23.12.2013 - 25.12.2013 20 °C
Being back at work, where I have already submitted two pieces of writing this year, has really sucked away my energy for writing here but I will get there!
One of the top rated things to do in Hanoi is to go on a walking tour to sample its street food: I had booked in for a tour for my first day back in Hanoi. Luckily the bus-induced illness had passed and I was feeling quite peckish when (Miss) Ngang turned up at my hotel to take me to the tour. I nearly opted out, however, when she said she'd be taking me there on her motorbike: this is Hanoi, world famous for the pandemonium on its streets, we were travelling at the peak of rush hour and, not to be disrespectful, my rider was tiny. But she was all "I know what I'm doing" and "you'll be fine" and "it isn't far" so I went with the flow. There was certainly a lot of traffic, mainly motorbikes, and they seemed to be going in all directions at each intersection - we basically bumped and nudged our way through. Naturally, I took no photos while I was clinging on for dear life, and I never saw traffic quite like I experienced it, but these give some idea of how things are:
The walking tour was great: nominally finishing at 8, we were still sampling beer well after 9. It was me, a young fellow from Estonia, an Indian woman of maybe 30 working in Singapore and two women in their mid 20's from London (one Indian, the other from the Maldives). Ngang was the life of the party, telling us lots about Hanoi generally as well as specifics about the food we were sampling - in between jibes about the size of my stomach and how scared I was on her bike. We started with that Vietnamese staple, Pho, made by a woman who has been doing it for more than 60 years, in premises no wider than a carshed but apparently worth more than a million bucks! I thought I took more photos but have only found two - a pile of fruit and some deep-fried sweet potatoes and bananas:
We ate a whole lot more, about 7 stops in all to the point that at the last one we were all saying "no more". Apparently the beer we finished up with was the stuff made fresh each day in Hanoi - I am not convinced, as it tasted a lot like regular beer. The pub we went to was on the corner of a street that was given over to drinkers, but even here you could not escape the motorbikes (I really don't think that having motorbikes in crowds of drinkers is a very good idea)
One of the things that Ngang talked about was the legend of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which means lake of the returned sword. As the legend goes, a god sent a turtle up to demand a sword back from the Emperor. Apparently there were a handful of giant turtles living in the lake, but they have been dying off (I actually saw one in the Temple of Jade Mountain)
People believe there is still one in the lake, but there have been no sightings for quite some time. The Temple of Jade Mountain is on an island in the lake: to get there you go across the Welcoming Morning Sunlight Bridge (or The Huc Bridge)
Apart from the turtle in its glass case and a gift shop, there are several shrines to commemorate a famous soldier and a couple of scholars (now that's an idea I can get behind!)
Further down the lake, there is something called the Turtle Tower, to honour the mgic turtles which guard the sword
Emboldened by my food tour and internet research, I went in search of a dish called Bun Cha and thanks to a wee lack of carefulness on my part had one of the best things so far. Essentially Bun Cha is BBQ grilled pork, although there seem to be variations after that. Recipes I have found talk about a dipping sauce, but in the version I had, the pork was put into broth with noodles, bean sprouts and other bits and pieces. The broth was lightly spiced (with something like star anise and maybe cinnamon) and a bit sweet. It was up to me to add other ingredients: I could only recognise coriander and chilli, so that's what I had. Man, the chilli heat really spreads when it is in broth! I was almost in trouble, I had made it so hot.
I was in Hanoi for Christmas, but there was (to quote a favourite TV programme) a bit of a cock up on the catering front. The food I had was nice, but the place I went to (one of the top rated in town) was a bit budget, I even had some random sharing my table for a bit, and I was in and out in half an hour. Luckily I'd had a great experience on Christmas Eve - another top rated restaurants in a hotel had really looked after me. I had a couple of these
(it is a Hanoi Sunrise - tequila, rum, Campari & orange), followed by very posh spring rolls and something called Bo Lo Lat ("minced beef with pork grease, garlic, black pepper wrapped in Lolot leaves then fried").
One other notable meal was in a place called Highland Coffee: the coffee and Banh My were nice, but I was more impressed with the people watching opportunities. This is where the young Vietnamese middle class come and just hang out, chatting, using the internet. The guys in particular intrigued, as a lot had gone for the James Dean look - leather jackets, belt buckles, pompadour (I had to look that one up - it is the combed back high hair style he adopted).
The worst food experience I had was at the airport. When I change countries and have a small amount of money, too small to get changed, I normally swap it for chocolate or, back in the day I did such things, cigarettes. The chocolate I obtained at Noi Bai airport was truly dreadful - it tasted of nothing but palm oil, no sweet, no chocolate, just this oily flavour.
I'll finish with a few random images of Hanoi