Monday, March 28, 2011

Asia tripping - part IV: Hanoi, Vietnam

This is the fourth of several brief posts of my recent trip to Asia: photos, food and a few thoughts.

Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
Flying into Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport wasn’t too much of a shock. The rest of it is another story.

From the taxi driver who tried to tempt us away from the official airport queue, to the speed demons swerving on the freeway, to the insanity of traffic as soon as we hit the Old Quarter – the excitement was already outshining the grey and cold January weather.

Traffic in the Old Quarter
There was further excitement when it came to the hotel: dropped off at one to be told we needed to move to another for a night; someone zooming off with two of our large suitcases on the back of a motorbike (one hand driving, one hand holding on to the bags); another person leading us through the car/motorbike/scooter/bicycle traffic with the rest of our luggage; and finally passing through a laneway where bunnies and puppies were in cages on a back of a bike.

Welcome to Hanoi, indeed.

Banh bao on the street side
The shock, and at times sheer terror, of our introduction to the old Hanoi had taken some zap out of us. I wasn’t quite prepared for the cold weather either (about 14 degrees Celcius – yes, I whinge).

We skipped the steamed banh bao (like Chinese char siu bao only with different meat fillings) in front of the hotel, and sought out warmth and comfort in an unlikely place around several corners.

Noodle shop, Luong Ngoc Quyen (I think), Old Quarter, Hanoi
Not letting the used tissues on the ground put us off, we saw the store’s offerings when others ordered, pointing and nodding to indicate that we wanted the same. Likewise, the price was communicated to us by the shop woman pulling out one each of 20,000 and 10,000 Vietnamese dong notes.

The large pot she stirred was filled with a reddish stock and bits of meat. We sat down inside to tiny, low, plastic chairs at the tiny, low, plastic table; knowing that we were getting noodles, but not knowing much more.

Bun - noodle soup with beef and pork sausage
The arrival of the steaming bowl was a relief – both from the cold and from fear of the unknown. Topped off with a few thin slices of beef and of cha lua, the Vietnamese pork sausage which I am somewhat familiar with, the thin rice noodles were wondrously comforting after quite the long night/day.

The soup was warming and fulfilling with its spice and slight tartness. Shredded lettuce was brought to the table, but it seemed to be a help-yourself setup too where you’d head over to the giant colander and with your own chopsticks, gather a bowl for yourself.

Dau chao quy - fried bread sticks
We also spotted and ordered yau tiao, or deep fried bread sticks that are commonly served with Chinese congee. These golden fingers were another comfort (fried carbohydrates) dipped into the spicy soup.

Traffic jam on the shoe street - Hang Be, I think
The Old Quarter is endlessly intriguing. We spent the next day trawling through an entire street of clothes, then an entire street of traditional Vietnamese silks, then one of shoes, then one of lollies and snacks, and then even a street section all of sunglasses.

That’s when we weren’t playing Frogger with the traffic, or trying to deal with the air and noise pollution.

Hanoi traffic
I’m not entirely certain, but I think the traffic etiquette is to beep whenever you’re doing, well, anything. Want someone to move or get out of the way, pass someone, turning into a street – anything it seems. The incessant beeping takes a little getting used to, and it does subside a little in the evenings.

We dealt with the air pollution (from so many scooters and motorbikes) as the locals did – we bought face masks, which probably looked mighty strange on walking tourists as opposed to speeding locals, but it doubled as an item of clothing to keep my face warm, so I wasn’t complaining.

Baguette breakfast at Hanoi Emerald Hotel, Ma May Street, Old Quarter
Our originally booked hotel on Ma May Street provided us with breakfast every morning, which looked like it was sourced from across the road, or somewhere nearby.

Options were soup noodles (beef, chicken or crab) or a western breakfast of a fried egg and an impossibly fresh baguette.

Beef noodles at Hanoi Emerald Hotel
Though the noodles were the more filling and warming option, the crunch and golden-flaking mess of the baguette was the cause of many a morning of dish envy.

Che from a street side stall
One morning we supplemented our hotel breakfast with a che dessert drink. In a sweet syrup swam grass jelly cubes, chewy beans and other jellies, topped off with a spoonful of coconut milk. It was a couple of minutes of saccharine happiness on a little plastic stool, watching the street go by.

Tortoise Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
The area around Hoan Kiem Lake is tranquil with few people aside from tourists – must be the icy cold weather. Thap Rua, or Turtle Tower is one of the sites in the lake, as is the picturesque-at-night The Huc bridge.

Le Club at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, Hanoi
One afternoon spent tripping around south of the lake found us in the area of designer shops, then stumbling upon the Sofitel Metropole Hotel – Hanoi’s oldest hotel, maintained in sumptuous French colonial style.

Le Club
I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, but couldn’t resist a drink and snack at the bar – the gorgeously appointed Le Club.

Le Club at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel
Seated by the window bay looking out onto the garden and residences, I couldn’t help but feel in another time and place. I could imagine fashionable French ladies sitting beneath the slowly spinning fans with cigarettes and a drink. This was not quite the Hanoi sightseeing experience I had expected at all.

The staff were excellent, smiling yet solemn in a way that fit the venue so well, and in many cases tri-lingual.

Metropole Memories from Le Club
Cocktails were a must but quite expensive by local standards, though I noticed very few locals in the bar area. The Metropole Memories was an orange hit, livened up with Cointreau, Grand Marnier and lemon juice.

Bloody Mary, pre mixed with DIY condiments
The Bloody Mary was the most elaborate I’ve seen, with separate condiments of lemon juice, pepper, celery salt, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, to be added to one's own taste to the prepared drink.

French fries with tomato ketchup
In perhaps an ode to the hotel’s heritage, we ordered French fries to soak up the booze, perfectly crisp and golden, served with tomato ketchup.

Charcuterie plate
We furthered the French theme with a platter of charcuterie: ham, salami, terrine and rillettes, with a small side salad of mixed, dressed lettuce leaves. Bread was lacking but we made do with the vegies and fries instead.

As the night sky approached, the garden was lit up in a blaze of fairy lights, giving the bar a warm, yellow glow and overall whimsical, romantic feel. I wasn’t keen to leave to go back into the cold, grey outside, but couldn’t quite afford to stay much longer either.

The pool at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, Hanoi
More Asia tripping posts to come on Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post and beautiful clicks! Love reading all your travel posts. Keep them coming, Tina.

Alison@streetfood said...

I hope you got to a bia hoi - or maybe the beer might have been a bit frozen (or you will be sitting out in the cold)!

Don't you just love the shock and the buzz of landing in a busy vibrant city, with so much eating ahead? And at least it's not too hot to walk around.

Richard Elliot said...

I'm loving all the cultural observations. I'm hoping to make it to Vietnam inside the next twelve months...

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I really want to visit here one time. When I take a break I suppose! :D

Tina said...

Hi Ellie - Thanks!

Hi Alison - It was almost too cold to drink, I thought!

Hi Richard - I hope you do go!

Hi Lorraine - Yes, but it's not quite relaxing... :)

Vivienne said...

wow what a contrast between the street stalls and the posh hotel! those baos are massive!!!

btw, regarding your question about the buns - you can def use all plain flour (thats what the original recipe asks for!)

happy baking!

Tina said...

Hi Vivienne - Yeah, the Metropole was not the Hanoi I wsa expecting to experience :) Thanks!

susan said...

Oh I so want to go to Vietnam and have fresh Bahn Mi! Those noodle soups look like the perfect breakfast to me!

Tina said...

Hi susan - Noodles are totally the perfect brekky food - carbs, proteins, yummy and warm!

Phuoc'n Delicious said...

Love it! I miss the maddness of the country and would go back in a heart beat!

Tina said...

Hi Phuoc - I'm looking forward to a return trip too :)

What's Cooking at Soomeenshee's said...

This post totally makes me miss Vietnam. I actually had some bun cha last night at a neighborhood joint and it just doesn't compare.

I have yet to visit Australia, but when I do, I will definitely use your blog for some pointers. :)

Tina said...

Hi What's Cooking at Soomeenshee's - Thanks for dropping by my blog :)


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