A Taste of Hanoi

Day 9 – We are a nothing if not a sleepy bunch, and the intensity of the Hanoi hustle zapped the life out of us. A lie-in was called for, and we indulged in a nice late wake-up. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t take full advantage of the day. You might even say that we gorged on it.

Our plans after the late-into-the-morning snooze were divided into two parts.

Part I: General touristy sightseeing, i.e. visiting a few well-known Hanoi landmarks to have a looksie and take pictures
Part II: EAT ALL THE FOOD, i.e. a street food tour through the city

For me, the first part of the agenda was mostly a distraction until the food tour (I know I should probably be embarrassed, buuuut… #shameless). I am, of course, curious about the Vietnamese monuments and museums, but if I’m being candid, that type of thing is never my favorite part of a trip (unless there’s a fantastical origin story or legend of some kind, then I’m all eyes and ears!) Manny and Karen are history buffs though, so to satisfy their nerdy curiosity, we did a walking tour of some key sites in the city.

Hoan Kiem Lake, or Lake of the Restored Sword (A+ name). We enjoyed a lovely walk around its perimeter, taking pictures and trying not to eat any street snacks before our evening adventure.
Huc Bridge, built in the 19th century, this bridge offers pedestrians access to a small temple on the lake. Google Hanoi, and you’re guaranteed to see this bridge pop up all over your search results. In person? Cool, but not all that. (Tho I think a tour guide to explain the backstory would probably up the interest factor significantly).
Turtle Tower, a small structure on an island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. There’s a legend about a king and a turtle and a god sword that I’m sure would have made Turtle Tower come to life but, like the bridge, sans story it wasn’t super exciting.
Hoa Lo Prison, a museum of what remains of the prison where the French housed Vietnamese revolutionaries. This was, as you might imagine, a heavy visit. As we walked through the prison, we took in photos of beheadings (the French were still using guillotines in the 1950s), and plentiful descriptions of the appalling conditions for both male and female prisoners. A walk through death row sealed in the somber mood that this particular historic site engenders. Interesting note: there’s a room in the museum dedicated to showcasing the exemplary conditions for US POWs during what the Vietnamese call the American War. You can see many photos of a young John McCain, and other American soldiers. They’re smiling, playing basketball, cooking meals. It was all verrrrry interesting, and I’m sure many a person would have a thing or two to say about it.

Exploring Hanoi again today, I’m convinced I wasn’t wrong in yesterday’s snap judgment. This place is cray. It’s pure concentrate, a completely unadulterated Vietnam. If I’d flown into Hanoi instead of Ho Chi Minh the culture shift would have felt five times more potent. The streets are narrow, but the traffic flow seems as intense as Ho Chi Minh City. Diners and vendors spill onto the streets, while motorcyclists spill onto the sidewalk (as a pedestrian, unless you’re well inside a shop or restaurant, you’re basically never safe). Everything is hazy because being in Hanoi is like being in a snow globe, but instead a pollution globe. My skin and eyes are starting to react unfavorably, and while there’s a lot to see and do here, I’m not too terribly sad that we’re leaving tomorrow. Not because it isn’t great. It really, really is. It’s just… it’s a lot.

But on to the street eats! We booked this outing with a tour group that boasts exceptional ratings and can make adjustments for a vegetarian tagging along. We met our guide at 5pm in a corner of one of Hanoi’s biggest indoor markets. For the next four hours, Lan would lead us through the city on an adventure for the taste buds. The tour was a mixture of city sightseeing (passing through markets and more obscure parts of town), learning about Vietnamese culture through Lan, and indulging in Vietnamese street food. Aside from me, Manny, and Karen, there were three guys from Boston. They turned out to be clowns, in a great way, and our merry little band of foodies had an incredible time. As there were twenty-nine items total that we ended up tasting by day’s end, I won’t bother listing all of them, but here are the tour’s highlights, both food-wise and otherwise:

  • Learning about Vietnamese culture and village life: Lan spent a good portion of our tour telling us about her experiences growing up on a farm in northern Vietnam, where she started making rice wine from the age of nine. She even brought us a sample from her family’s farm because, apparently, good rice wine can be hard to find (tourists get sold cheap knockoffs). Tried it, and I can tell you it goes down so smooth and burns so good. Would have liked to buy some off her.
  • Marriage rites, Vietnamese-style: Marriage traditions = always fascinating. The practices Lan shared may be more common in North Vietnam and/or within more traditional circles, but still. She said that women have to pass a cooking test before they marry (administered by the mother-in-law-to-be). The groom is expected to shower the bride’s family in money, gifts, cake, cigarettes, and alcohol. The actual festivities are a two-day affair, with an invitation list of 600+ people each day. One day is on the bride’s family’s dime, the other on groom’s. When the celebrations are complete, the bride moves in with her husband’s family home (and by that I mean his mom/dad’s place) and proceeds to take over much of the housework. Ya…. soo…. no thank you! The two day party though, I can get on board with.
  • Freshly pressed sugar cane juice with kumquat: Ambrosia in liquid form. Very sweet, to be sure, but made utterly irresistible with the splash of sour kumquat. Refreshing like you wouldn’t believe, but I did have a rough crash after the insane sugar high. Lan tells us you basically need to drink the juice within five minutes of it being pressed, or it goes yellowish and tastes bad sour.  Manny and I are kind of obsessed with this drink, and are both officially on the hunt for it for the rest of this trip.
  • Fresh fruit from the market: Ever had a custard apple? Neither had I! Such a bizarre fruit. It’s white inside with black seeds, and kind of tastes, well, like a thick cream or custard, but fruit-like. Hard to explain! The other fruit I loved was persimmon, which is flavor-wise like a papaya, but texture-wise somewhere between a papaya and a carrot. It’s a parrot. Weirdly, it always blows my mind when I try a new fruit. Because fruit is like candy (nature’s candy, as some might say), and it’s so odd and amazing to me that there are so many more candy “brands” than the ones I grew up with. And they just grow. From the ground. Like magic. In all these different shapes and flavors. I promise I’m not high as I type this… I just think that nature is incredible.
  • Secret rooftop coffee shop: the tour’s grand finale was quite grand indeed. Lan took us to what looked like a tailor’s shop, and was, in fact, a tailor’s shop. But when you walked through it and scaled three flights of stairs, there opened up this lush green rooftop cafe overlooking a now lit-up Hoan Kiem lake. Secret coffee shops, bars, and restaurants are to be found all over the city, we were told, and now I just want to find them all.
  • The frothiest, fluffiest, yummiest egg coffee: The location of the grand finale was legit, and so were the last few snacks served. Stuffed to the brim tho we were, we managed to make room for final bites and sips. Thank goodness we did, because the egg coffee at this cafe was WAY better than the one we had in Hoi An. It was light, and frothy, and almost tasted like meringue. Had I not just eaten enough for ten people, I would’ve easily downed a few of those.
  • Husband and Wife cake: A traditional dessert for weddings, they come in tiny little boxes as individual cakes (see pic below), and one is a wife cake (red), the other a husband cake (green). The consistency of both cakes is extremely sticky, purposefully, it turns out. They’re supposed to symbolize a sticky/long-lasting marriage. The green cake, husband cake, was my favorite. It had a texture almost like mochi, or as Lan said (and many people in Vietnam say) Same Same, but Different. 

Before setting off on this food quest, I had it in my mind that I wanted to book a street food tour in every big city we visited in Vietnam. I’m afraid if I did I’d end up looking like Wonka’s Violet after the blueberry incident. The quantity of food we were offered was overwhelming, even with pretty strict pacing and eating half or quarter portions (we started with Bahn Mis for goodness sake!) After the four-hour feast, I think we could all happily fast tomorrow.

Speaking of which, on the morrow we head to one of the great natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay. I’ve spent many a moment, long before this trip, gazing at photos of this bay, and cannot wait to be immersed in the full 360, real-life panorama. Beach, books, beer, and a boat cruise for three days and two nights. This trip just keeps getting better and better. 🙂

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