Hanoi is a lovely city. And it’s quite a change to have gone from sweltering heat in Saigon, to drizzly rain in Hoi An, to a fall-like crispness in Hanoi. And from our limited perspective, Saigon has a more LA style culture — more raucous and casual; while Hanoi is like a sophisticated San Francisco.
On the plane, we met a Hanoi-based civil engineer who was working on a project in Hoi An. He kindly gave us a ride part-way into town.
Upon arrival, we went to a cafe for lunch, and the hostess told us "Hanoi is much better than Ho Chi Mihn City." The truth is, they’re very different, and we like them both.
We’ve noticed more old French buildings in Hanoi. And in some parts, it has very wide avenues, presumably a legacy of French occupation.
The food is less spicy here than in the south, yet tasty and nuanced — local pho (with beef rather than pork in the north) is a perfect example of this. And we’ve been sampling some of the amazing French food and pastries as well. French bread is great here and elsewhere in the country — it seems chewier here, and more "melt-in-your-mouth" in Saigon.
Our least expensive meal in Hanoi was delicious homemade pho at about $1.25. Our most expensive meal was at Bobby Chin’s, at about $78 — it was tasty too. Bobby Chin’s is a trendy new fusion restaurant at the edge of the lake, and they clearly know their tourist audience.
One night we went to a place whose only dish is fried fish. It’s a humble restaurant frequented by locals and tourists. They bring out an red-hot bucket of charcoal, lined with brick and mortar, with a frying pan on top. Fish is frying in oil, and they periodically toss spring onions and dill in with it. You put rice noodles in your bowl, toss some fish and veggies on, sprinkle in a few peanuts and some fish sauce, and enjoy. After dining at this restaurant, we crossed the street to a patisserie run by underprivileged youth and had some great pastries.
Another day, we had breakfast at "Cafe des Arts," owned by a Frenchman who started the business eight years ago. "Do you accept the egg? Because, me, I accept the egg." He was referring to bird-flu fears, and chicken and egg disappearing from menus. We accepted the egg, and some lovely croissants.
For the first few nights we stayed in the old quarter, which is a small, and of course old section with very narrow streets. It’s frenetically busy. There are simple little pho shops next to touristy souvenir shops here. And each "guild" has its own street — there’s the candy street, the tinsmithing street, the gravestone street, the appliance street, the water buffalo udder snood street… In fact, here is the chrome coat hanger street.
And here’s someone on modular foam flooring street loading huge amounts of goods onto his motorcycle.
People put huge and bizarre loads onto their bikes here — we have seen giant dead pigs, giant caged live pigs, twenty live puppies in a cage, twenty live geese in a cage, fifteen foot long poles, sofas, etc on motorcycles.
We thought we were prepared for the motorcycle traffic from our experience in HCMC, or even New York traffic. We weren’t. Here, sidewalk merges with street, outdoor cafe, parking lot and fruit stand. In time, we found out what happens when one of those motorcycles loaded with four hundred pounds of live shrimp, starfruit and roof shakes collides with a bicycle carrying a family of sixteen. And we have been honked at for NOT continuing to slowly walk through the thirty motorcycle deep walls of traffic. This photo doesn’t do the traffic justice. It was taken from the City View Cafe on top of a four or five story building by the lake — the tallest building we could see! They have great zoning laws.
Next to the old quarter, and at the center of town is pretty Haon Kiem Lake. Legend has it that an ex calibur-like sword used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam was seized by a giant golden tortoise that emerged from the lake, and returned to it’s heavenly owners.
It’s a pleasant walk around the lake, and there’s a shrine on an island in the lake that you can reach by a short footbridge. Around the lake, we noticed L’Occitane, Clinique and Longchamp had staked their claim — they seem to be some of the first western luxury brands to make inroads here. We’ve enjoyed the relative lack of western brands here, with exception of Lipton, Nabisco et al.
Another thing we’ve noticed, both here and elsewhere in the country, is the number of young guys playing networked video games in the internet cafes. Apparently they’re very cheap to play, and the internet cafes are cheap too — pennies per hour. But no girls are playing the games that I’ve noticed.
One night we went to see Vietnamese water puppetry. There is a national troupe that has been around for a couple of decades. Water puppetry involves a pool of water several feet deep, and some people standing behind a scrim at the back of the pool, so you can’t see them. They operate wooden jointed puppets that emerge from behind the scrim and move around to tell a story to live, traditional music. There are various mechanisms the puppeteers use to make the puppets move, and it’s a fun art form. The music is folky, and if you get into it and don’t think about the different-sounding instruments, it kind of sounds like Vietnam’s version of country-western music.
Hanoi’s history museum is housed in a great old building with French and Vietnamese aspects.
We particularly enjoyed the Museum of Ethnology. There are something like 152 ethnic groups in Vietnam, including the majority ethnic-Vietnamese population. There are a dizzying array of beliefs, costumes, languages and traditions — it’s hard to remember who builds the stilted houses and wears the hot pink hats versus the domed houses and green and yellow hats.
Some of the other groups are related to those in the South Pacific islands. We saw examples of structures that reminded us of historic Hawaiian ones. The most dramatic house made a great backdrop for some wedding photos that day.
The museum building itself is also interesting; it’s modern, geometric, and based on circular forms.
I absolutely love the form of these fish trap baskets, all of which are perched on a bike someone used to sell them off of.
We also went to the Temple of Literature, which is kind of the original university of Hanoi, and a great example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. It was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius.
And here is a great authoritarian building by the lake. Not sure what it does, but it makes me think of James Bond again.
And I like this graphic sculpture on the lake for the same reasons:
Oh also, one night we were walking around the lake to dinner, and happened to see a stage setup next to the lake. There was a single spotlight shining in the sky, and the stage had a large cutout of Uncle Ho in front of a flag. A crowd formed as we were walking by, and some announcers started speaking from the stage. Then, a group of male dancers in shiny monochrome lycra bodysuits leapt onto the stage, and started dancing to some very militant-sounding orchestral music. The dancing was very choreographed and looked like a sort of Soviet "ode-to-the-motherland’s-military-might-and-grain-producing-capabilities" interpretive dance. Unfortunately, I don’t have fabulous photos of the dance troupe…