Last night we flew from Hong Kong to Ha Noi, Vietnam. I slept on the flight, thankfully, and therefore missed the in flight Chef-Boy-R-Dee (or how ever tf you spell it), thankfully. We cleared customs in Vietnam with no incident and met up with or driver who was commissioned by our hotel. Got to the hotel and remarked on how dead the city seemed…had we made a mistake in coming here?. It was not till later that we learned of the 12pm curfew.
We woke up early and had breakfast in the hotel, The Quoc Hoa Hotel, on the top floor. The top floor is above the tree canopy that lines each street in the old quarter. You could hear the din of the city, so something was going on, but we couldn’t yet see it. We got dressed, went downstairs, and stepped out into sidewalk.
At least I think it was a sidewalk. All at once the brute force of Ha Noi hit us. This is a bustling city full of action that was hidden from us at night by darkness and thousands of roll down metal garage doors.
It is almost exhausting thinking about how to describe the feeling on the street. There is so much to look at and so much to be aware of. In a single glance you will see no less than 30 motorbikes, someone porting produce on their shoulders, meals being cooked on the sidewalk, shops for anything you want, electrical wire tangles that look like rubber band balls, lights, sounds, and smells of every imaginable origin. Sensory overload is an understatement and we couldn’t help but be overwhelmed and feel extremely apprehensive about tackling this city…if only at first.
The guide book that we used to plan our morning route said that no matter how hard we tried we would get lost in the streets of Ha Noi. No joke. We walked half a block and were immediately thrown into a stupor fed by the absence of street signs, the onslaught of motorbikes, and general feeling of being out of place.
We crossed the street. An act so simple in the conveyance that it shouldn’t bear bringing up, but in order to cross the street here you literally step out into oncoming traffic. There is no waiting for it to die down, no waiting for the walk sign. You simply gather up every ounce of trust you have and walk out into the street…and then you dance. It’s like a dance anyway, and it works…no one even comes close to hitting you, you are just another piece of the puzzle; it’s like water flowing around rocks.
Our confidence was boosted and after reorienting ourselves with the world we trudged through the city streets. You walk on the street until you cone to line if parked motorbikes so you walk on the sidewalk until you come to people having a meal (on plastic chairs no less, this is the norm for dining) so you walk on the street and on and on…
The streets in the area is lined with shops on the ground floor. Real architecture it seems doesn’t start until the second floor and will continue upwards 3-8 stories in no order or semblance of organization at all…and it doesn’t matter. Each street (for the most part) is themed for what is sold there, this is apparently how it has been FOREVER. We walked down bamboo street, toys street, metal box and cooking ware street, sunglasses street, and the famous silk street to name a few. The streets are shaded to an extent by large trees that grow up out of the side walk which gives them all parkish feel, not unlike the streets in Winter Park back home. In each of these trees hang several bird cages, presumably to capture a new pet, or at least a marketable one.
We made our way over to Hoan Kiem lake which is to the southeast of the old quarter and walked through the Ngoc Son Temple, which was mostly appreciated for the shade it offered from the oppressive heat. We interacted with a fair amount of people around the lake (think Lake Eola back home) and I’m happy to say that everyone was extremely friendly. Like stupid extremely friendly to the point where we have no shortage of people who want to be our tour guides; the only payment required is to help them with their English.
We plunged back into the heart of the Old Quarter, now feeling really confident about getting around (or at least not getting run over) and went looking for some food. We had a recommendation for Bun Bo Nam Bo so we tracked it down.
From now on, when someone talks about a no frills restaurant, this is the measuring stick they will hav…..sorry, had to dodge a scooter….they will have to compete with. The place is basically an electrically lit 10′ wide hallway that extends to the back of the restaurant. The walls are white. Picnic benches just small enough to accommodate the width stretch from front to back and you have to shimmy along the walls in order to get to your seat. At the front of the place, basically on the sidewalk, is a single cook pan frying beef, and another person collecting money and preparing the food. There is only one thing on the menu: dry noodles with beef with bean sprouts, lemongrass, and green mango. Apparently you are just supposed to pay an sit down and they bring a bowl, but since there was a significant language barrier I decided I would just try to help myself after paying. This was greeted with a smile, a cacophony of scolds in Vietnamese and followed by me being personally escorted to my seat. VIP status I guess? Apparently the person I was trying to mimic (having tried to scout the situation before hand) was actually an employee running food back to someone who knew what they were doing. The food was amazing, way better than anything sourced from Viet-town in Orlando. Erin and I shared a bowl and fought the urge to order a second. We escaped for 50000 Vietnamese Dong, or the equivalent of just under $2.
The skies were starting to darken and we had been warned about sudden and intense rains (pretty much exactly like FL) so we found a second level bar overlooking a less busy intersection on (what I guess was) drums-bags-of-balloons-street and bellied up for some beers at The Golden Drum. The four of us had a few rounds and after paying our 160,000 dong (~$8) tab set out to find more food.
VJ wanted to go to a place mentioned in one of those 1000 places to go before you die books called Cha Ca La Vong. Same type of meal as the beef bowl, only with fish. After almost going into the wrong place, an imitator called Cha Ca La Vuong, we found the right one. We met a nice Portuguese couple on their honeymoon on the way in and we all ate together. Aside from the people sleeping on the floor in the back room of the place and the wait staff we were the only ones there. Also, it was only about 2:30. The food here was equally as good and the people equally as friendly. We parted ways with the Portuguese newlyweds, wandered around a bit more, and headed back to our hotel for a much needed siesta.
All in all this has been my favorite day so far on the trip. We heard a lot of horror stories about Vietnam, how people are rude and just want your money, or how is dirty and gross. Those people were either doing it wrong or were themselves the problem, I think. We only had one minor annoyance, but it wasn’t any worse than what you would get anywhere else. Ha Noi has a charm to it that I can’t really place…a unique blend of busy and sleepy, of old and new. Very captivating indeed…
In the evening we hit a few bars and reflected on the day. Tomorrow we head for Ha Long Bay, on the east coast of Vietnam on a junk boat down the Red River. It’s going to be an(other) early morning, and I’m imagining that we will be without Internet for a few days. Or maybe not, we have been nothing but pleasantly surprised so far.
(Check out Facebook for videos of the traffic and crossing the road!)
1- Erin and Danielle trying their hand and porting
2- A random street corner
3- “Kitchen” at Bun Bo Nam Bo