Thursday, February 09, 2012

Vietnam 2012: Hanoi

I was in Vietnam last month for a short (okay, maybe not that short, but you know how holidays always seem short once they are over...) vacation with a girlfriend. Our itinerary consisted of the three Hs - Hanoi, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City.

First night in Hanoi

Our flight to Hanoi was delayed (I mean, that's what one would expect when you fly budget, and with Tiger Airways no less) due to some "technical issues", and we ended up reaching Hanoi a few hours later than was expected, in the late evening.

Let me just say that girlfriend and I were complete idiots about checking the weather before flying. We knew that Hanoi was going to be colder than HCMC, but we assumed that the cold will be bearable. We knew that we were in trouble when the plane landed, and we looked around us at the other passengers onboard. Unknowingly throughout the short flight, everyone else (except yes, us) had piled on the jackets, coats, scarves - and we were still happily wearing our T-shirts and shorts. And thin cardigans. *cue look of disbelief.

From my window seat, I could see the ground crew covered in long coats, pants and parkas with fur hoods. Okaaay. We were officially screwed. We got off the plane and onto the tarmac and the chill was welcomed for like say half a second (come on, we flew from sunny hot Singapore!), before brrrrr, COLD!

So yes, please do not underestimate the weather differences in cities when you are travelling. Dress appropriately - if you do not want to be gawked like birds when you are walking the streets in your shorts, thin cardigans and sneakers, while everyone else were in winter wear. It's no joke here. People really STARED. And pointed. And there were some who even touched you and asked (in Vietnamese) if you weren't cold (that was inferred from their puzzled eyes and curious tones). The first night walking through the night market seriously made us feel like birds on exhibition. :/

Street side dinner on our first night

We walked to the nearby night market upon our arrival in the city, and braved the street side stalls for our first dinner. Now, I must say I rarely eat at street side stalls in developing places (I've yet to eat at any in BKK, which I must have visited at least five times now...), but it's Vietnam! And street side food stalls are aplenty and my developing interest in food and different cuisines have made me into a more adventurous eater (I hope). Prepped with a full box of charcoal pills (just in case), I was determined to try as much street food in Vietnam as possible. 

We ordered a fried beef vegetables noodles dish and roasted pigeon to share. It certainly was a new experience sitting on super low stools on the side of the road and eating your meal. Vietnamese people are seriously skinny people (just like the Thais), and thank god I could still fit onto the teeny stool. I was almost half afraid I would break it (or something).
Row of motorcyles are common everywhere (their main mode of transport)

We spent our second day doing touristy things - like sightseeing. We started off the day with the HCM Musuem as our first stop.

Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hanoi 

The One Pillar Pagoda was right next to the HCM Museum, so we popped over to look around. The colourful lotus lamps (in the photo below) that peppered the temple are seriously gorgeous.

One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột)

There were so many tourists clamouring to go up the One Pillar Pagoda - probably cos it was the weekend I guess.

Final shot of the HCM Museum, with the Vietnamese flag billowing

Thankfully, many of the touristy sites were located within close distance of one another, and we managed to walk our way to the next destination. Along the way, there were many side alleys, where the locals were peddling their wares - fresh produce, sundry goods and everything possible. It would probably seem strange to see someone selling raw meat at the side of the road, next to say, a hardware store, with motorcycles zipping past  (imagine the fumes!). But that's how the locals fly. Yeps.

This just about sums up Hanoi
Banana fritters seller
Right outside our next destination at the Temple of Literature, we spotted this old lady and her fried fritters. Girlfriend and I looked at each other, smiled and agreed without words that we should grab some. And so, we sat down for a quick snack. The banana fritters were so tasty - piping hot and crispy, and it didn't taste overly greasy.

Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu), Hanoi

The temple compound was constructed in 1070 and housed the Imperial Academy, which was constructed in 1076 and previously used as Vietnam's first university. It was a pretty nice place I guess, walking around, you could see alot of greenery, and there were plenty of flower displays that form Chinese characters at one of the outer courtyard gardens.

It was lunch time after the sightseeing and we popped by an eatery near our hotel as recommended by the hotel staff.

We were about to have Bún chả - a Vietnamese dish with Hanoi origins.  Bún chả  basically refers to grilled pork (a combination of meatballs and meat) soaked in noac mam cham, served alongside pickles, vermicelli and lots of fresh vegetables and herbs. As you see below, fresh vegetables and herbs is almost a must for every meal in Vietnam. They literally serve up a huge platter full of mixed raw greens and you add it to whatever you're eating.

Basket of greens sitting at a corner
Chả giò

Chả giò (also known as Nem) is deep fried minced pork rolls. They typically consist of some sort of minced meats and vegetables, wrapped in a rice paper roll and deep fried to a crisp texture.

I think this was my favourite lunch in Vietnam. Well, at least one of. The grilled pork patties and meatballs were served in a refreshing "soup" mixture containing pickles. The bowl was full, so I took some of the meats out, added some vermicelli, minced garlic and chopped birds eye chilli. Super darn tasty bowl! Oh, and not forgetting the fresh vegetables. With every mouthful, I added fresh vegetables and herbs and it was simply full of fresh awesome flavours.
The fried spring rolls were pretty good too when they were hot. In all, a pretty satisfying lunch, although we felt bad for not finishing our food cos there were just too much food! The locals all managed to polish off whatever was set in front of them though. I seriously wonder how they remain stick-thin.

Birds eye chillis, vermicelli and vegetables platter; Grilled pork patties in a refreshing pickle "soup"

After the full lunch, we walked around some more and went to the Hoan Kiem Lake. It was freezing cold. I was wearing tights (albeit thin ones) from the night market I went the previous night, so imagine if my legs were bare...Brrrrr. It was quite a scenic spot I guess, couples were seen hand in hand walking along the lake, romantics that they are - while I was busy muttering to my girlfriend that they must be mad, it was freezing cold so why couldn't they just find somewhere else warmer to hang out at. :/

Pretty orange leaves
Motorcyclist; Tourist

Nearby the lake, there were several coffee joints around the area. We chose one that offered us a high above view (the top most cafe in the bottom left picture) and settled down for some caffeine.

The view from the top
My first cuppa in Vietnam - Filter milk coffee

The coffee was really aromatic, I mean, it's Vietnamese coffee we're discussing here and we all know how potent the brew is in Vietnam... All in all, a rather lovely cuppa while enjoying the hustle and bustle of the street below.

Chợ Đồng Xuân

So basically, Hanoi is a relatively undisturbed developing city that has its charms. Everything that was anything was situated at the Old Quarters area. That includes our hotel (and many other hotels), most of the sightseeing spots, and also, the popular Dong Xuan (night) market. In the day, the market shops along both sides of the roads are open, selling everything from food, to clothes to household goods. At night, stalls are set up in the middle of the road (think the road's closed to traffic then) and everyone just browse around, tourists and locals both.

Food peddlars
Lady atop a motorbike flashes a smile at the camera amidst the evening rush hour
Vietnamese and their really good abilities to balance big/heavy goods behind their bikes
Donut seller

Another example of the great Vietnamese balancing act
Pretty colourful streamers caught on a tree branch

After a whole day of walking, we headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit, meanwhile surfing the net (there's free wi-fi in most hotels, and our hotel room even had a desktop computer for us to surf the net!) for dinner options. I found a recommendation for a street side bbq stall online that was quite near our hotel, so we walked out trying to find the place. I'm not exactly sure if the place was the one, but we found a street stall with some people huddling around a bbq plate and eating what looks like bbq. We were game, so we sat straight down.

Beef and vegetables platter; Unknown meat; Condiments; BBQ-ing; Baguette

As like most stores that we've patronized, we sat down and didn't neccessary need to order (in Vietnamese - which 95% of the locals speak and we don't, at all). We were served promptly automatically.

We were halfway eating the plate of unknown pale-looking meat, when I braved to ask the lady what it was. I whipped out the iPhone (so handy in this case) and showed her the Vietnamese words of various meats (I downloaded a few Vietnam-related apps). She pointed to beef. Like really??? It was chewy and did not at all look or taste like beef. I wonder which part of the cow it came from.

And the baguette oh the baguette. I've been hankering to eat the breads in Vietnam (think Bahn Mi). And I certainly wasn't disappointed. I tore off chunks of the breads, cut it into half and placed it on the grill. Together with the oiled grill with the meat juices and all. Oh my gosh, the bread absorbed the awesome meat juices (okay, fats and oil technically, but I'm on vacation! I'm so not going there...) and was lightly toasted on the exterior. *Cue mad drooling at screen.

This must have been my favourite dinner in Vietnam (yeah, I prefer Hanoi food to HCMC food). Hello? BBQ meat in the cold weather. Sitting by the roadside (more like squatting since the chairs were really short!) and looking at things past. Sipping a cold beer to wash everything down. Really, it was awesome.

But the funny thing? A lil boy ran up to us (without us noticing) halfway through our meal, and started spraying us with pink foam spray. We just sat there totally stunned for a bit and not reacting, when suddenly the store owners and the kid's parents started berating him and pulling him away. The ladies frantically tried cleaning us up (the pink foam got on our clothes, some parts of our skin, and landed on some of the food. Oh dear. The lil boy started crying as soon as he was pulled off to a corner and I tried telling them it's okay. Well, I mean it was more of a random funny incident than anything as we sat there and think about it. Ha!

And that marks the start of our Vietnam journey...:)

Girlfriend at our table by the roadside


  1. Hi Michelle, chanced upon your blog! Love your food posts ((: -Gwen

  2. lovely set of photos! love how you played with tones and hues for effects!

  3. thanks! i rarely get to play with lightroom. but i think i kinda overplayed...some colours seem oversaturated now that im looking at it again...;)

  4. hi thanks gwen...and hey, u're the gwen tt i went pri sch with isnt it! :D

  5. Nice photos there...what camera are you using to shot?any photoshop editing?

  6. thanks. canon 550D. lately, i like to use lightroom effects for my travel photos.

  7. You were in many places in VN than me. Your pictures made me miss my country!

  8. i see 3 post by Michelle: Ha Noi, Ha Long Bay and Ho Chi Minh city.


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