Monday, April 18, 2011

Hanoi, Vietnam (2008)

It was another early flight to Hanoi, so we were up at 5:30am. The hotel didn't officially start serving breakfast until 6:30am, but we went down at 6am and guess what, they had almost everything ready. After breakfast we took our hotel car to the airport, checked in, and went through security. We were momentarily confused by our gate number, which was listed on the boarding pass as "Front Door". It turned out the airport had only one gate, and all flights were serviced by bus. The Vietnam Airlines flight was a bit bumpier this time, but despite only being an hour long, we were served a pork and cucumber sandwich and some chocolate.

After landing we found our car and drove about 45 minutes to our hotel. In the front passenger there was a girl who seemed to be a friend of the driver. She must have heard me speaking Mandarin to D, because she asked if we were Chinese. I told her that we were Taiwanese, and we chatted a bit in Mandarin. It turned out she had just come back from three years of studying Chinese in Guangzhou. Anyway, she suggested we check out the weekend night markets, and told us a little bit about Hanoi.

Traffic in Hanoi was even crazier than in Saigon; drivers were less accomodating of pedestrians and of other drivers. We got to our hotel, the Hanoi Elegance 2, around 10am. Again our room wasn't ready, so after a quick change in the lobby restroom, we stored our luggage and set out to explore the city.

First was the Museum of Ethnology, which was a very well-done and thorough presentation on the different ethnic groups that populated Vietnam. I especially liked the replicas of the various traditional houses. Then, after some trouble trying to flag down the right type of taxi so that we wouldn't get scammed (finally hailed a Hanoi Tourist Taxi), we headed to the Temple of Literature.

We ate lunch at Koto, another youth training non-profit restaurant, where we ordered passionfruit and mango lassi, an appetizer sampler, chao tom, and beef with morning glory. Afterwards we walked through the temple, checked out a nearby park, and then went to see the Ho Chi Minh complex.

The mauseleum wasn't open since it was after 11am already, but I'm not sure we'd have wanted to see a dead preserved dictator, anyway. We did visit the One-Pillar Pagoda, the Presidential Palace, the House on Stilts, and the Flag Tower (meh).

We decided to walk home, and along the way we saw yet another statue of Ho Chi Minh, lots of impressive looking buildings (I guessed embassies), and some military buildings with lots of security. In fact, I stopped to take a photo of some cool planes in a gated courtyard and we were quickly shooed away by a scary-looking uniformed guy.

As we neared our hotel, we stumbled across a pastry shop, where I bought a bag of about 15 Belgian macarons for less than $3. I also got some treats that tasted like Ferraro Rocher inside but had a green rice krispy-like exterior, and a coconut flake confection in the shape of a cone. All three were yummy, but the green one was my favorite.

We got a little lost in the Old Quarter trying to find our hotel again, as the streets were narrow, winding, and not well labelled, but eventually we found it, checked in, and showered.

For dinner we went to Hanoi Garden, across the Old Quarter, where I had soft shell crab (cooked with garlic, onion, chili, and basil) and D had grilled pork with coconut milk. We also split a sampler of six types of spring rolls. Two were pretty basic, but there were some really interesting ones; one was a shrimp cake sandwitched between two layers of fried stuff, another seemed to have squid and/or other seafood in it, and one had a textured flaky exterior, and was strongly mushroom flavored.

Afterwards we walked to Hoan Kiem Lake and checked out the Ngoc Son Temple, which was lighted up after dark.

We happened to walk by the Water Puppet theatre five minutes before the last showing, so we bought "first class" tickets for $5 apiece and watched the 45 minute show, which was much better and less cheesy than I'd expected.

We thought about taking a Perfume Pagoda tour the next day, but decided against it as it was a full day and would have left us no time to do anything else. Instead we "slept in" until 8am and enjoyed a leisurely brefakfast at the hotel.

Next we headed to a tailor, where I bought a custom-made ao doi for 1.1M dong (about $135), to be picked up in two days time. Communication was pretty difficult as no one in the store spoke English; even asking for timeline, price, deposit amount, etc. was a bit painful. We did bargain from 1.28M to 1.1M; I'm guessing we could have done better, but the storekeepers were really nice and tried really hard to help us so I didn't mind too much.

We looked at some (super-expensive!) art galleries, souvenir shops, and pottery stores in the area, and then headed back to the lake.

We made brief stops at Le Thai Lo monument and St. Joseph's before going to Pho 24 (a fast food chain) for lunch. Their pho was really cheap, tasty, and filling, and it came with something that tasted like bits of you tiou. We also liked their cans of sugar cane juice.

Nearby was the swanky Sofitel Metropole Hotel, which had been open since 1901 and was super posh. We briefly contemplated the $15 chocolate buffet but in the end we decided we were still too full and it was kind of a rip-off besides. We spent $1-2 buying postcards at a bookstore instead, and amusingly were given the last 1000 dong (12.5 cents) of change in the form of two pieces of 500 dong gum.

We looked briefly at the exterior of the History Museum (not as cool as expected) and the Opera House, and then went back to the Ngoc Son Temple, for an actual visit this time.

The interior was pretty nice, and the exterior was pretty and peaceful, so we hung out there for awhile and wrote up some postcards.

On the way home, we stopped at Memorial House, right next to our hotel. It's a traditional Vietnamese house which has been converted into a small museum, and only cost about 50 cents to enter, which I thought was a bargain.

For dinner, we ate at 69 Bar, a few doors down. We had beef and papaya salad and bun cha, plus sauteed bananas in orange and lime for dessert. They also had a very interesting drink made of coffee, milk, pineapple, and lemon, which sounds terrible but was actually quite good.

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