Day 79 Hanoi
After the early starts of the last three days, we get up so late we miss the complimentary hotel breakfast. This is a NIGHTMARE. However, walking outside in the sunshine we are nearby a place called the Hanoi Social Club, a heavily westernised but delightful-looking colonial cafe.
Perhaps we are getting homesick, but this looks like just the ticket. I have astonishingly good French Toast and Ruth similarly clogs her arteries with a poached eggstravaganza while we sit watching European travel bloggers typing at tables. 3 months ago, we would have strived to avoid a place like this, but what do you know; there's a time and a place for a bit of familiarity.
Hanoi has ping-ponged under Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French rule for over a millenium, and only became the capital of Vietnam (as it now stands) in 1954. Its temple of literature which we walk towards this morning is Vietnam's oldest university, and dates back as far as the Norman. It delivers good temple. It is also, gratifyingly, a spot of tranquillity after the now classic life-in-hands chaos of the roads outside.
The New Year Tet preparations are beginning to pick up pace here (New Year's Day falls just after we leave) and there are some calligraphers outside the temple, writing celebratory texts on brightly coloured scrolls. We employ one sceptical chap to scribe us some souvenirs for back home. Doubtless the phrases we request leave him baffled (doubtless the phrases he writes down are not the translations we asked for). He is captivated by Ruth and requests a photo alongside her on his phone. I'm offered no such flattery.
Walking north, we encounter Ho Chi Minh's tomb, where the ex-leader is lying in state (closed today). I'm not quite sure how I feel about viewing a dead guy, however historically notable. I'm more in the let's-build-a-statue camp myself. We watch ferociously armed-guards bark at Chinese tourists to get off the grass. Not far beyond this is the One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist temple some thousand years old. Or at least it would have been if retreating French forces hadn't destroyed it before relinquishing power in the 50s. The replica there currently was designed to look like a lotus flower, the Buddhist symbol of purity. Further exploration brings us to Ho Tay (West Lake) which provides some picturesque vistas, before we continue round and find a bar to rehydrate in the humidity. Sitting outside, we watch a pig get carried down the road in a cage, destined, no doubt, for a grisly end, and a biker gang pull up, down a beer each, and drive off.
Our dinner this evening is fantastico. In the French quarter (easy to spot, because of the decidedly Notre-Damish Catholic cathedral which lies on its borders) the place is called Duongs and it is just us and another couple for the evening so we are well looked after.
While we wait for our Passionfruit cake dessert ("best in Vietnam" according to the grinning waiter who spotted my Achilles heel immediately) we chat to the couple next to us. Bavarian and Vietnamese chaps who have been touring Hanoi for the last few days and are off to Halong Bay tomorrow. Having done the conventional exchange of notes, we ask the Vietnamese guy what his favourite city in Vietnam is, and he happens to be from Hoi An, so says he is biased. We reminisce fondly of the place to his delight. The cake is excellent.
Day 80 Street Food
Whilst we are up in time for the hotel breakfast this morning, we only eat lightly; we're booked in on a Street Food voyage today on a recommendation from a few people on the Bai-Tu-Long trip. We walk into Old Town whose small labyrinthine roads made up almost all of Hanoi only a century ago. Now it forms but a small quarter of the place. We meet four other folks, two sisters from Australia and two other sisters from Australia. Harriet and Georgina are the names we can remember, but Miss Moon our guide is the star of the show. An impossibly happy young woman who is just a delight, in spite of an unnerving willingness to anatomy. Six months pregnant, she holds our hands crossing roads, and tells us to stay together like sticky rice.
We learn about Old Town, whose roads like "Coffee Street", "Silk Street" and "Medicine Street" all denote the trades which traditionally operated along them. We are also corrected on the prononciation of 'Phở' - the noodle soup ("fuh") - versus phố ("fo") which means street.
We start off with some small sweet doughnuts out of a small kitchen facing the street (it can't be more than 9 feet in every dimension) before heading to a cafe only recently visited by one B. H. Obama. He chose well, because we are fed an absolutely spectacular beef dish, a Hanoi speciality, called Bun Cha. Ruth and I are acutely aware we are going to be full in about 10 minutes, but Mrs Moon keeps us moving ("Soon, you have big full moon belly like me!"). Back near the Lake of the Returned Sword, we have a fine Papaya Salad, while Miss Moon talks about Vietnamese dating. "We eat lots of Papaya because for women, it grows the big boobs. For men, it grows small Buddha belly." There follows a conversation where I carefully contribute zero, about international body features. "Asian babies are the cutest!" "You've got the most beautiful nose!", "But blonde hair goes grey earlier".
Walking back north, Miss Moon shows us where she bought her wedding-night lingerie. A pair of pants with heavily augmented butt-cheeks. A large bottom is "very desirable in Vietnam". "No wonder I'm such a hit here" says Harriet, wagging hers at the crowd. These are unfamiliar conversational avenues for me.
Next stop is a small kitchen where we try steamed prawn pancakes which are a faff to build, but delicious to eat (we made a more inferior version back in Hoi An). It becomes clear that one of the sisters whose name we don't remember does not like any of this food. "I dragged her along just so she could try something other than KFC" her sibling explains. "No way!" says Miss Moon, "Next stop, Hanoi FC!". She takes us up another mysterious side-street and upstairs to, let's call it what it is, someone's landing. The cleanliness of the place is a little on the 'could try harder' side, but the deep fried chicken (and other meats; "maybe it stands for 'Fried Cat'" says Harriet) is pretty spot on. We've put a formidable pile of food away by now, and there's a lot of weary, gluttonous sighing going on. We round off the afternoon by going to a small cafe and having the egg coffee (cà phê trúng): it's surprisingly good. Not as sweet as the conventional coffee, but quite rich with the whisked egg on top. We also try, in honour of the Tet celebrations next week, some seasonal 'Happy Wine'. This is fermented Apricot, it's about as far away from "celebration" as I can imagine, and leaves me with a sucked-a-lemon face for about an hour.
Afterwards, Miss Moon takes her leave and we thank her excessively for the excellent tour ("You all have Big Buddha bellies now?"). We go for a drink with the Brisbane sisters, Harriet and Georgie in a bar around the corner (we spotted it yesterday, it serves IPA on draught and plays Boston). The sisters make for good company. We swap backstories and travelling tales before inexplicably start talking about tax and pension plans. It's this calibre of anecdote which makes us such magnetic company for lucky travellers. They leave after a drink.
We do some souvenir shopping afterwards: some more alarming elephant trousers, coffee and a teaspoon. We go through Beer Street (aptly named) and back to the hotel. As it's the weekend, the roads around the central lake are closed, and it makes for a far less treacherous journey. Children are racing toy cars up what was a six carriageway free-for-all yesterday.
For dinner tonight we try, on Miss Moon's recommendation, "the best beef noodles in Hanoi". It's difficult to find the place, as it doesn't have a name, just an address. But when we find it, we are donked on a bench with little ceremony to be served (for £3), quite possibly, the finest beef noodles in Hanoi.
Day 81 Last Full Day
We sleep in past breakfast again, but given the proximity of the afore-mentioned Hanoi Social Club, that's no bad thing. We write our final postcards of the trip on an old balcony overlooking a bustling street. Breakfast is vast again, so we take time out for some heavy sweating. Ruth has been watching the news and the Women's Marches across the world recognising America's uncontroversial new President. To show a bit of solidarity she wants to go to the Woman's Museum in the south of the city. We walk across town in the sunshine.
The Museum houses some fascinating stuff: beginning with a fairly traditional look at the woman's role at home, marriage ceremonies and such, followed by a gruelling retrospective of their role within the Viet Cong during the war. As harrowing as it is interesting, and a deservedly important part of the recent story here. We spend a few hours exploring the floors.
It's Sunday, and the roads are still closed around the centre of town, so we get free reign of the colonial streets again. We head back to the, heck, lets call it a Craft Bar, and spend an enjoyable afternoon listening to Poodle Rock from the 80s and drinking familiar beer. It's our last night here, which would perhaps explain the sudden fondness for home comforts.
Our last Vietnamese dinner is spent back in the beef noodle place. It provides another great meal, but the experience is marred slightly by Vietnam's Most Revolting Man. He's about 20, well-dressed, and sits down next to us. He orders his food, and then coughs up a golf ball of phlegm onto the wall next to him. We stare at him aghast, and he looks slightly embarrassed before pulling out his phone while his gob drips down the wall.
Not quite the last meal we had wanted here, but the city and country have otherwise made for a spectacular time-at-the-bar.
Day 82 Home
We have a final Pho (fuh) breakfast, before walking to see Lê Duẩn Street. The reunification railway comes through here half a dozen times a day, and half a dozen times a day the people using it as a cut through to the north of the city have to haul ass off the tracks to let a train hurtle through. It's typically mad, and about sums up the state of the traffic here.
We head back to the hotel, pack our hateful bags for the last time (the bulky souvenirs are again regretted) and taxi to the airport.
22 hours, 7 aeroplane meals, 3 flights and no showers later, we find ourselves at Woking where the trains aren't running and it's fucking freezing.