Travel Journal

Vietnam Part 3, Hanoi, 4/15-4/18

(Sunday 1 May 2011) by Joanne Chang
Hanoi is nothing like Saigon. Hanoi is crazy. It's possible there are just as many motorbikes, but the streets are narrower and the light signals don't mean a thing, and you cannot just start crossing the street and expect the motorbikes to part for you. The sidewalks are filled with street food stands and parked motorbikes, so walking down the street is an adventure in itself. It's LOUD. We walk through the Old Quarter playing the left-right game (alternating turns at each intersection), stopping at street corners to take in the massive amount of activity. Women spreading out fresh flowers on the roadside, bicycles overflowing with vegetables, baskets of durian hanging from a small woman's shoulder, a parade of cyclos coming around the corner, motorbikes weaving in and out of it all. Strangling fig trees like the ones at Tha Prohm hanging over the street, growing into the buildings. It's charming, noisy, hip, old, and completely authentic. If you can get past the intensity (I'd say it rivals Bangkok), it's a very cool experience. (The only thing I don't get are these cyclos where an old man bicycles you in a carriage so you can live out your WALL-E fantasy of being the laziest human on earth. Everyone we see in a cyclo throughout Vietnam looks like a zombie, moving half the speed at which they can walk and waiting for the ride to be over already.)

I love that Hanoi is one big locals scene, and we jump right in. Sidewalks filled with people chilling on stools drinking sweet tea and shelling sunflower seeds (this is a national pastime), squatting at street food stands slurping down bowls of 'pho' and 'nom' (shredded papaya with cured meat), dingy restaurants packed three stories high for the best 'bun cha' and crab spring rolls ever, a grumpy teenager serving us her thousandth bowl of 'bun bo', 'banh cuon' (finally!), 'banh goi', pho nazi. We eat our way through town and polish it off with Bia Ha Noi. It's so yummy and so awesome. George buys some Weasel coffee to take home (not the real thing though, real Weasel is coffee bean eaten and pooped out by a weasel, and costs $1000 a pound, what!?) and we learn that the best street donuts are the big sesame ones but you have to eat them while they're fresh. Later we discover coffee bread from Malaysia that is quite possibly the best pastry I've ever had. Fluffy and light, chewy and warm, if we only had the recipe we'd be millionaires. We have one 'big' night out at the bar across the street, learn how to say 'I love you' in Vietnamese, and continue talking about life after Vietnam.

On our last day we brave it and take a motorbike out. George gets right into the flow of Hanoi (not an easy task) and we ride to the edge of town to buy 'mu bao hiem', bike helmets that look like hats! Then back across the city to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the one-pillar pagoda, and West Lake for sunset beers. (note - those banana-leaf sticks are not sticky rice, there are some kind of fake fish meat ew.) We try to find the B52 that supposedly crashed into a lake somewhere but never do. George, I hope you were able to find it before you flew out of Hanoi! Before returning the bike we moto through the crazy intersection at Kiem lake, where every moving object in the city collides. It's insane and fascinating, and George is on such a high after passing through that we continue to zip around the Old Quarter getting lost in the madness. We almost do it again to take a video, but George decides not to press his luck. Smart move. We eat 'pho bo' at the soup nazi place for dinner, and leave the next morning for Halong Bay.

If I had to sum up Hanoi in three words: "Motorbikes + Street Food". We make it out without a scratch, bellies full and happy.


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