Guide to Vietnam – Day 2 in Hanoi
Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot … there would be much pavement pounding yet ahead…
It is surprising how quick your mind adapts, and stops worrying about the potholes ahead of you or darting your eyes frantically to avoid traffic catastrophe. It all slowly blends into the backdrop of your mind, as you start to immerse in the smells, the colours, and sounds all around. This is what Vietnam is all about. There are few architectural wonders to distract your attention from what lies immediately around you – the people, the food and their way of life. As the old saying goes: as you walk and eat and travel, be where you are.
Day two in Hanoi begins with a smashing bowl of Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) and buffet breakfast at our hotel before a leisurely stroll through the streets and along the Eastern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, enjoying the morning breeze before the afternoon swelter. A small detour is made across the red Huc Bridge onto the little lake-island, where the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son) lies. This spot is popular both for tourists and locals alike, both vying for the perfect photo shot. Simply people watching you will likely get glimpses everywhere of a complex picture of rapid urbanisation and material Westernisation among the affluent (wearing the latest fashion and flashing the latest SLR’s), which makes a jarring point alongside the elderly woman from the countryside making her daily voyage to sell her produce from baskets she balances on a bamboo yoke.
As the morning nip (the locals wear jackets in the morning) makes way for the afternoon heat, it is advisable to plan ahead for lunch and less intensive activities preferably where air-conditioning is involved, or at least get you out of the blistering sun. Anyone who has been to South East Asia will know what I mean. Grabbing a cyclo (see day 1 for some tips on getting around) is a good way to rest the feet and get a little shade, whilst taking in the 36 specialty streets of the Old quarter and get a real feel for the traffic chaos. Take note of the places you like (i.e. take photos of the addresses / signage, so you can return at leisure).
There is no shortage of French architecture – St Joseph’s cathedral, Hanoi Opera House – scattered around right alongside the less ostentatious Buddhist temples and pagodas. You will likely sight Dong Xuan market (I’ll revisit this on a later post), several museums to satisfy the history fanatic and even upmarket shopping if you wanted (beware though imported goods are much more expensive here due to import taxes).
I believe this was Gia Ngu street (*ahem as per the signs in my photo) – a true gem of a street, where locals get their fruit and grab a bite. Feel free to stumble the streets, and be amazed at the hidden gems you stumble across. I had my fair share of jackfruit here.
This was destined to be a day of up and down when it came to eating. Our lunch spot – Nhà Hàng Nam Phương, one of Hanoi’s high end dining restaurants – was really a battle of wins and losses. The green papaya with dried beef, though presented beautifully I did not appreciate a significant difference from the humble version on Bat Dan street presented to us on day one. The grilled pork ribs lacked the true smokiness of that you see at grubby road side barbeques. The soft shell crabs whilst moreish, were not as impressive (or flesh filled) as the ones I would have in due time in Saigon. Lotus and longan desserts fortunately were a simple but soothing way to finish.
I think when a kitchen branches out to do too many things, it tends to lose that expertise and proficiency at making what one makes best at say a street stall. I can’t say I can generalise to all high end restaurants in Vietnam (in fact I had a few inspiring exceptions), but many fell into this category of beautiful dining and just decent food.
A quick pit stop for dessert round two for some Xoi Kem – sweet sticky rice topped with vanilla ice cream and toasted coconut.
A few shots from the Museum of Vietnamese history. Excuse my pictures for being clearly skewed to the things I took interest in. Though there is evidence of attempts at making museums more accessible to Western tourists, by and large annotations are written in “Vietnamese” so it can at times be hard to fully appreciate the history / explanations behind the artefacts. Worthwhile peek and escape from the roasting heat nonetheless.
You might have noticed many places are quite literally named after whatever it is they serve (and sometimes the street or number of their address) – simple but effective ey? And street stalls are most definitely permanent members of the streetscape in Vietnam, with many having permanent signage and even a physical address. Bun thang Ba Duc is one of them. Like other street stalls, it serves only one item – Bun Thang (Vermicelli Soup with Chicken, Egg, Pork). The broth ladled straight from a huge bubbling pot is one that is unpretentious yet indescribably comforting. Free from MSG, you can taste the very sweetness from the hours of boiling, drawing out every last ounce of flavour from the bones. It is perfect for remedying any feeling of homesickness and yet I am paying no more than $2AUD for a bowl of this magic. This will be a common trend throughout Vietnam – where few places use MSG, and people continue to use old-school arduous techniques in their food.
After the pre-theatre “snack” I head off to Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, putting on a world renowned show that has seen countless stages across the globe. Definitely worth a visit, though having also seen the re-invented version in Saigon (Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre), where there is a little more spark, splash and humour – I would personally recommend that one if you get a chance.
With its large turnover of Western diners and voluminous menu, you can’t help but doubt whether Madame Hien would stand up to the test. To my surprise however, the Vietnamese (with a minor contemporary take) cuisine remains at a high level. I thoroughly enjoyed their version of Bun Rieu (crab noodle soup) and a lighter version of Bun Bo Hue (beef noodle soup from Hue – this is different from Pho). I was however less persuaded by the stir fried dishes – this remained a dissuasion for me repeatedly throughout the trip. I blame my well-tuned and biased Cantonese palate for this.
[Nhà Hàng Nam Phương]
19 Phan Chu Trinh, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
[Museum of Vietnamese history]
1 Phạm Ngũ Lão, Tràng Tiền, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
8 Hai Bà Trưng, Tràng Tiền, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
(corner of Hai Ba Trung and Phan Chu Trinh)
[Bun thang Ba Duc]
90 Cầu Gỗ, Hàng Bạc, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
[Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre]
57 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
(Big multi-story building overlooking the lake, you can’t miss it.)
15 Chân Cầm, Hàng Trống, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.
My map of Hanoi:
For more travel posts click below: