After our trip to Halong Bay we stayed in Hanoi for another 2 weeks where we visited a lot of the historic sites and enjoyed watching the world go by. So much of the life in Hanoi happens on the streets- from haircuts to meals- there is always something interesting going on.
We have had some of the best meals in Vietnam and most of them come from tiny sidewalk cafes. Although, cafe is not quite the right word, it’s just the closest I can get. These are much more rustic than cafes, they are usually composed of lots of itty bitty plastic stools and tables (or stools topped with large plastic plates) all centered around a small “kitchen”. The kitchen is usually a grill or a gas or charcoal burner with a wok on top. Sometimes, at the big cafes, there are several make shift stoves made of hot charcoal briquets inside a metal drum. Kettles or pots and pans are placed on top.
Our favorite place was down a small alley. On one side there was the dishwashing station. Several large tubs were placed at the bottom of a water pipe, some of these had soapy water and some of them had rinse water. There was almost always a woman squatting next to these tubs trying to keep up with the dishes. Across on the other side of the alley was the kitchen. Slightly bigger than most, it had several stoves for cooking fried rice and a dedicated table where someone was always chopping pork. Not a refrigerator, sink or glove in sight!
There was some outdoor seating (we sat outside one time, but didn’t care for it much as the alley was in full use and mopeds drove through quite often) but most of the seating was indoor, although it appeared to be the entryway to someone’s home.
The food was phenomenal though and we went back on multiple occasions. It was always packed and we were usually the only white people in there. It seemed to be popular with just about everyone though, there were always families eating there as well as people dressed in suits and ties. They never asked what we wanted (which was fine, we could only pick out a few words on the menu anyway) but always put a a plate of sweet and sour pickled cucumbers and a plate piled high with fried rice, steamed mustard greens, grilled pork (with an awesome BBQ type sauce) fried garlic and tons of fresh cilantro in front of us. This epic meal only set us back 60,000 dong- about $3.00 total for a huge, super delicious lunch.
When we weren’t trolling the streets looking for delicious food of questionable hygiene we were drinking the coffee. When Ngan last visited Vietnam she brought back a whole bunch of what we all laughingly called “cat poop” coffee. Apparently there are cats/weasels here in Vietnam with the unique ability to pick only the best of all the coffee beans. So the cats eat the best of the best coffee beans, then they poop them out. These beans are then (cleaned), roasted and served as a very delicious and very expensive cup of coffee. So, that is what I knew about Vietnamese coffee. And, of course, we had some cat poop coffee and it was fine. But, it was the regular Vietnamese coffee that absolutely blew us away- it was really dark and had some seriously chocolatey notes and was wicked strong! It is also served with condensed milk, which made it a little sweet for us at first but we soon found ourselves very addicted to the amazing coffee that we found here!
A few of the other highlights from our time in Hanoi:
The Water Puppets Show– a traditional form of theatre that started centuries ago in the rice patties. The puppet show goes on in a small pool in the theater. The show lasted about an hour and was probably quite touristy, but I loved it! It was all in Vietnamese, but to be honest the puppeteers were incredibly fantastic and we didn’t need a translation. We tried to take some pictures but they didn’t turn out super awesome. Definitely check out youtube to see some of the amazing puppets.
Nick Saved a Fish– We were walking through the botanic gardens one sunny afternoon, along a beautiful path that led near a very large lake. We had seen a few fish flopping so we knew that there were fish in the lake and that they were quite acrobatic. As we were walking we came upon some kids throwing leaves at a fish on the sidewalk nearish the lake. If this fish had flopped out of the lake, he had flopped quite a ways! This poor fish was quite the trooper though, he was still flopping like crazy and doing some serious stunts. Nick worried for a few minutes about the fish having sharp teeth, but then bravely stepped up, stuck his finger in the little fish’s mouth and chucked him back into the lake!
We visited Hoa Lo– the French prison for Vietnamese opposition leaders and rebels fighting against French occupation of the country. It later became the prison where American POW were kept during the Vietnam war where it was sarcastically known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” It was one prisons John McCain was kept during the war. Although we have never faced any open hostility or criticism being Americans in Vietnam, there are little things that we find all over the place regarding the war. Hoa Lo prison was a prime example of this. There were pictures everywhere of people all over the world protesting the war, pictures of damage from bombs and signs talked about how despite tensions running high, prisoners were treated well and given stable lives. From the pictures we saw at the museum, the prison actually looked like tons of fun. There were POWs playing basketball, decorating for Christmas, planting trees, feeding chickens, playing chess, and receiving letters and care packages from home. The picture presented at the museum varied dramatically from John McCain’s account.
Ho Chi Minh Museum– part museum about Ho Chi Minh’s life and part abstract modern art exhibit. It was a very surreal museum- right next to letters written to and from Ho Chi Minh and replicas of his home were these bizarre modern art exhibits like the one in the picture. The fruit bowl and the industrial background symbolizes the need for future generations to carry on and to continue to promote communism. It was clearly well thought out and there was obviously a lot of time and money put into the museum, but it was really bizarre.
Dodging Traffic– Traffic in Hanoi is nuts. As pedestrians we once again find ourselves as the lowest of the low. No one yields and they love to honk if you happen to be anywhere the road that they might want to be at sometime in the near future. Long, loud honks. The mopeds are all parked on the sidewalk, so we have no choice but to walk in the street. Fortunately, we have gotten quite good at it. We can even successfully cross streets (if the though of crossing a street doesn’t make you a little weak in the knees, you have not spent enough time in big cities in Southeast Asia)- the secret is to simply walk slowly in a predictably trajectory and the mopeds will swerve around you. Dangerous? Yup. But it’s also very effective. Waiting for a break in traffic is an exercise in futility, so we simply start walking. (and now that we are safely in Kuala Lumpur, I can say that it worked every time!)
The Mopeds– everyone in Vietnam is so resourceful when it comes to moped travel. One of our favorite things to do was just sit and watch mopeds go by. Here is a selection of some of our favorites: