January 15-19: Hanoi
A few days after returning from Thailand, I set out on my last winter break adventure: four days in Hanoi, Vietnam, with my housemate Alex, who had also just been traveling in India. Hanoi was quite a contrast to Vientiane, despite the fact that it’s not that far away. The weather in January was quite cold…maybe only actually in the low 50s, but uncomfortable because very few buildings were heated or insulated at all.
Vietnam’s currency is the dong, which is naturally the subject of many jokes and tourist t-shirts that say things like “Keep your hand on your dong.” In addition to providing a laugh, this is actually good advice. Hanoi is a bit notorious for various scams (one of our other housemates told us she’d been robbed 3 out of 3 times she’d visited Vietnam). Each note features a picture of “Uncle Ho,” who seems still ever-present. We ran out of time to visit him in person at the mausoleum complex, but his image was on some modern banners around the city.
The main attraction in Hanoi was just walking around and soaking up bustle of the Old Quarter. Starting early in the morning, the streets had a constant hum of activity–motorbikes, cars, ladies with rice hats, vendors. Each block in the Old Quarter has a different specialty, and is packed with one particular thing being sold. Some examples: food (with lots of fresh frogs and fish out on the sidewalks), party decorations, headstones, tin boxes, silk, sunglasses. There’s one street with all the blacksmiths, one street with all of the hardware stores, and so on. In the middle of all of this is the Hoan Kiem Lake, whose park is a peaceful respite from navigating the city streets.
Every morning began with a traditional breakfast of pho, or Vietnamese rice noodle soup. Supposedly, the best pho has almost brackish-looking broth, because its been stewed with bones for hours. Our first bowl looked like it had been taken right out of the Mekong River, which meant it was appropriately hearty and delicious. We enjoyed it Hanoi style, sitting on the sidewalk on tiny plastic stools barely a foot off the ground. The next morning, the pho was a little less satisfying–perhaps because it was made of chicken, or perhaps because there was a frozen pig heart just sitting out on the shelf behind me. Being a former French colony, there is also excellent French food in Hanoi, and one night we took a break from noodles and spring rolls to indulge in a meal in the French Quarter, served in a restored colonial house. We also of course tried some of the diesel fuel Vietnamese drip coffee and some of the infamous local liquor. The Vietnamese rice wine is often brewed with snakes and other poisonous or endangered animals in it, but we opted for the more tame version, which was just made with various herbs and fruit (but still tasted pretty weird).