Vietnam #10 Food and Hanoi

Last morning in Hanoi

Eggs

Eggs

Selling produce

Selling produce

Gorgeous berries

Gorgeous berries

More dried fish

More dried fish

Dried Fish

Dried Fish

Varieties of rice

Varieties of rice

Snail soup

Snail soup

Our morning snack

Our morning snack

At breakfast this morning, we reconnected with two of our American friends from the boat on Ha Long Bay. We talked about the wonderful people we have met on our trip so far. They are on a similar itinerary, a few days behind us. Hope we will see them later in Ho Chi Minh City. Determined not to waste the morning we decided to find the famous ‘coffee with egg’ place. We had the morning free, transfer to the airport was at 11:45am. So we set off for the far side of town. There was a direct route on a main street but it was too noisy, so we took a detour and promptly got lost in food stalls. We found eggs for sale, lots of dried fish, but we were looking for something to eat.

Carrying fruit

Carrying fruit

Instead of a food truck....

Instead of a food truck….

Easy transport

Easy transport

Our morning snack

Our morning snack

Snail soup

Snail soup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had been looking for a perfect Bahn Mi. Found it, Rachelle and I shared it and were very happy. Then we wandered down another street and found a woman selling a snack off the back of her bicycle. It was a kind of polenta spread on a crispy rice disk, sprinkled with finishing sugar. Again, really good. We continued on our self-made food tour and stumbled across the food alley that we had seen days before. That day, we were part of a city tour and ate in a restaurant. This time, we wandered in and saw what looked like an amazing soup. It smelled wonderful so we asked for a small bowl. The woman showed us a tiny slip of paper that read, “Do you want to eat snail soup?” We swallowed and said yes. Turned out to be so good, a bit sour, filled with flat rice noodles, a few snails, greens and lime juice. The sourness seemed to be from a reddish broth, maybe tomatoes or plums? The woman refused to take our money, insisted it was a gift. Rachelle declared her the soup goddess, and we went on to find the coffee and egg drink.

Blueberry panne cotta

Blueberry panne cotta

Egg Coffee

Egg Coffee

After asking for directions a few times, we finally found the place. We were told by a local to go upstairs and sit. The waitress was not keen on that, but eventually let us go up. We found a little room with some cushions on a wood floor and a tiny balcony with one table. Sat outside, watching the street traffic and had hot coffee blended with egg, a true custard with some kind of liquor at the bottom and a blueberry panne cotta. Those unearthly blue jelly bean shaped things are filled with very sweet blueberry-flavored imitation juice. It was a meal of all kinds of custard. Totally happy with our food tour, we took a cab back to the hotel and met our ride to the airport.

At the airport, we met a Vietnam Vet traveling with his son. It was the Vet’s 70th birthday trip. They were on their way to see where he had served during the war.

Vietnam #8 The Hungry ATM in Hanoi

Evening on the boat

Evening on the boat

Today is our last day in Ha Long Bay. We had breakfast with a couple from Norway. Both tall, blond and gorgeous. She hates the water and won’t get near a kayak. We left them and kayaked in a sweet, very clean bay, and though the wind picked up this morning, it was calm and beautiful in the bay.

Back in the boat, we packed up our stuff, then met to make spring rolls.  Over assembling our rolls, we got conflicting advice for our free evening in Hanoi. This afternoon, we have the long bus ride back. On the way back we already knew the drill. 1/2 way back, the 30 minute stop for the driver to have a meal. No mention of the fact that we are again herded through the monster shopping barn. It must be standard  tourist industry guide instruction. Our guide is too smart to think we don’t get it. This time we were smarter and headed right for the cafe in the back, where we had a perfectly wonderful bowl of pho.

By the time we returned to our hotel in Hanoi, it was pouring. It was so good to see a familiar face at the front desk. Our new friend, Dang, gave us a great room. We ventured out in pouring rain to the ATM which promptly ate my bank card… Then we went to dinner at a place that took credit cards. So we could have eaten on the street for $2.00, but instead went to a fancy restaurant and spent $20.00. Somehow it made me feel better, and dinner was excellent. Years ago, there was a restaurant on South Fairfax called Saigon Flavor. I went there often with my friend, Henri, and we always had minced pork on sugarcane. I saw it on the menu here and it was as good as I remembered. It sucks that I can’t reminisce with him. Dessert was also memorable; it was warm banana in a warm coconut sauce.

Vietnam #5 Full day in Communist Hanoi

Hanoi city tour

We boarded the bus this morning and our guide for the day gave us the Party Line speech. All of a sudden, it was clear we were in a communist country. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and all things Uncle Ho. We were expected to dress conservatively, keep an even double line as we slowly moved forward, listening to nationalistic music. That lasted about an hour. According to our new acquaintances, Valentina and Dina, two fabulous irreverent Russian women who live in Switzerland, it’s a cheap imitation of Red Square. Once we entered the structure, it was no talking, no hands in pockets, no arms crossed (and it was freezing in there). Then, there he was lying there, surrounded by guards. To further confuse things he is often taken to Moscow and put on display there. So we really don’t know if his remains were there or it was a mask and dummy.

Uncle Ho

Uncle Ho

French Villa

French Villa

The Masoleum

The Masoleum

The grounds and the crowds

The grounds and the crowds

The procession

The bleak procession

As we exited the very Soviet, bunker-like building (ranked 6th most ugly building in the world by CNN), we entered the complex where he lived for a few years. It was a series of French Colonial buildings taken over after the defeat of the French. I’ll skip my commentary and just tell you that brochure blurb informed us that he started out living in the big house, then moved to smaller and simpler quarters in order to live more like the people. We saw his 3 cars, French and Russian.

Eventually, like everywhere in the world, we were herded into the gift shop area. One chocolate ice cream later, we were on our way to a nearby village to learn about pottery making. I have always liked watching potters at work, fantasies of Patrick Swazy not withstanding.

Refining a cup

Refining a cup

Vietnamese pottery is highly prized and still collected in Japan and throughout Asia.

We had lunch in a hotel restaurant, and though it was a traditional Hanoi meal, it would have been fun to eat street food. After lunch, we walked down a food alley – maybe return another time to eat.

We spent the early afternoon at the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam), Vietnam’s first university. As we are beginning to see, all landscaped gardens are filled with bonsi.

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Bonsi

Gardens

Gardens

flowers

flowers

Turned out it was graduation day, so lots of lovely girls on caps and gowns, over traditional dresses and heels. I took tons of pictures, grateful that I did not have to sit through the ceremony.

20150321_142325

Girls with monk

20150321_142614

Girls without monk

20150321_142710

Done with heels

 

20150321_143608At the back of the property, we learned a bit of traditional Vietnamese prayer and visited the temple dedicated to Confucius. Here’s what the online Hanoi Local Guide site had to say:

“In the past, Van Mieu was held in great reverence not only as a major centre of Confucian thought and study, but also for its status as the apogee of learning in Vietnam and the only route to becoming a mandarin….

Today, the quiet queues of worshippers and acolytes have given way to tourist coaches that disgorge noisy tourists in their hundreds several times a day. Nevertheless, we recommend a visit, but arrange it to coincide with off-peak periods so that our visitors can experience the remarkable qualities of a place steeped the echoes of thousands of long dead scholars steeped in the pursuit of enlightenment.”

The last part of our day was the Water Puppet Performance. Beautiful, enjoyable and thankfully relatively short. We were happy to get back to the hotel, clean up and enjoy the luxuries of a beautiful room, big bathtub, perfect mattresses and clean white sheets. Before turning in, we went out to find some of that great street food. Somehow, we fell short. We were given an English menu and thought we were ordering spring rolls and a soup dish. Turned out we were good with the spring rolls, but got fried stuff instead of soup. We kept saying Pho, but evidently, not clearly enough. Next time we’ll take pictures of food with us…

Vietnam #1 Just getting there

Our flight to Seoul was uneventful. Sometime during the endless flight, the two people separating me from freedom and the bathroom were fast asleep. I did have a moment of clarity when I realized that it is more important for me to be able to walk around and stretch and pee without climbing over people, then to have the coveted window seat and sleep, Rachelle was happily in her window seat on the other side of the plane.

We had breakfast around 4am Seoul time, and landed around 6am. The Seoul airport is a wonderous place for food, shopping and relaxing.  We found one of the spas and our layover was long enough for a short massage and a Korean meal, the second of many meals today. They fed us again on the flight from Seoul to Hanoi, and as we gained two hours, we’ll call it lunch.

When we landed in Hanoi, we got in line to process our visas. Of course, we were in the wrong line, but the signs were identical. Someone kindly corrected us and then it was our turn to help out the next set of tourists who made the same mistake. Maybe the Vietnamese government just wants us make new friends!

An hour later, we were through customs, and we settled in for the drive into town. No waiting for luggage, we were proud to be part of that smug “we just do carry-on” elite.

The architecture might be unique to Hanoi. I’ll get back to you on that… The houses are at least 3 stories high, very narrow, and Asian, with upturned roofs and painted in striking color combinations. Some stand alone and some hug each other in larger or smaller groupings. As we got closer to the dense city center, the character changed and we saw more French colonial influence.

It was around 2pm and people were eating on tiny stools at short tables on the sidewalks. Sometimes there was a restaurant, sometimes someone dishing out food from a sidewalk kitchen setup. It all smelled great and, amazingly, we were hungry again.

At our hotel, La Belle Viewe were greeted by Mrs. Pham Tuyet Nhung, the rep. from Getaway Halong Sapa Company, who helped us organize our trip. We made one last change, she was gracious and patient, and with our documents in hand, we were on our way – – to lunch. She recommended a lovely traditional restaurant, in one of those French Colonial buildings, a few blocks away. It was a perfect culinary intro to Vietnam, familiar food, but Hanoi influenced. Rachelle had a clear view of the kitchen, expect she’ll be cooking for you all soon.  Thinking that was a late afternoon dinner, so the food we bought for the overnight train was a late supper, bringing the total meal count today to 5!

We had a hotel room for the day, so cleaned up and re-packed for the trekking trip. What to pack for 3 days of walking from village to village in Vietnam, near the Chinese border, when you don’t want to carry much and the weather is unpredictable?

 It began when we were met at the hotel by a rep. from EcoTours. She arrived on a moped and put us in a taxi with instructions to meet her in front of the train station. Yes, we could have figured all this out on our own, but jet lag had set in and it was pretty nice to have someone walk us to the correct train, car and room. We are on the train now, it is 3am, and I can’t believe I am hungry! We have all 4 berths to ourselves (thank you Elan).

Naturally, the moment we put our stuff down, I went off to find the bathroom. First, I played charades with a woman who works on the train. I kept following her, asking for directions to the toilet and she kept shooing me away. Finally, she started making climbing gestures with her hands and funny repetitive noises. By now there were a few others also interested in finding the toilet.

Eventually she hid from me and I went off to find someone else to torture. This time, an employee showed me where it was but told me again with gestures, that I could not use it. Finally,

a Vietnamese tour guide came to my rescue and advised me that it was only accessible once the train was moving. Still don’t know why. But I do know the charade was a moving train with sound effects! We are arriving soon, the train is comfortable in a noisy, alive machine, kind of way, it’s been a good adventure aboard. Lots of trekkers from all over. Expect to meet them on the bus ride to Sapa.

Dawn in Lao Cai

Dawn in Lao Cai

Around 6am and still dark, we got off the train in Lao Cai and met Louis, our guide for the next three days. (Lao Cai is 2 km from the Chinese border.) He turned out to be delightful, smart and very sweet. He also speaks English beautifully. Our minibus ride to Sapa was great. We were in a cloud bank for most of the hour ride. Then as we ascended the mountain, the mist broke and it was a beautifully sunny say. Looking behind us, there were swirls of mist moving in the valley. Missed photo opp… Louis left us at a hotel where we could shower and have breakfast. We skipped the shower (made the evening one later that much better).

Breakfast was perfect, great coffee, strong sweet and endless. The spread was international, fromhard boiled eggs to fried rice. We found something that looked liketater-tots, but was really potato balls rolled in unsweetened coconut and baked. Ok, maybe fried, but who cares. We had banana crepes and chicken noodle soup with lime. Stuffed, we got ready for the 6-7 hour trek.

View of Sapa from hotel terrace at breakfast

View of Sapa from hotel terrace at breakfast

Had to buy a few things we forgot. Turns out, it is unnecessary to bring a backback. The city is filled with North Face knock0ffs. My little daypack was not sufficient for our needs, so $15.00 later I had a padded pack with hip and chest straps.

Then we set off for the day.

Countryside view from Sapa

Countryside view from Sapa

Roadside Bamboo in the morning wind

Roadside Bamboo in the morning wind