the pagoda in the middle of the lake. After we had visited this weasel-faced specimen in his glass case we noticed some commotion along the water’s edge. I thought it couldn’t be, but still stood staring with the crowd at the water… then there it was, an enormous, almost mammalian snout poking out of the water about 40 feet out in the murky water. I quickly grabbed Courtney and made her watch for the next ten minutes or so until it resurfaced.

All the Vietnamese seemed quite excited, but we brushed it off until later, when we were walking down further along the lake and saw a MASSIVE gathering of people by the water. Folks were jumping their motorbikes over the curb and running to see the turtles; every time it bubbled to the surface the crowd let out a gasp. We could never figure out whether there are many turtle sightings or it is merely good luck to sight one (turtles seem to be the only real sacred animals here, along with the mythical dragon, unicorn and phoenix. Perhaps they were all merely endangered once too… hmmmmm….). In any case, it was one of those euphoric moments where everyone is so charged up, it was something wonderful to stumble into (and answer the question of other tourists, who would stumble up to us, confused, asking “What’s all this then?”).

Quan An Ngon: Redux

Quan An Ngon is actually two restaurants, one in Saigon and one in Hanoi, that offer a really amazing take on street food. They’ve clustered dozens of food stalls into a pictureqsue soutdoor restaurant setting.

Our previous experience in Saigon had been disappointing, as we didn’t realize that the locals all ate so early; when we arrived around 9pm, the place was pretty much cleared of diners as well as cooks. Almost everything we ordered was no longer to be had, and the dishes we did get were rather disappointing. In fact, most of our meals were pretty boring in Saigon, and I still wish we had given ourselves more time there to explore…

So when I heard that there was another location in Hanoi, I felt the glow one gets when offered a sort of redemption. You enter into the courtyard and immediately are struck by how perfect the setup is; waiters are rushing everywhere with plates stacked high steam pours out of every pot, and the entire thing is soundtracked with the din of a couple hundred chattering diners. It is very much like stepping into a movie.

Quan An Ngon

The hostess plunked us down across from a couple of lunching Vietnamese girls and near a few other travelers. I took a quick stroll to get an idea, but as much of Vietnamese cuisine is stuffed or rolled into something else, I sat just as quickly back down to look at the menu. We ordered a banh xeo, an enormous yellow crepe filled with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp (eaten shells and all) which you wrap in greens and dip in sauce. We also had an amazing seafood and mango salad, some shredded pork-skin rolls, and the best chicken skewers I’ve ever had, served with a dipping sauce not unlike hawaiian bbq. Also on our list to try was che which is almost a cold, sweet soup. The type we tried was called che bap and was loaded with beans, corn, tapioca and swimming in a coconut milk liquid (this is another that of course, doesn’t sound tasty at all but is quite amazing and refreshing). Given that we’ll be returning to Hanoi a couple of times before departing Vietnam, I know we’ll be back here soon (edit: we were)…

But as amazing as Quan An Ngon is, it’s a bit of a cheat when there are great examples of street food everywhere; it’s just that EVERY dish is amazing, on the street you have to be prepared to be grossed out or bored once in a while. We would hear about some dish, like bun cha (a bowl of noodles with grilled pork patties on the side) and go out hunting for some special place, find it to be closed, then settle for some random place where you end up pushing half the dish away, unsatisfied. Then we would invariably discover that there is a great spot literally across the street from our guesthouse (this was true with both bun cha and pho). Of course, our camera was broken for many of these excursions as well, missing completely the giant pot (always a good sign) of no-name simmering soup with fried tofu and almost raw beef (this was so good we returned on our third visit to Hanoi to have breakfast and get documentation. I think it’s on the corner of Hang Bac and Hang Dao).

Another impressive place is KOTO, a non-profit that teaches street kids restaurant and life skills, a model it has helped popularize. They have a great mix of local and Western food, and given the chance to finally have a real burger, not some sad soggy version in a sad backpacker’s restaurant, I immediately ordered one. Courtney had some fantastic, very American-Italian pasta. It was all incredibly satisfying, especially when finished off with an iced Vietnamese coffee (those who are aware of my annoying stomach issues have heard me complain about no having coffee in a couple of years; somehow, despite it being stronger than anything I’ve ever had in the states I can handle this just fine) served with sweetened condensed milk.

Just the act of making Vietnamese coffee is wonderful; they give you this personal filter that sit on top of your glass (Courtney has mused “What do you people have against mugs?”) and drips… very… slowly… into… your glass. Then you mix the sweet milk in and enjoy. It’s very thick stuff, about midway between American coffee and a milkshake.

Since we perhaps be posting about Hanoi and its wonders again, I don’t have the time (nor do you have patience) to rattle off all the wonderful things we did, but here are a few worth mentioning for fellow travelers:

  • The Cart – actually not a cart, but perhaps the best place to go when you just need a real deli sandwich (one day I had their roast beef sammich; this is an evil teenage internet-ism and I won’t say this again but OMG) or a piece of carrot-cinnamon cake (ok I lied, OMFG). It’s more than a little hidden so look at the map on their website first.
  • IMG_2792 Hanoi Cinemateque – A great movie house/club tucked into a neighborhood off Hai Ba Trung, with an attached garden restaurant and great ambience. The only place to see older and art-house films in Hanoi; the only other movie option is the nearby multiplex. We saw most of “Out of Africa” (c’mon it’s 3+ hours!). If you’re not a member you have to pay like a buck more to see a movie.
  • Trang Tien St. – This is where the hordes go to fight for ice cream, at the end near the Ngo Quyen intersection, and where we bought our eyeglasses at Kihn Thuoc, 56 Trang Tien.

Comments are closed.