Guide to Vietnam – Day 1 in Hanoi
Have you been wondering where has Almost Always Ravenous been since April (aka my last post)? I have taken a breather away from blogging and given myself a little headspace to reshuffle and rationalise my career calling. Of course there would be no moping around feeling depressed; rather there is no better way to get away than jetting off overseas on a food oriented holiday. Yes I have just returned from Vietnam with a tan (unintentional may I add), a tummy stretched full with food, a palate tantalised by all the new and wonderful experiences, and plenty of photo-whoring to accompany. I have come back fresh and ready to start again.
There will be no jabber about Vietnam’s history, the geography or etymology from here. You will get all of that when you go to Vietnam or from Wikipedia if need be, and you certainly don’t need to hear it through me. Rather I’ll lead you through my experiences and encounters that will hopefully help make at least one other person’s trip to Vietnam that little bit better. Here we go…
Where shall I start? I shall start from the moment I hop off the plane at Hanoi just after midday. It is the raw heat and humidity (like most other South East Asian country) that first hits you right on the face. For a few days to come the sky remained grey, dreary and as though it would open on us at any moment. In fact I had arrived just at the brink of the rainy season (May – September), so this was to be expected. But in all truth it hardly rained in the first week, and only rained briefly in the early afternoons when I had reached Saigon.
The second thing that hits you will be the chaotic roads bustling with the honks of motorbikes, weaving traffic, and fearless pedestrians. “Fearless” is something you learn quickly when you are forced to cross without true pedestrian crossings in a manner I call a walk of faith where you step onto the road, and continue to walk through oncoming traffic and watch as the traffic seamlessly weaves around you. Hanoi, especially within the old quarter, is notorious for its narrow roads and pedestrian strips. It is not uncommon to see scooters parked up on the pavement, alongside road-side stalls with their gaggle of diners parked on tiny fluoro chairs (usually blue or red). So really you walk on the roads anyway.
Karaoke is big in Vietnam.
I stayed smack bang in the old quarter of Hanoi. Whilst the hotels here tend to be smaller and more expensive, nothing compares to being right at the centre of where everything happens. Jammed into its 36 streets are a mecca for food, bars, merchants and beautiful old colonial houses, which makes it a city full of character. People say Hoi An is the most beautiful old town in Vietnam, but I dare say it lacks the personality and charm that Hanoi does when you start exploring its nooks and crannies.
First stop to fill the tummy: a “random” shop front near our hotel – Ban Buon Banh Bot Loc. With a bit of pointing and gesturing we have served to us Banh bot loc (Vietnamese Clear Shrimp and Pork Dumplings) and Nom bo kho (green payaya salad with dried beef). This would be a good start to the eating extravaganza – light, fragrant, and enough tang to awaken the slumbering taste buds. Long haul overnight flights are your appetites’ worst enemy. The nuoc mam was well balanced, so another tick.
A massage after a snack anyone? SF Spa would be stop two. There are no pictures here (*ahem for obvious reasons). It is a little on the “pricier” side, but certainly one of the swankier places in town. By pricy I mean for local standards. At approx. 400,000VND ($20AUD) for a 60 minute massage it is still far cheaper than anything at home. There are plenty of options around, anything from 150,000VND upwards. I suggest giving Vietnamese massage a go – a “stretching massage [that] stimulates the digestive organs, energizes the body and reduces inflammations”.
After some good digestive tract encouragement, it was time for some banh cuon (thin Rice Rolls Filled with Ground Pork and Wood ear Mushrooms) at Banh Cuon Gia Truyen, which is so conveniently located one “small” block eastward. In the short few days in Hanoi, this place would easily rank as AAR’s favourite place for a snack in Hanoi.
The streets of Hanoi are like free cooking shows, as most vendors (even if they have storefronts) generally have their working “kitchen” out front. The lady working the steamer at Gia Truyen has been doing this for some 20 years. She makes the most beautifully paper thin, silky steamed rice rolls that are skilfully peel off the steamer without piercing the skin, plomped down on a well-oiled plate to be rolled with juicy ground pork stir-fried with wood ear mushrooms. Fried shallots are heaped on, before a garnish of coriander. Banh Cuon is usually served alongside Cha (slices of minced pork rolls), but I find they fill me up too much so I rarely order it. Plus the drawcard here is really the banh cuon! I shall digress for a minute. Like many developing Asian countries, it is rare to find anything but pork lard being used as the “cooking oil”. In my opinion it is this that makes everything taste amazing, and there is no avoiding it. *ahem just for a holiday it is ok!*
On a later date, whilst on a guided street food tour of Hanoi, we try banh cuon with rice paddy beetle oil. It adds a potent fragrance and attitude to the dipping sauce (i.e. the nuoc mam). It is not for the faint hearted…
Final stop for the day. It would have been around 8.30pm when I stumbled out of the hotel and around the corner to Cha Ca Va long for their infamous Cha Ca (see here for a nice explanation). The white fleshed fish (not sure which) has been marinated in turmeric, and is fired up tableside with a generous handful of dill and green onions, with vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, herbs, fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste to accompany. It is quite heavy with oil, and at 100,000 VND, I personally found it just ok. Maybe it was the time of day, or that I had had too much to eat already but “over-hyped” would be the word I’d use to describe it. Certainly tasty fish, but nothing amazing.
Not bad effort for the first day with jet lag hey?
What I found on my trip was that the places with the most people generally had the best food, and they are usually the on-street stalls. No doubt many local places have become increasingly touristy with online / print media exposure, and whilst there is a good number that retain the quality and integrity of their food, I suspect there will be many changes to come in the years to come whether for good or bad. I sure hope that next time I return that I can still return to the same places and have the same things made exactly the way it has been for generations. It would be a pity to lose that.
A few tips to help you get around:
- Walking. The old quarter is small enough that walking is usually the easiest way to get around. Road signs are generally well placed and most stores have their full address printed on their signage, so if you’re lost just look up.
- Taxi. They are super cheap. Flag fall is around 10,000VND (50c AUD), then meter climbs up at a snails pace thereafter. Hanoi is small enough that most attractions will rarely cost you more than $2-3 AUD. Warning: there are plenty of dodgy taxi’s out there (where the meter jumps in astronomical amounts), so please stick with the large taxi companies: taxi-group / Mai Linh Taxi. Your hotels will be able to point out which ones are reliable.
- Cyclos. These are plentiful, and well maintained in Hanoi, but much more expensive and slower than taxis. Worthwhile going for a city tour once (I vaguely remember we paid around 200,000VND ($10AUD) for a 60minute ride. I still think we got it expensive and should have haggled more.
- Hotel: [Maison D’Hanoi Boutique Hotel]
49 Lãn Ông
Hàng Đào, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
- [Ban Buon Banh Bot Loc]
43 Bat Dan
Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
- Massage: [SF Spa]
30 Cửa Đông
Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
- [Banh Cuon Gia Truyen]
14 Hàng Gà
Hàng Bồ, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
- [Cha Ca Va long]
14 Chả Cá
Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
My map of Hanoi:
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