I always curse myself when trying to find my hotel in a new city regardless of where I am and Hanoi followed the well worn pattern. I thought I had done well and planned this to perfection, having caught the public bus which I believed was going to stop a few hundred metres from where I was going to set up camp for the next five days. Instead of terminating at the bus interchange, for some unknown reason the bus decided to make a diversion meaning I was about a kilometre from the intended target. Now I like a walk probably more than the next person so the added legwork wasn’t a concern. The thing that peeved me off was people asking me for massages/bike taxis/souvenirs on what felt like every street corner.
Why do they ask me now? I don’t think the bike taxi is going to be able to fit me, my two bags (and him) on the bike and the others should be able to realise that I have both hands full and this isn’t the time or place for me to get a rubdown or a fridge magnet celebrating the rice paddies surrounding Hanoi. The questioning of the bike riders escalates at an alarming rate. In the space of ten seconds it is not uncommon for an interaction with a them to follow this familiar pattern:
- Massage/naked ladies?
It is as if Keith Richards is moonlighting in Hanoi between Rolling Stone world tours.
On first viewing the traffic does not seem as bad as Ho Chi Minh but there are still endless lines of bikes covering the footpath. Maybe they had a paver shortage and decided to use bikes instead? Having to spend most of my time dragging my two pieces of luggage on the road, I managed to avoid putting a dent into any oncoming bikes due to my increased familiarity with the traffic which two weeks of exposure gives you. With the help of Google Maps (whoever decided to make that work offline deserves to be knighted) I was able to find the hotel and as luck would have it my room was ready, an hour ahead of schedule. My potty-mouthed internal monologue of the last hour was a distant memory.
Having not eaten this morning I downed the two bottles of complementary water in the room and lay on the bed for a minute setting up the wi-fi so that I could plot my late lunch destination and get my bearings. I was situated in Old Town so most of the city was only a short walk away. My first meal in Hanoi was going to be Bun Cha, possibly the king of street food in all of Hanoi. This meal made quite the impression on me I made up a song about it. Regardless of what I was going to eat I sang my quickly penned ditty – set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. It was me repeating “Bun Cha” over and over until something else grabbed my attention. Sing along with me if you can remember the words, second verse same as the first.
For the uninitiated Bun Cha is basically grilled bits of pork (pork belly and little pork patties) which are served with rice noodles, pickled vegetables in a pickling liquid with another bucket of herbs and greens. Some Bun Cha (like this one) serve Nem Ran (known to you and me as spring rolls) as an added bonus. The grilling here takes place at the front of the restaurant and I take a prime position behind the lady who was grilling. It was that hot my vital organs were on the verge of failure but that didn’t stop her, covered in a jumper, jeans and a mask she knelt down near the fire, fanning it with what else than a fan purchased from the electric fan shop next door. If she ticked the organ donor box on her licence her skin could be used on your car’s brakepads when her time’s up.
As with a lot of Vietnamese dishes you can dial up or down the ratios of ingredients and condiments to suit your individual needs. But just a word of warning, the pickling juice is there to add flavour and not to be drunk from the bowl at the end of the meal. That is what the beer was for. This dumb tourist needs written instructions but at least I only did it one. It was that good I had to get another couple of spring rolls to balance out my pickle overdose. Hanoi, you’ve impressed me so far old gal.
My mind not solely focused on food, I thought I would just walk around and soak up my new home. The constant soundtrack of beeping horns accompany me as I head from one end to the other. A network of alleys and backstreets spat me out in the north of the inner city where a shop was advertising caramel as well as other sweet treats. The French introduced a lot to the Vietnamese palette and anytime is dessert time in my book. The menu was in Vietnamese and my familiarity with their language is more savoury focused so I pointed to the lady’s plate next to me and a replica was quickly plopped in front of me in all its jiggly glory.
The lady next to me ordered another but I thought I should order something else so I picked the most decadent thing they had on the menu. A coconut which had been hollowed out and then filled with a soft serve ice cream (rare in Vietnam). A drizzle of chocolate topping, peanuts and a toffee flavoured twill, my tastebuds were overcome with delight. This will be my final dessert in Hanoi because another of these and my heart packs it in. Staff at the shop were disappointed with my efforts, they were of the opinion I would somehow conquer the entire menu.
So far during my two weeks away the shadow of coronavirus has loomed large. Most people are wearing masks, many parks and public areas have special handwashing stations to halt the possible spread. Schools are shut and many are opting to stay indoors. I thought I was going to get back to Australia scot-free but I am having doubts as even the teddy bears are getting infected.
Finally I ended up back near the hotel where I was introduced to Bia Hoi, Hanoi’s drinking establishments. The options here are branded bottled beers or the local rice beer which comes out of straight out of a keg for $0.80AUD a glass. Not the most potent beer I have had meaning a session of bia hoi can rarely be counted on two hands. Given the climate this stuff is perfectly suited and very drinkable. Instead of paying after each drink there is a yum cha style system that keeps track of your consumption and tallied up at the end.
Drank with a Scottish man who retired at forty-five (no wife or kids) and decided to live out his days in Hanoi. He had been there for sixteen years and hadn’t got sick of the place yet. Was able to get some local knowledge of places to see, things to eat (and where to avoid). Also met a freelance writer/photographer, a British gent who was chatty. Some of his photo portraits are jaw-droppingly good so head over to simonhiltonimages on Instagram and you won’t be disappointed. He was actually very complimentary about a few of my photos but maybe that was the bia hoi talking?