Hanoi Is Bananas

by Johnny

Stand on any street corner in Hanoi and observe the surroundings for a few minutes and you’re bound to have your mind blown.  You’ll see a woman steaming some crabs on a sidewalk full of tiny plastic chairs, a man selling $0.30 glasses of bia hoi out of what appears to be his bedroom, women in conical hats selling exotic fruits you’ve never seen before, a beautiful French villa juxtaposed with modern office buildings, and a seemingly endless flow of scooters, one of which is carrying three butchered pigs and another of which is somehow carrying a family of five.  Welcome to Hanoi, the craziest city Anna and I have ever visited.  Nothing comes easy in Hanoi, including crossing the street.  With no gaps in the never-ending blur of scooters anywhere in sight, you basically just have to go for it and trust the scooters will swerve around you.  It was actually pretty scary at first, but after I channeled some wise words from one my heroes, Bhodi from Point Break, (“Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause all your worst fears to come true”), I was OK.

Trying to make our way to the Dong Xuan market Walking down one of Hanoi’s quieter streets
Steaming some crabs on the sidewalk Cooking some bun cha on the sidewalk
This is pretty much the scene on every sidewalk in Hanoi
Bird cages and scooters everywhere
Hanoi’s night market
Ready…GO! Playing Frogger

When we weren’t dodging scooters, we managed to see some of Hanoi’s historic sights.  We based ourselves in the city’s Old Quarter, which is pretty much a tourist attraction in itself with its ancient architecture and maze of narrow streets.  We really liked walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and found it to be an oasis of peace in this otherwise maddening city.  We also visited the Temple of Literature, which was built in 1070 and functioned as Vietnam’s first university.  But our favorite attraction had to be a water puppetry show at the famous Thang Long Theater.

Thap Rua (The Turtle Tower) on Hoan Kiem Lake
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature Temple of Literature
Waiting for the water puppets…where’s Waldo? Water puppets
The Huc Bridge on Hoan Kiem Lake Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Getting into the Christmas spirit at Quan An Ngon restaurant

The highlight of our stay in Hanoi was definitely a street food tour with Tu.  Tu was born in Nha Trang in central Vietnam, but has lived in Hanoi for the past 10 years writing the popular Sticky Rice food blog.  We really wanted to eat as much of Hanoi’s world famous street food as we could, and we figured having a local show us the ropes would be better than us running around the city pointing at menus we couldn’t understand.  The tour was fantastic.  It felt more like going out to eat with a friend than an organized tour.  Tu picked us up at our hotel and basically told us, “I’ll just keep taking you to my favorite places until you tell me you can’t eat anything else.”  For the rest of the night, Tu took us across the entire city and down all sorts of back alleys to his favorite food spots, and we were definitely the only Westerners to be found at each of them.  We must have tried at least 10 different dishes.  Although our tour was supposed to finish at 8:00 pm, it was nearly 11:00 pm by the time Tu dropped us back off at our hotel, where Anna and I immediately changed into our elastic pants for rest of the week.

Tu and Johnny Tu and Anna
Fish porridge at Doan Xom Bun cha
The polarizing durian fruit Vietnamese tea and fried bananas in coconut rice pudding
Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) A sampling of sweets in the Old Quarter
Banh cuon (rice pancake with pork, mushroom and shallots) Sweet drink with wild rice and yogurt
mmmmm…fish cakes! mmmmm…pho ga!
mmmmm…frozen yogurt with Vietnamese coffee! mmmmm…Vietnamese sweet tea!
Capping off the night with a young sticky rice cake

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