Posts Tagged 'Hanoi'


We were having our last meal in Hanoi across from the Lenin Skate Board shop which had as logo a rubber ducky. I thought it a brilliant capture of the Vietnamese version of capito-communism.

Earlier in the day we had finally gotten around to try the famous Vietnamese egg coffee. The Vietnamese coffee we had tried so far (‘white café’) drips on top of a layer of sweetened condensed milk. The egg white coffee was served in a dish of hot water. The coffee itself had a creamy yellow foam on top. I imagine it is made from whipped egg white sweetened with the condensed milk. The Vietnamese coffee is strong and got us hooked. One of the curious varieties of coffee in Vietnam is the kind that has gone through the stomach of a weasel or civet or squirrel. The animal digests the outside of the coffee fruit and poops out the bean itself. This kind of coffee is highly sought after and expensive. It is hard to find out whether you are getting the real thing or are taken for a shitty ride so to speak. We bought some coffee that is produced in a non-animal way.

At the egg white coffee café we ran into our young German solo traveler again and shared a tiny table sitting on tiny stools.  Our leg muscles are adjusting poorly to sitting with one’s knees at a 45 degree angle to one’s hips but that’s pretty much how meals and drinks are taken by the locals.

We visited what was once called the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ the prison where American pilots were held. In comparison to the treatment of prisoners under the French regime in the same prison, the Americans appeared to be treated rather nicely. Most of the prison was dedicated to the struggle with the French. The French regime dealt with political prisoners like they did during the French Revolution with a guillotine and iron foot clamps. The exhibit showed photos and thumbnail CVs of ex-prisoners who had risen to power in North Vietnam. It is quite amazing to think that anyone could have survived a stay of even a couple of months in the French ‘Maison  Centrale’ as the Hao Lo prison was called then.

And that was the end of our week in Vietnam. Bangkok tomorrow and the countdown to our return home has started.

Back to the city

We said goodbye to our travel mates who returned to Hanoi in order to take the night train up north for a trek in the mountains. Axel and I and our young solo German traveler boarded a smaller boat in the middle of the bay and set course for Cat Ba Island.

We landed on a small pier where bikes were waiting for us and biked into the national park along a mostly level road. At a small village we parked our bikes had a cup of Vietnamese (milky) coffee, then continued on foot for a walk in the woods. The wildlife, apart from monkeys and the unique Langur (also a monkey), consists mostly of exotic insects. We were told there are snakes and our guide used a stick to announce our presence. We didn’t see any monkeys or snakes but plenty of insects.

We returned the same way we had come and had lunch on the boat followed by a swim before landing on another part of Cat Ba Island where a bus took us to the hotel at the end of a long boulevard. The harbor was full of fishing boats and floating restaurants. Everything floats here – whole villages with their ‘gardens’ where oysters, mussels and clams are farmed.

The boulevard strip in Cat Ba looks just like any other boulevard strip in a seaside tourist town (I am thinking of Salisbury, NH). Much neon, tons of hawkers, bars and restaurants and a night market full of cheap China stuff, maybe the latter one wouldn’t find in Salisbury. Large blow up plastic swimming pools for kids were filled not with water but with something that looked like black rice which the kids manipulated with their trucks and buckets as it it was sand.

Our guide invited us for a beer by the harbor where all the locals seemed to have congregated. It was a jolly place with cheap eats and drinks. Whatever didn’t go into people’s mouths was dropped on the ground. The place was a mess – not just there but at all the restaurants – someone must come in the middle of the night and sweep everything away.

Dinner was on our own – we had about 100 choices but followed our guide’s lead, which was a good oneL fried rice, nems, smoked pork in a noodle dish, and fresh coconut juice.

At night the rains moved in, excalty as predicted on my smart phone. The next day the skies were dark and something akin to a monsoon hit the island. As a result our departure was delayed a bit. Men in uniform at the embarkation pier held us back until the rains had passed.

Day 3 of our cruise consisted essentially of cruising back to meet up with the big boat, the same one we had overnighted on and make a passenger exchange before continuing to Ha Long from where we boarded a bus back to Hanoi.

At night we splurged and ate at a Trip Advisor recommended restaurant on a rooftop overlooking one of Hanoi’s many lakes. The cuisine was exquisite, the cocktails and wine yummy, and the bill high. The Vietnamese currency has so many zeros in it that it feels like monopoly money. Only when we did the conversion did we realize how much we had spent.

Our new hotel is smack in the center of something big; when we returned from our dinner the streets around our hotel were completely filled with people (several hundreds is my guess) sitting on the tiny plastic stools, drinking and eating. It was a bit like Bangkok’s Chinatown’s pop up restaurants, but much louder. Rave music pumped through the air, indicating that there were some very popular bars hidden behind the mass of people on their plastic stools.

In search of wants

We had breakfast at a recommended Pho place. No one spoke English and there were no foreigners in sight. So we simply said ‘pho’ and got a wonderful meal. We are not in the part of the old town where the tourists hang out, as we discovered later which makes conversation difficult. It also means English menus are missing – here people know what they want and say so. We will point at what looks good and experiement.

In our neighborhood the coffee houses are local. The people who work there don’t know what and expresso is. They serve Vietnamese coffee which Axel didn’t dare to try given his reaction to any coffee that isn’t brewed in the expresso way.

We searched on our phones for our kind of coffee place and discovered the Bialetti Café. Mr. Bialetti, recently deceased, invented the octogenal moca maker which we possess in 4 sizes. We figured we could get the right kind of coffee there. But both Google maps and Waze pointed us to a place that was not the Bialetti Café, even though the address corresponded to our search results. All hot and sweaty we asked our phones to point us to the closest Starbucks where the coffee was right and the airco on extra high.

We have tried to use Uber but with taxis costing about a dollar and being in abundance, Uber (if you want a car rather than a moto) turns out to be a royal pain; try to spot your car in between 100s of motos. We tried twice and then canceled. The Uber moto appeals to me but Axel has no interest in this kind of transportation.

At Starbucks we arranged for a pedicure. I had expected to find mani-pedi places on each street corner here but we are either in the wrong part of town or all the mani-pedicurists have moved to the US.  We had another wild goose chase to find the place of our appointment which turned out to have branches, each with a different name. The treatment was disappointing – I have had better – and this in what I thought was the center of the mani-pedi universe. Axel basically had his nails cut and mine were varnished in addition-nothing more.

We treated ourselves to delicious but exorbitantly priced lunch in a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant; no regrets but for that amount of money we could have eaten street food for the next 5 meals. In the evening we did just that, although the food was served inside and not on the street. It was a specialized one dish restaurant: pieces of fried fish with a mountain of dill and scallions cooked in a small frying pan at our table, then poured over a bowl of cold noodles, peanuts, a lime/fish sauce, chilies and fresh mint and other herbs we couldn’t name. It is fast and cheap and with high turnover of customers, clearly a money maker. Madam, the owner we supposed, was sitting at a table next to us counting her money – stacks of it.

After dinner we walked around the lake accompanied by thousands of motos, locals and tourists. This place swings at night, even with the heat and humidity that doesn’t let up. We are here during the wrong season we learned.

We are still trying to figure out what to do from Sunday on. The choices are legion and there are tourist traps everywhere. With internet access we are heeding the ‘Buyer Beware’ but it is a lot of homework that we probably should have done weeks ago.

May 2018
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