Hanoi: Final Installment of Vietnam

Our last stop was Hanoi. (Except we went to Ha Long Bay after/during, but I already posted about that.) So! The last post of my Vietnam trip shall detail the one day spent exploring all of Hanoi. Gotta say, I think we did a pretty solid job squeezing the whole city into about 14 hours. Go us!

Hanoi!

Hanoi!

We began, as per usual, with a free hostel breakfast. We headed outside into the alley way, not really sure of our location but by this point we had accrued enough skill with paper maps to figure it out. The main mistake of the day occurred about 5 minutes after leaving the hostel: a woman carrying a huge basket of fresh glazed donut holes walked past, and we let her go. Our reasoning was that we had just eaten breakfast and also my instinct to avoid vendors kicked in, so despite the extremely appetizing smell of warm fresh homemade donuts we didn’t buy any. Our mistake was that they are only fresh in the morning, so every time we ran into a donut woman for the rest of the day the donuts just didn’t have that intensely fresh mouthwatering scent. Sigh. Regrets.

Our first destination was the Temple of Literature. It wasn’t super close, but it was a nice twenty minute walk. The gardens were very pretty and the temple was ornate. I’m not sure exactly what was going on because most of the signs were not translated to English, so I have no knowledge to share. Except wait! Wiki says it’s a Confucian temple which is part of the Imperial academy. The more you know.

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We headed to our next destination: Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. Along with the tomb is an entire compound of museums and displays, including the one pillar pagoda (not particularly thrilling, literally a pagoda with only one thick pillar as a base). Of course the tomb was closed for unknown reasons, but we got shushed away by nicely dressed Vietnamese soldiers, so that’s something. I have to say, Hanoi was full of soldiers. They were guarding everything, and sometimes you couldn’t even walk up to the gate of a building to take a picture (aka the presidential palace and other things on that street). Tight security.

After realizing there wasn’t much we wanted to do in the Ho Chi Minh compound we decided to hit up the old quarter for some shopping and sight seeing, stopping along the way to replenish our energy with some food. I know I’m not very far into the day but it was already a lot of walking, I promise.

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Every street in the old quarter is named based on the wares sold on that street (but in Vietnamese of course) so we used the lonely planet guide to find the silver street and the flag and cloth street and walked down some other cute paths in the meantime. We only got a little bit turned around, fairly impressive given the maze like set up of the old quarter streets, and managed to bump into the lake at the edge of the area: a good thing to find because we needed to come back later for water puppets.

Then my favorite part of the day happened: we had Bun Cha for lunch. A traditional dish from Hanoi, rarely found outside the city (a lot of restaurants outside the country are south vietnamese and within the country it’s mainly found in Hanoi) the dish is similar to pho but so much better. It is given to you deconstructed, a small bowl of broth/fish sauce filled with pork along with a plate of noodles, a bowl of chili bits, a massive plate of lettuce and mint leaves, and a couple sliced up fried spring rolls. As you eat you put in some of each section into the bowl, eat it all together, and then refill whichever part is running out. Your tiny broth and pork bowl looks constantly full because you keep adding to it, so by the end I had half a bowl left and entirely empty plates. I was amazingly full and so so so happy. Nomnomnom.

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Next we headed down to the Hoa Lo prison museum, which was very sad, very interesting, and renewed my interest in learning French because I discovered I could still read almost every french document on display. I have to say it was a relief that the french and vietnamese were the villains in this museum because after the war remnants museum in Saigon I don’t know if I could have handled any more guilt. In fact, Americans were kept prisoner here as well, though their treatment in comparison to the Vietnamese captives was like 4 star quality. Not to say the Americans were enjoying themselves by any means, but the torture wasn’t as severe. Of course now I just read the wiki page about this prison and am realizing that was a bunch of bullshit. Why did you lie to me museum? I thought I could trust you! Take it from me, kids, even museums will lie to your face. Not so fun fact: this is where John McCain was held as a POW. Unsurprisingly they didn’t advertise this fact in the museum, we figured it out because someone named McCain was getting medical treatment in a photo and we made the connection.

After exploring Hoa Lo we meandered over to an ice cream shop near the lake that ended up being closed. So we meandered over to a pie shop that sounded like it would have ice cream: also closed. So we decided to pick a direction and walk until we found ice cream (have you figured out our goal yet?) and ended up at a cafe where my food was fine but the drinks my friends ordered were not even close to what the menu advertised and the only english speaking man there left before we could get him to translate our issues for us.

Our strange cafe stop over, we walked back to the lake. We stood on a bridge that lead to a pagoda in the middle of the water and just enjoyed the (fairly smoggy) view of the city. We took selfies and awkwardly sat where other people needed to step and generally had a fun break. Then we got kicked off. We almost got locked out there because we didn’t realize it ever closed, oops.

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Then we bought tickets for the Hanoi water puppets, and on our way down the nearest street the only shady thing that happened to us in Vietnam occurred: someone bumped up against my friend and sliced the bottom of her bag open, however she was in the process of swinging it in front of her so nothing got stolen. We didn’t see who did it (I’m not sure we even wanted to, what would we have done?) but, fairly shaken by the attempted robbery, we booked it back to the hostel to take a break and get my friend a different purse. Since nothing had happened up until that point we weren’t being as careful as we should have been, but that minor incident made us much more alert for the rest of the night.

The water puppets were…. weird, but worth seeing. It was a show in Vietnamese with about 15 miniature storied told. The puppets were on poles maneuvered under water so unless you are looking for it, you can’t really see them. There was a live band to play the background music and the women in the group did a weird call and response type script with someone behind the scene during the show. At some points it was hilarious — once there were four naked babies of unknown origin flipping in unison and kicking off from each other — and at other times it was really impressive. I wouldn’t watch it again but I’m glad we saw it.

With that classic Hanoi experience out of the way we wandered around the night market, stopping to get freshly deep fried potato slices (aka chips made two seconds before we ate them). So delicious. I bought some comfy pants and a hairband, and then we headed to the backpacker district (not where our hostel was) to get some food. We sat in the tiniest plastic chairs imaginable and ordered by pointing at a picture of some kind of meat and vegetable. It turned out to be a set meal where you roll your own fresh spring rolls, once again as delicious as it sounds.

And then: The Great Waffle Meltdown. Just down the street from our dinner place was a waffle restaurant, and who can resist a dessert waffle? It was clearly a newly opened establishment with cute sayings written in iffy English on the walls and ice cream waffles. We were the only three in the room, and our nice waiter brought us glasses of water. Given how nice the place was (meaning not a street stall) and how he knew we were tourists I assumed the water was bottled. My overwhelming thirst overtook my caution and I chugged the (small) glass of water provided. When the waiter came back I wanted to check so I asked if the water was bottled. He seemed confused and my stomach sank, I asked again and he said “no no, do you want bottled water?” No?!?! Oh god. I have to admit I freaked out, hardcore. I was imagining spending the entire night puking and not being able to go to Ha Long Bay the next day because of all the diarrhea I’d be having and being sick on the plane home and…. I think you get it. I spent a good 10 minutes having a mental breakdown while my friends tried to reassure me that the water was probably fine and we had medicine if I got sick. I started to feel ill — I knew it was mental because contaminated water doesn’t hit you that fast, but that didn’t affect my roiling stomach. My waffle came, and for the first time ever I didn’t want to eat an ice cream covered sugary dessert carb in front of me.

Given the room for error in the waiter’s earlier response I had to double check, so I google translated “Is the water filtered” and showed it to the water when he came back with my friends’ waffles. He looked confused again, and then said, “Oh, yes yes, very safe, safe to drink.” I was so relieved I had a second mental breakdown. Then I ate my waffle, and it tasted like victory.

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PS Two posts, so close together! Wherefore, Romeo? I’m leaving for Penang tomorrow and I promised I would finish up Vietnam before my next trip. Hence, extra fast posting to make up for my extra slow posting. So next week expect a Penang post and possibly once about the cool Singapore stuff I’ve been doing (yes, I do live in Singapore enough of the time to do stuff) and then I go to Borneo so expect a post about that. And then I have a ten and a nine page paper(s) for school (technically the reason I’m here) so expect radio silence. Over and out!

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