Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hanoi Vietnam: Three nights of rediscovery

Although this is my fourth trip to Vietnam in less than two years, I landed in Hanoi for the first time in about a decade.  I had no particular reason for avoiding Hanoi; I had in fact really enjoyed my previous visit.  It’s just that Saigon is the hub of the nation’s commerce.  I thus had ample reason for visits to HCMC, with little added side trips from there with my free time.

My “justification” for finally visiting Hanoi came in the form of a business introduction by one of my Saigon contacts to his colleague in Hanoi.   I flew into Hanoi, planning to spend three nights here to rediscover the city.  Thereafter, I planned to spend a night in Halong Bay and two nights in Sapa (plus two more on the overnight train), purely playing tourist.

I booked my HCMC-Hanoi flight on Jetstar Pacific.  I don’t mind flying discount airlines, but was a bit wary since Jetstar Pacific’s reputation isn’t exactly great even for low cost carriers.  True to form, the flight was delayed for three hours (for a totally inexplicable “change in schedule”), and there was a bit of a negotiation about my luggage which cost me an additional $10.  You get what you pay for and take your chances with discount airlines, so one needs to grin and bear it.

Ultimately, I landed in Hanoi.  My hotel had arranged a free pickup at the airport, which was a good thing since I had forgotten how much of a hassle the airport transfer can be.  In fact, the hotel specifically told me to follow the driver only if he both a) had my name on a sign, and b) could give me the correct “security code.”  Apparently, some unscrupulous drivers were “hijacking” passengers and taking them to different hotels.  Go figure.

I booked the Hanoi Serene Hotel in the Old Quarter for $45 per night.  The hotel is located in a tiny side street which I would never have found on my own.  The bell staff greeted my car a half block down on the corner to transport my luggage.  I loved the location, especially walking out to a morning market filled with locals to start the day.

The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the breakfast was superb.  The rooms are decent size with modern fixtures.  Balloons and swans greeted me on the first day.  It was a little much as I was alone and it wasn’t my birthday, but it exemplifies the customer orientated nature of this boutique hotel.

I also appreciated the gesture in the free bottle of local wine, though I found it quite undrinkable to be blunt.  My only real complaint about the hotel was the foul smell inside the elevator.  I am guessing it is because it is adjacent to a sewer line.  Regardless, it is unpleasant dealing with it every time one leaves or enters the room.

I thoroughly enjoyed my three nights in the city.  Given my late arrival, this translated to two full days plus an evening roaming about.  I found this sufficient time to rediscover much about Hanoi.   During my stay, the weather ranged from overcast to occasionally rainy, which accentuated the temperature difference with Saigon.  The lack of heat, however, made for pleasant walking.  Hanoi’s Old Quarter and surrounding sites are very much walkable, and my legs got more than a full workout during the brief sojourn.

Upon check in, I went to roam around the night market, which is only open on weekends.  I wanted to check out the people more than to browse for cheap T-shirts or souvenirs.  IMHO, night markets are identical in most Asian cities, so they are rarely shopping occasions for me.  Hanoi’s night market was typical.

The following morning, I went to check out Dong Xuan Market, which is the town’s main consumer market, where you can buy everything from food, to clothing, to kitchen appliances, to anything else you might need.  Finding a particular store or product may be the real challenge in this cavernous multi building mall front.  As expected, there is no store directory, nor any kind of real rhyme or reason in the layout that I could figure out.  But that’s part of the experience, so I wandered around window shopping, and people watching.

The grocery part of the market had the usual assortment of produce, dry goods, spices, and the like.

(WARNING: if you are queasy, skip the following two paragraphs and the photos, and go to the “OK” paragraph below.)  This part of the market included a butcher section.  Sometimes, my eyes see things that take a while for my brain to process.  I encountered this woman just nonchalantly going about doing her butchering.  It took me a few seconds to realize those were live frogs she was beheading.

I had experienced something similar a block away from the mall, when I noticed that many locals were enjoying outdoor barbecue of some sort.  At first, I couldn’t tell what the customers were eating on the street.  Were they piglets?  Ummm, no, not really.

OK TO CONTINUE READING HERE.  I didn’t buy anything at the market, and just continued to wander around the nearby blocks.  I would spend a lot of time the next couple days walking around the Old Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods just looking and exploring.

In contrast to Saigon, I found Hanoi much more picturesque.  I enjoyed strolling the Old Quarter’s small streets with a mix of ramshackle huts, colonial architecture, and the occasional modern store.  I recalled how a decade ago, I had encountered dozens of old colonial buildings that had been totally gutted by the ravages of time.  Their glorious fa├žade remained, but locals had converted the hollow interiors into tent cities.  The architectural contrasts were no longer as jarring, but remained a good reminder of the city’s historical past.

Of course, I spent a fair amount of time visiting the popular sights.  On the first night, I went to Hoan Kiem Lake.  I wished I had brought my digital SLR, as I think the night photos would have been quite appealing.  I found myself regretting that omission several times during my Hanoi stay, particularly for the people shots as the even small shutter delay in my point-and-shoot missed many ops.

I like Hoan Kiem Lake, and found myself returning a couple times during daylight hours on my way to and from seeing other sites.  It was particularly good for people watching.

I recall my visit Hoa Lo Prison from my prior trip.  Not much had changed, other than they no longer allowed tourists to go into the cells and lay on the cots or try out the shackles.  Only concrete figures get that experience now.

We Americans continue to think of Hoa Lo prison as the “Hanoi Hilton” that imprisoned our pilots, often under barbarous conditions and torture.  We forget too easily that the prison’s origin and longer history date back to French efforts to suppress independence seeking Vietnamese revolutionaries.  The French were the ones who taught the Vietnamese how to use Hoa Lo inhumanely.  Still, I had to shake my head a bit at the sign that implied that the prison was a comfortable respite for the shot down American pilots.

I found the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum interesting.

The exterior is impressive, but of course, people come to view Ho’s preserved body.  The government understandably forbids interior photos, and they prevent viewers from stopping to linger as the viewing line is kept constantly moving.  I’m not quite sure how I felt about the viewing.  On one hand, I admire Ho’s courage and determination in fighting for the independence of his country.  Politics and the history of America’s war aside, how can one not admire a genuine freedom fighter?  On the other hand, I strongly disliked the cult of personality that the mausoleum and the preserved body represent.

The Temple of Literature is large, but architecturally not as interesting as Vietnam’s other historical sites such as in Hue or Hoi An.  Still, I enjoyed wandering around, particularly since many locals had come here for photo ops of their own.

The most interesting tourist stop for me was the Women’s Museum.  The exhibits tell the history of the contribution of Vietnamese women to family, culture, and history.  I learned a bit, including the fact that some central tribal communities are matriarchal and not patriarchal.   This is extremely rare in Asia, not to mention the world.

The museum had a special exhibit commemorating the contribution of women in the Vietnamese military, as Vietnam was celebrating the 60th anniversary of Diem Bien Phu, the critical battle which led to the defeat of French colonial forces.  On the day of my visit, the museum honored some of the surviving women heroes with a banquet.

I struck up an informative conversation with one of the women (and her husband).  They were also gracious enough to pose next to their exhibit for me.

As an aside, my trip to the Women’s Museum involved another angry confrontation with a taxi driver.  Anyone who knows me understands that I get almost irrationally angry at being cheated.  It’s the principle, not the money.  At the same time, it is just foolish to get into an argument with a local in a country where the rule of law is not exactly up to Western standards and where one does not speak the language.  I always tell myself to never confront cheating taxi drivers and just pay and get out of the car quickly.  And I almost never heed my own advice.

Vietnam is notorious for their crooked cab drivers.  Mai Linh taxi company is an exception, and has leveraged their reputation for honesty to become the largest taxi provider in the country.  I always let most other cabs pass me by until I find an empty Mai Linh car, or one of the other reputable providers such as Vinasun.  One needs to be wary as the crooked drivers have figured this out, and have decked out their own cars in colors and logos that resemble the reputable companies.

In this case, I got into a legitimate Mai Linh car, but then the driver started basically doing two giant circles and ended up just two blocks from where he picked me up.  He had intentionally run up the meter in less than ten minutes to all of $1.50, but the amount wasn’t the point.  I started yelling at him when I realized his duplicity, and he yelled back, not realizing yet that he was caught.  I snapped his authorization photo, and threatened him in English which I’m sure he didn’t understand.  When he stopped at a light, I jumped out without paying.  I shouted “You bad man, I no pay. I go to police now.”  What an empty threat.  What, the police would side with a foreigner who can’t speak a word?  When I snapped a photo of his license plate and then moved up to photograph of his face, he just shook his fist angrily and drove away quickly.  I am not sure who was the bigger idiot, him or me.  Probably me.

My other “touristy” stops included the obligatory visits to:

The flag tower

The Lenin monument

The Old City Wall

The city library

The opera house.

St. Joseph's Cathedral

The ancient temple Chua Vin Tru

I felt like I basically saw those things to check the boxes, but since they were on the way to or from other places I was headed, I had little reason not to stop.

Now to the food.  I had a fancy pants business meal at the Sofitel Legend, which was superb, as was their wine list.  However, I felt that the meal could have been in any upscale hotel restaurant anywhere else in the world.  For me, the best part of the travel culinary experience is trying to get as local as possible, and in Vietnam, the choices are endless and quite affordable.  Hanoi is no exception.

The first night, I had dinner at an outdoor place right off the night market, Bit Tet Hai Tai.  The tables were crammed with locals and backpackers, and so I thought I would give it a try.  I ordered fried chicken in black garlic sauce, stir fried vegetables, and the special fried rice along with a couple beers, which set me back a total of $14.  It was good, but not outstanding.  As an aside, I first ordered the Hanoi Bia (Beer), which I found blah.  I switched to Saigon Bia, and never order Hanou Bia again.

This first restaurant did hold one surprise.  When I walked by during the day time, I realized that this emporium was only a part time restaurant.  During the day, it served instead as a grocery store!  I guess that's what they call optimizing store square footage.

The most interesting meal during my stay was at a hole in the wall near my hotel.  I had never tried this dish before, composed of soup with sliced pork, meatballs, and other goodies, along with a plate of vermicelli noodles and a heaping plate of fresh veggies.  I had no idea how to eat this, so I watched others dig in, and replicated them, by basically fishing out the meat and forming a wrap with the veggies, and dunking the noodles into the soup.  The soup tasted similar to Korean nengymuyn, and the combination was so yummy.  I got to try a totally new dish for only $5.  And I have put it on my Vietnamese food rotation list.

The simplest meal was chicken noodle soup for $2 not too far from the Women’s Museum.  For such a simple dish, it was surprisingly good.  We all know our mom's chicken noodle soup is always better, but the proprietor still prepared it with a mother's touch.

One place I discovered by accident was a different noodle joint not too far from my hotel.  The staff had recommended a different restaurant, but I didn’t feel anything when I looked at their menu.  I then noticed a huge crowd a couple doors down, so just walked in there instead.  The place was packed with locals and Westerners.  I pointed to what my neighbors were eating, which was basically fresh noodles in very small amount of broth, topped with seasoned beef, peanuts, radish, and other vegetables.  Sounds simple, right?  It was totally delicious (and different from soup-based dishes), for only $4 with a beer and a side of sausage wrapped in banana leaf.

I later discovered that the restaurant, Bun Bo Nam Bo, was actually highly rated in several guidebooks.  But the experience made me wonder why Western fast food has to be so processed and so bad?  This place churns out meals faster than any McDonalds, but it’s fresh and made to order.  I wish all fast food were like this.  There are a few Western venues who do this right (Chipotle springs to mind), but someone could make a mint  by exporting this restaurant to the rest of the world.  Hmmm, my next business idea?

I enjoyed many other snacks, desserts, and beer at various locations during my stay in Hanoi.  Sometimes I stopped because I was hungry or thirsty.  Other times, it was simply because something looked good.  This women was able to carve a pineapple into a tasty treat-to-go in about half a minute.

Other times I stopped and pulled up an outdoor stool for a beer because these were often great venues to just watch people go by.

Several of the outdoor bars in the backpackers area of the Old Quarter sell draft beer for only 25 cents!  How can you resist that?

People watching is one of my favorite parts of travelling, and Hanoi provided many opportunities beyond the perspective from a beer stool.  I found the locals largely to be friendly and outgoing, notwithstanding the occasional cab driver.   I had a terrific time just walking around snapping photos, and interacting with many of the people I met.

At first, I though this guy was doing a giant bong, but then he showed me that it was just a popular Hanoi smoke of more innocent stuff.  I passed on his offer for me to try a puff.

The guy on the left actually ASKED me to take his photo.  Gotta like hams.

The gentleman on the left was doing ink drawings so lifelike that they looked like photographs.  He also has a bronze bust of himself, next to which he was happy to pose.

The vendor on the left was happy that I purchased $1 worth of stuff, while the guy on the right used his Ho Chi Minh sneer at such capitalistic pursuits.

The second guy on the motorbike stopped next to me to see the photo of "him" I had taken, when in fact, I was taking a photo of the railway.  The two on the right were engaged in a fierce game of Asian chess, and soon broke out into an argument.

Vietnamese have multiple uses of their scooters, including as couches and pick up trucks.

Hand made noodles on the left, and hand made omelets on the right...all at cheap cheap prices.

Old and young...all out enjoying the pleasant weather.

The lady on the left was totally engrossed in a Korean TV drama, proving that this is a worldwide phenomenon.  The gentleman on the right was unimpressed with everything.

I’m so glad I rediscovered Hanoi.  The people and the city are just terrific, and it was a real pleasure getting reacquainted with both.  At the same time, Hanoi is different from Saigon in so many ways.  If Saigon is the more passionate, fiery and ambitious sibling, then Hanoi might be characterized as the more cooly sophisticated one.  On the margin, Hanoi is probably also more tourist friendly.  I’m not sure which city I prefer.  Maybe I should keep sampling both until I arrive at a final determination.

1 comment:

  1. Just found your blog by accident and wanted to thank you for taking the time to share
    your travels with the world. I am currently reading your section on Vietnam and love having this opportunity
    to enjoy the photos and your adventures. Keep up the great work.



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