Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

22 Nov 2013

Buzzing in Hanoi

Posted by Will

Sunday will mark the end of three happy weeks in Hanoi. I imagined I would stay here long enough to catch up on fiddly jobs like replacing the tyres, updating the website, tightening the brakes, stun-gunning my clothes, cursing broken zips, shaking out panniers, buying new batteries, fumigating the tent, disinfecting my sleeping bag and more, after which I would carry on cycling, as I tend to do. Far from leaving promptly though, or willingly, I became so glued to Hanoi that I even had to fightp1060710-800 myself to leave for a short visit to Quan Lan island and the world-famous Ha Long Bay. Hanoi had a hold on me, there’s no doubt about that, and in what follows I will try to explain why.

Again, I will post in two parts: one today, one tomorrow. Today I describe my time in Hanoi, tomorrow my time camping, swimming and fire-building on Quan Lan. Here starts my ode to Hanoi.

Most tourists spend their time confined to the ‘old quarter’ where the life and soul of the city pounds on every one of the senses. Thin alleys twist and turn in a maze packed with motorcycles, bustling pedestrians, street-food restaurants, street-side cafes, calling hawkers and the odd luxury car blocking the way for everyone. Most western faces walk around looking utterly confused, brain caught in five minds over what to look at, and catch each other’s eyes to share incredulity at the chaos going on around them. Disorientation reaches a climax when crossing the road where locals routinely ignore red lights, whistling policemen and the imminent chance of death. They weave backwards and forwards, up and down pavements and in and out of the alleys to get a little further ahead in the traffic all the while tooting their horn to the limit. It goes without saying that the noise is deafening.

The old quarter has a history stretching back hundreds of years with the names of the streets reflecting the old industries that were once conducted there. Walk down Sugar Street, for example, or take a detour through Salt Street. Nowadays everything imaginable is sold everywhere possible, usually by the army of shouting street sellers, but Hanoi’s old quarter still has history floating in the air, particularly around Hoan Kiem Lake, where legend has it that a giant turtle leapt out of the water to retrieve the sword of a brave warrior. Although few Hanoians really believe, there is widespread respect for the story and my new friends don’t tire of recounting their own version of the tale.

p1060792-800Hoan Kiem Lake is the focal point of the city, kilometre zero, where in the mornings the elderly meet to gossip and thrust through their exercises and in the evenings young people come to laugh and flirt in groups. Friends play badminton on the surrounding path and guys in fake football shirts kick around Vietnamese-style hacky sacks, all among a crowd of undistracted pedestrians (excepting the odd bewildered foreigner). It takes twenty minutes to walk around the lake and I’ve managed it every day I’ve been here. It’s too tempting to take a look at what’s going on, especially since I’ve been living so close.

My accommodation couldn’t have been better. It is located within ten minutes’ walking distance of all central attractions but at the same time far enough away to disperse the chaos that is unbearable for more than a few hours at a time. I stayed in a newly opened hostel called M-Spot, which I stumbled upon via the internet after frantically searching for an alternative to the boozy backpacker hostel I found on my first night. I couldn’t handle being thrown into the deep end of an alcohol-fuelled, British-Australian Halloween party rampage, so I settled satisfied into M-Spot, which has almost exactly the opposite vibe.

More a cafe restaurant than a hostel, with two floors packed with comfy armchairs, sofas, cushions and poofs and a terrace rooftop for early morning coffee, it has been the perfect place to put my feet up to write, improve this website and consider my next move. The third floor has an enormous projector screen showing live Premier League football every weekend, a dartboard was installed within a week of my arrival, the place is almost always quiet which contrasts perfectly with life outside and the internet is super-charged most of the time. The hostel building sits back on a small alley overflowing with tasty street food, an alley as yet undiscovered by other too many other foreigners. I am now recognised as I walk down out the hostel and am greeted toothily on left and right by old women stirring cauldrons of boiling noodle soup.

p1060777-800The promise of things to eat nearby doesn’t stop at street-food. The restaurant next-door, Oc Bong, specialises in sea-snails and serves a sumptuous ‘fruits de mer’ fried noodles dish with prawns, squid and complementary oysters. The staff there are always friendly, waving over their fizzling woks as I pass by, and one evening even invited me in to share the staff meal. Whenever I go in to eat I am treated like a king and I notice my plate is always slightly more immaculately arranged than others’. And the cherry on top is the young owner, who with her long black hair and permanent, delicate smile, is stunningly pretty.

The staff at M-Spot are easily a match for Oc Bong though, if not in outright beauty, then certainly in making me feel like royalty. My every need is attended to, despite paying only $3.50/night, and I am invited daily to try new items on the restaurant menu. Lam, manager of the bar and restaurant, offers a stream of insightful advice on what to visit in both Hanoi and the wider country. Yet it is Van, known affectionately as ‘Van the Man’ for his well-known renditions of the Backstreet Boys, Westlife and soppy Vietnamese classics, who I’ve become closest to. The two of us regularly head out for ‘bia hoi’ (street beer) in the afternoons, he takes me around on his motorbike (we went for frothy coffee this evening) and he also led me to one of my favourite dishes in Vietnam so far, ‘mien luen’ (fried eel soup). It was his idea that I should visit Quan Lan island, a less touristy area of Ha Long Bay, and after little thought he even decided to go with me! I am very grateful to the M-Spot staff for making my stay in Hanoi such an enjoyable one and I hope they get all the customers they deserve in the future.

p1060892-800Eating has never been so continuously pleasurable as it has been in Hanoi and so at the risk of running out of superlative adjectives I will briefly describe two dishes I’ve eaten regularly in Hanoi. Food here is by no means representative of the country in general and I am told that the food in the central regions and south is even better. I wonder how that can possibly be true. I am also convinced that I haven’t scratched the surface of Vietnamese cuisine. Even in three weeks, I have hardly paid any attention to rice dishes or spring rolls, mainly because my stomach never ceases calling for noodles. In the cycling days to come, I will have to shift to filling myself up rather than pleasing my taste buds and I expect that is when sticky rice will come into its own.

The first dish to describe is ‘mien luen’, which I have already mentioned, and ‘banh cuon’, one of the most widespread dishes in Hanoi streets. Mien luen consists of fried ‘luen’, eel, swimming around in a bowl of ‘mien’ noodles, tiny and transparent in the vermicelli style. Eel tastes much like more conventional meats but with the slightest tinge of a seafood flavour. The soup is packed full of spring onions, ginger, coriander and garlic with a topping of dried, fried, crispy onions. I ate my first bowl at 11pm after watching a live band perform French music (yes there was an accordion) and the post-event munchies disappeared instantly after my first slurp of slippery eel. Cost (provided reasonable bargaining ability or presence of a Vietnamese friend): 35,000 Dong ($1.75).

‘Banh cuon’ is a completely different dish. Firstly, it’s not a soup and secondly it’s not based on noodles. Very thin layers of rice crepe are rolled around ground pork and onions and then quickly steamed on request. The steamed rice rolls are then plated up and sprinkled with crushed dried onions. On the side there’s a plate of mixed coriander and mint leaves and a small bowl of garlic, ginger and chilli dipping sauce. The idea is to pick up a bite-sized portion of banh cuon with chopsticks, then dip it into the sauce for a second or two (which means it partially disintegrates). I’ve seen people alternate between dipping the banh cuon and the chopped leaves into the sauce so that’s what I now do to blend in, although my at times clumsy use of chopsticks keeps giving me away. Cost (provided reasonable bargaining ability or presence of a Vietnamese friend): 25,000 Dong ($1.25).

p1060850-800There’s far too much to say when it comes to Vietnamese food, it needs a whole post to itself if I’m going to come close to doing it justice. In the future, ideally when I have explored other regions of the country, I hope to go through the cuisine in Vietnam in greater detail.

Hanoi goes down as one of my favourite cities in the world, but now I must bid it farewell as I swing my leg over the bike once more. I don’t want to leave when so many alleys, dishes and opportunities remain unexplored, but I console myself in confidence that I haven’t seen the last of Hanoi. I am quite sure I will return in the near future.

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8 Comments already on “Buzzing in Hanoi”
  1. 6:22 pmpermalink
    22 Nov 2013

    Kirsi

    The food…. mmmm, sounds so nice! I wish we would even have a decent Vietnamese restaurant here in Helsinki ;)
    You are doing so fine, years just pass by and you just cycle and enjoy life, such and adventure, great!

    All the best from dark, windy, cold and rainy Finland,
    Kirsi

    • Will

      12:23 pmpermalink
      23 Nov 2013

      Will

      Maybe I’ll mention the possibility of starting up a restaurant in Helsinki to a few of the more entrepreneurial Vietnamese people I know. Many here would love to live in Finland I’m sure … land of sauna!

      I’m sorry I haven’t replied to the email you sent a few weeks ago. I arrived in Hanoi and my brain kind of reset itself so I completely forgot, until I read this comment. Will get on it.

      Best to all the family!

  2. 6:58 ampermalink
    23 Nov 2013

    Charlie H

    I love Hanoi! Definitely one of my favourite places, so I had to go back for a couple days at the end of my trip, and I even bumped into Louis S-K there!

    Other areas of Vietnam are nice too. If you go to Hoi An, then the people at the Blue Lotus tailors are really nice. They gave me so many free meals, a lift or 2 around town, and taught me how to ride a motorbike.

    • Will

      12:26 pmpermalink
      23 Nov 2013

      Will

      Charlie, great to hear from you! I remember your email address: rellik! Thanks for the tip in Hoi An – Vietnamese and tourists alike talk about it excitedly – I’ll be sure to look the Blue Lotus up. My visa will run out long before I make it there so I’ll have to visit in the future. There’s no question … I will go back to Vietnam!

      Can you recommend anywhere in Thailand?

  3. 9:22 ampermalink
    23 Nov 2013

    neale

    Hi Will looks like you are having a blast. I checked out your intended route, looks like you will be coming close to me in Chiang Saen 10k from the Golden Triangle I’m about 60k from Chiang Khong where I presume you will cross. We have 4 bicycle shops in Chiang Rai province give me a shout when you are close.. facebook.com/fatfreebikeshop

    • Will

      12:30 pmpermalink
      23 Nov 2013

      Will

      Neale, thanks a lot for getting in touch! Provided a good internet connection in Laos, I’ll let you know when I’m passing through Chiang Rai province. In fact, I was reading up on Chiang Rai city a few days ago and thought it would be a nice place to stop for a few days before getting on to Chiang Mai.

      Bike shops + my bike = happy cycling.

      • 11:53 pmpermalink
        23 Nov 2013

        neale

        Will your welcome to stop over in Chiang Saen for a night or two at the bike shop we are on the river in a new shop house my # is 089-263-8286 will be back around 3rd of Dec