Vietnam - Hanoi Madness

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Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 1/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 2/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 3/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 4/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 5/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 6/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 7/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 8/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 9/10 by Eva and Nat
Photo of Vietnam - Hanoi Madness 10/10 by Eva and Nat

October 2014

Gooooooooood mornin’ Vietnam!

Our big travel day had nearly arrived. Three flights to get us from Pai to Hanoi. What could go wrong?!

Well for starters, the day before, our 25 minute Pai to Chiang Mai flight was cancelled. This left us with just one option….driving the hellish 4 hour journey through 732 curves up and down the foothills of the Himilayas! With no access to tranquillizers, we cut a deal with a couple of dudes from a taxi company who were heading that way anyway. We met them at 6 am and started the journey across the hills to Chiang Mai in their old jeep . Staying out late the night before looking around the night market was probably a mistake as we were wrecked on the drive. 

To add to our anguish, the driver played a country and western CD on loop for the entire length of the journey – Note that the radio doesn’t pick up signal out here and the music was a welcome distraction from the 732 corners! You needn’t worry as the core themes of alcoholism, womanising and general heartache were well covered throughout the journey. Oddly LeAnn Rimes ‘How can I live without you’ was in the mix too and will forever be ingrained in our memories of that journey as we had to listen to two Thai men struggle to reach the big notes!

The rainforest clad hills were stunning and gave us a different view point compared to the plane. At one point, we came around a corner to be greeted by a gang of gorgeous buffalo on the side of the road. They must have been drinking from a mountain stream as they were all wet and shiny despite the searing heat.

When we came around that final bend and Chiang Mai came into view we finally breathed a sigh of relief – however it turned out to take forever to get through all the industrial estates with elephant dung paper factories and sweat shops before we arrived at the airport. Thankfully, we made our flight to Bangkok and the next one to Hanoi without too much more drama.

When we finally landed in Hanoi late that night, we still had to face a 45 minute drive to the centre. Let the mayhem begin! No rules, drive wherever you like in any direction, just beep your horn or flash your light and hope that you make it through! The first hair raising moment came when a motorbike came over the grass verge and sped past us going in the opposite direction on the motorway. Of course we we’re shocked at the time…but that was really just the beginning!

The hotel was only a few roads away from Hoam lake so we thought we’d wander up there first…..easier said than done! We stood staring at the insane number of motorbikes flying in all directions with no break long enough to make our move. The pavements were no safer and were blocked with stuff, and people didn’t hesitate to drive on them either. We knew that we weren’t going to be confined to the hotel for the next few days, so we had to just go for it….the advice we’d read was to slowly keep moving across and let the motorbikes judge and go round you…..just do not hesitate….hmmm…

Because the Vietnamese eat noodles for breakfast lunch and dinner, they assume we do the same, so the breakfast buffet comprised of chicken noodles (of course), spag Bol or chips with pancakes, insulation grade white toast, fish paste and cucumber.. The staff were all so nice, but there was this one woman who greeted us every morning like we were brand new guests, completely forgetting conversations we’d had minutes before and recommending the same thing every single time.

We headed to the Dong Xou evening weekend market and wandered around, but unfortunately it was mostly tat, but we did manage to pick up a North Face rucksack for a fiver, if its not real, it’s a very good fake, which means the old Pac Sport rucksack got demoted – sorry Unsie!

We went well out of the comfort zone that night and went up a ladder into a small restaurant that only serves one dish…the place was full of Vietnamese and it seemed like a special occasion kinda place. This was real DIY dinner – They brought out a gas burner with a pan of bubbling oil on top which had pieces of fish frying in it and carried it through the restaurant one handed (passing it over peoples heads), then they came out with an enormous plate of dill and mint leaves, a plate of peanuts, some rice vinegar dipping sauce and a pile of rice noodles…! The fish was cooked and the oil was spitting everywhere, so we switched off the burner and tucked in…but soon noticed laughing and pointing…a woman came across, switched the burner back on, pointed at the plate of dill and spring onions, we were supposed to chuck everything in…verdict was it tasted good and we def provided entertainment for them!

It’s totally insane walking around Hanoi; It’s like the Saturday before Christmas every day. Pavements are filled with mini plastic chairs (think first day of school), parked and moving motorbikes, open fires for cooking, barbers using cut throat razors, beauticians attending to peoples toenails with paint scrapers, welders throwing sparks on your flip-flops and bamboo ladders… The roads are for lorries, jeeps, cyclos, motobikes, ‘pope-mobiles’ filled with Chinese and women carrying and selling fruit, donuts or sticky rice and they’re all moving in whichever direction and speed they like! That just leaves the gutter above the sewers for the pedestrians.. And even there you’re definitely not safe! They’re all obsessed with face masks to stop smog and germs which feels a little weird when they’re cooking and eating on the pavements in what can only be described as…

You can’t walk two steps without hearing ‘madame Madame!’ from the women trying to sell us food or clothes and the guys just hoot, ring the bell or just whistle or yell hey hey to try to get us on the back of their motorbike/taxi! Really missing the tuk tuks round Hanoi, all they have is cyclos -bicycles with a scooper on the front or getting on the back of a motorbike. We had to go for the cyclo option one night, which was absolutely terrifying! Some old guy cycling really slowly while we sat in the front like a couple of babies in a push chair, being pushed out into traffic. Words cannot convey how terrifying it is to attempt to cross the road in this town! They don’t stop even at pedestrian crossings. Traffic lights are ignored and driving on the footpath, across a park or the wrong way down a one way street is totally acceptable!

The strange thing about the oldest part of Hanoi where we were staying is that each street is dedicated to the specific trades/businesses that are based there…e.g. China bowls street (Bat Su), roasted fish street (Cha Ca), silver or jewelries (Hang Bac), women accessories (Cau Go), shoes and sandals (Hang Dau), silk (Hang Gai), mixed fruits (To Tich), combs (Hang Luoc), jars (Hang Chinh), tour services (Ma May), candies and dry apricot (Hang Duong), fried/roasted sour pork hash (Tam Thuong lane on Hang Bong Street), bamboo products (Hang Buom), etc.

After the madness of the old town, we decided to wander the other direction which was actually still mental, but much easier to walk around without fearing for your life every two secs. On the way, we passed two stalls… Whole dogs baked in the oven and piled up on top of one another a table, ready to be sold as meat….

We wandered up to west lake, picked up our first loaf of brown bread in weeks from a French bakery and sat eating banana sambos on a bench! Happy days! Thankfully the French did introduce patisseries while they were here!

Another amazing culinary discovery in a land barren of soya products was the humble iced avocado coffee. Vietnam is one of the largest coffee producers in the world and they have their own unique style! Unlike what we’re used to back in Europe with coffee made from Arabica beans, they produce Robusta beans (i.e. the stuff used for rank instant coffee). So their signature coffee is the Saigon coffee; you get a cup with a drip filter that sits on top with the ground coffee inside. Then the water is poured on top and takes about 10 minutes to filter through. Then you get a separate glass with ice and you pour the super-strength tar-like coffee over the ice. At least this coffee was readily available, unlike the coveted civet-cat-poo coffee that we were so intrigued to sample! (FYI this coffee is made from the coffee beans that have passed through the digestive system of a civet cat, giving it some extra enzymes that supposedly make it extra yummy and the most expensive coffee in the world). Unfortunately, our little white faces only drew a load of attempts to sell us fake, over-priced, replica beans, so we missed out.

After that we walked along and peeked over a wall only to find kung fu martial arts going down with samurai swords, num chucks and spears!

Other dinners we had were in pretty dodgy eateries where we had other Vietnamese delicacies like bun cha (chargrilled pork and noodles) and our fav Vietnamese dish so far bun bo nam (beef, noodles, broth, crispy onions).

We visited the prison, built by brutal, oppressive French colonists, which was later used to imprison US pilots that were shot down (including John McCain), who sarcastically nicknamed it the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. It was recently the 60th anniversary of Vietnam’s independence from the French so there was extra exhibitions and it was very interesting to learn a bit about their turbulent and violent history.

We wandered around and hit on a replica of Notre Dame cathedral (another legacy of the French stay) and a French cafe beside it, where we stopped off. We sat up on the balcony watching the madness below and spotted this woman cycle up, and pull out a knife and carved up pineapple after pineapple in seconds and would have put any top French classically trained chef to shame.

After that it was time for some entertainment….it was time for the Vietnamese water puppets show! This is a tradition that lasted back for centuries, when the farmers put on shows in the rice paddy fields! In all honesty, we had no idea what to expect of a show with puppets entirely in Vietnamese but it was absolutely brilliant. Based on the singing, I think I could be classed as a good singer here because the whaling tones are definitely different! They had all sorts of musical instruments too, like sticks with bells and boxes with strings. The show was a load of short stories but the puppets were birds, butterflies,dragons, snakes and people and it was insane how they made them move around the water. There were no strings, they were controlled behind a wall by about 8 people under the water. One of the stories was all about planting, cultivating and collecting the rice in the fields and they had people, oxen, butterflies and growing rice all happening. It was unreal! Actually one of the best shows we have ever laid eyes on! We kept wondering ‘how did they do that?’- especially when the dragons appeared out of the water breathing fire!

That night we went for a change and opted for an Indian which turned out to be one of the most flavorsome of our trip so far! Then had a brew sitting on mini chairs in a Bia Hoi pub on the corner of a manic crossroads. The humidity, people, plastic chairs and general randomness going on around us gave the place a cool vibe. It also leant itself to make the fellow tourists and post work Vietnamese relax and merge into one chilled out possy. – At 16c a glass – the Bia Hoi ‘cheapest beer in the World’ may have something to do with it too!

We sat on the street corner on children’s chairs, with our backs against the ‘wall’ and looked out at all the madness of people, vendors, traffic and low hanging electricity cables. We just loved the atmosphere of it all.

When we were homeward bound, we spotted a cool cafe down a side street and went to take a look. It turned out to be a quiet haven in a funky coffee shop/bar and we sat and hung out for a bit longer until we started getting a bit peckish…

With no other food source available, basic human instinct pointed towards the luminous blue birthday cake at the next table –

Question: ‘…how best shall I extract said cake from said table?’

………….Answer: learn ‘Happy Birthday’ in Vietnamese on YouTube and offer to take a group photo.

….As a Wiseman once said – “Softly, softly, catchy monkey”

Blue icing and the lightest sponge we’ve ever tasted = 2 Happy ladaaaaays!!!

—– We decided to let Ho Chi Minh RIP in the mausoleum that he never wanted in favor of these guys!

Watch the Vietnamese National Kick ass – Kung Fu crew that we stumbled across on a walk around Hanoi! Enjoy!

This trip was originally published on Losing The Run Of Ourselves.

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