This morning I’m leaving Seoul on the 4.55am airport bus. The streets are deserted – buses and taxis own this time of the morning. At 7°C, it’s quite warm this morning – you may laugh, but it is a big different from the 2°C yesterday morning where I was surprised to find the seats on the train warmed up for the occasion. It’s an hour and a half to the airport and I am eager to leave this cold weather behind for the warmer climate of Vietnam.
Arriving in Hanoi’s old quarter is like being slapped in the face with a chilli. A really spicy one. In fact, a bunch of really spicy chillies.You can’t explain to someone the fear of 20 scooters all coming at you from both directions and with no regard for crosswalks or traffic lights. And don’t think about walking on the sidewalk because most times it’s impossible – the footpaths are for parking all those scooters, including the ones that ride up next to you and just stop in front of you oblivious, or perhaps unbothered, that they have just cut you off, let alone scared the living daylights out of you. And where there aren’t scooters crowded up against one another, there are the contents of the shops that line the streets spilling out onto the pavement, including the tiny kiddy size plastic seats synonymous with Hanoi’s local eateries. Of course I say this like it’s a bad thing, but it’s all these crazy elements that draw you into Hanoi and make you love it – warts and all.
My hotel is in Lan Ong Street about a ten minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake and although I’ve been to Vietnam before, almost seven years ago now, this traffic has me a little nervous as I start out to reach the lake. Once you’ve negotiated walking on the streets in the same block as where you have started out, weaving on and off the footpath, around scooters and fruit carrying vendors, dodging the enquiring cyclo drivers and generally keeping your wits about you whilst trying to take note of where you are, you need to get ready for crossing the road. Generally, there are zebra crossings at each intersection, however I think these are just for decoration before the scooter riders barely seem to notice them, let alone stop. At each corner, small groups of bewildered tourists stand staring, wondering how in the hell they are going to get across this mayhem. The trick is to just start walking and don’t stop because if you do, you will have ruined the balance of nature. Of course you need to keep your eyes peeled, in both directions, just to judge anything unforeseen, but whatever you do, just don’t stop.
I stop for a sigh of relief once all roads have been crossed and I am standing safely beside Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s time for lunch, and I deserve a beer for that effort!
Hoan Kiem Lake (which translates as the Lake of the Restored Sword) is what many would call the jewel in the crown of Hanoi’s old quarter. And of course there is a story behind this jade coloured beauty that belies it’s name. It goes like this:
King Le Loi came across a shining metal bar when he visited his friend, which it turns out his friend caught in one of his attempts at fishing in Thuy Quan Lake. The King asked for the bar, bought it home and moulded it into a sword. All of a sudden, there was two words printed on the word ‘Thuan Thien” (harmonious with heaven). The King understood then that the sword was a gift from heaven. He used it for a battle in a war with a neighbouring country. At the beginning of 1428, when peace prevailed, on one of his trips to Thuy Quan Lake, there was a tortoise rising above water and shouting “Please return the sword to the Dragon King”. Without hesitation, the King threw the sword into the lake. The tortoise took the sword and dove down into the water. From then on, the lake became known as Hoan Kiem Lake.
Later that day I find my way to nearby Dong Xuan Market to meet my guide for a Hanoi by Night Walking Tour. Dong Xuan is a hive of activity even if the market is winding down for the day, with traders packing up their stores and loading goods left, right and centre. Dong Xuan is a relatively new market in Hanoi. It was previously a vacant lot but locals gravitated here to trade because of its close proximity to the river, which made transportation of goods easy. It’s main focus is bulk or wholesale trade and as a distribution point for many of Hanoi’s retailers.
Our guide leads us inside the market. It’s chaos and I can’t help but feel that we are very much in the way of these people trying to pack up and move their goods. Most of the shops are closed, their fronts barred by silent metal roller gates, but we do get to see some of the spices and food stuffs that are available here – sea worms, bamboo roots, star anise, mushrooms and other assorted dried up, shrivelly looking things.
Outside the market are a fruit, vegetable and meat vendors. A moment of panic interrupts the ladies selling fruit and vegetables off their bicycles. The police are coming. Bikes scatter in all directions, but it’s a false alarm and everyone goes back to work.
Our first snack for the night is a Banh Mi stick, filled with pork pate, carrot, coriander and chilli. Thanks to the French, the Vietnamese do bread brilliantly. It’s not the same big Banh Mi that I fell in love with from Ba’get in Melbourne, but the taste is familiar.
Our next meal is Banh Cuon which are steamed rice cakes filled with minced pork and mushrooms topped with coriander and accompanied by a dipping sauce. Very good, though one member of our group did have a problem with the texture which is kind of silky. The coriander and dipping sauce make the dish.
Up next? A BBQ. Not filled with steak and sausages like Aussie BBQ back home, the Hanoi BBQ consists of a selection of all sorts of things on sticks – fish, chicken, buffalo, asparagus wrapped in bacon, fish cakes, tofu and vegies. A heating grill is set up in the middle of your table (really only to keep your food warm once they have cooked it on the main grill), and you pull up a child sized plastic stool and wait for your meal to arrive. A surprise addition to our meal is a bread roll which I watched being flattened on the grill before being brushed with honey and barbecued. I tried the regular stuff, and the buffalo (didn’t like it), the honey bread (yummy), but not – never ever – the tofu. I washed it all down with my first taste of Hanoi beer. Yum.
Time for dessert right? Yes. We stop by a stall that is famous for its fruit with condensed milk and seaweed jelly, which arrives accompanied by crushed ice. I’m not a fan of condensed milk but I decide to try it anyway because the fruit looks amazing. The crushed ice is supposed to be added to lessen the flavour of the condensed milk, but I didn’t get very far. I picked out the pieces of fruit – mango mostly – that seemed to be not as covered and ate those, but am ashamed to say I left the rest. Though I was not alone.
For our last stop of the night, our guide leads us down a walled laneway where we come across a café hidden at the end. Bathed in beautiful turquoise green lighting, strung with antiques and bird cages, the setting is magical. We are told to head upstairs to take a seat. Up lots of stairs in fact including a winding staircase.
And the view when you get to the top of all those stairs….magical. A wonderful introduction to the city and one I never would have found on my own let alone had the courage to head down a pathway to find.