I read that there is a big difference between good banh mi. Living in Melbourne, I’ve become addicted to banh mi since I stumbled across it in a Vietnamese run restaurant called Baget. I even did the cooking class. So I can’t wait to try banh mi here in Hanoi, where it’s supposed to be at its best. And one of the best places is reputedly Banh Mi 25 which, luckily for me, is located in the next street over for me, so it’s Bahn Mi for breakfast today.
So what is it exactly? I suppose it is the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich (though that sounds to be doing it an injustice). It’s a marriage of French baking prowess and fresh Vietnamese flavours. Although there are different types, like the stick banh mi I had last night, banh mi are most commonly filled with a pork pate, cilantro (coriander), chilies, pickles (usually pickled carrot) and cucumber and the result is a fresh tasting, crispy party in your mouth.
Banh Mi 25 is, like most good food haunts in Hanoi, located outside a small concrete shop, with the goods being served from a small stand. It hasn’t been opened a year yet (although the owner’s family have made banh mi in the same spot for nearly 80 years), but it has a roaring trade and you’ll find it close to the top spot on Trip Advisor for dining in Hanoi (#2 as I write this).
For 25,000 dong (about AUD$1.57 at writing) you get a banh mi with the lot, a small banana and a glass of homemade tea. It seems a ridiculously amazing bargain. As you wait for your banh mi, you are ushered to sit on one of the small blue plastic chairs where you can watch the streets come alive. My verdict? YES. Go to Banh Mi 25, go straight to Banh Mi 25 and do not pass any other vendors on the way!
Hanoi waking up is an amazing thing to watch. Roaming street vendors lug their goods along on bamboo poles or trolleys and people call out from their shops to order what they want. The scooters are only just starting to take to the streets, which means they are relatively quiet. It’s a nice time of the day.
I’m going to check out a couple of the city’s museums today and pass by Hoan Kiem Lake on the way. There are people exercising gently, talking with friends or sitting quietly pondering the day ahead.
There are quite a few museums in Hanoi, as in most cities, so how do you choose which to see? Well, I try to go for something that not only tells me about the city, but something a little unique and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum hits the nail on the head.
Established in 1987 and run by the Vietnam Women’s Union, its displays cover everything from traditional costume to the antics of wartime heroines and from marriage and the home, to the tough life of a street vendor. It pays homage to the cultural heritage of Vietnamese women and their daily struggles.
The women’s fashion section of the museum houses outfits from different periods of time and ethnic groups throughout Vietnam. There are beautifully decorative bangles, headpieces and jewellery, as well as ear plugs. You can see how tar and betel nut staining was done and you have the opportunity to try on a turban. I’m not sure I did it right, but what do you think?
Women played an important role in Vietnam’s battle for independence. Groups such as the Women’s Association for Liberation, the Women’s Association for Democracy, the Women’s Anti-Imperialistic Association and the Women Association for Safety demanded socio-economic and democratic rights and developed, created and protected Communist Party bases. Many were young (very young) and many died for their cause actively taking part in guerilla warfare and acting as liaison agents.
Worship of the Mother Goddess is also an important part of Vietnamese life. Those who follow the Mother Goddess believe she is the supreme deity who looks after all things.
“In Mother Goddess worship, women are the centre of the universe, looking after all the four regions; heaven, earth, water and mountains and forests. Unlike other religious beliefs, worshippers find their expected desires and happiness right here in their current life. By following the Mother Goddess, their spiritual needs are satisfied.”
There are beautiful costumes on display that which are used in different religious ceremonies, the fabrics and colours bold and delicate at the same time.
The life of a female street vendor in Hanoi is difficult. These women, usually from the country, are forced into working in Hanoi to make money for their families to send their children to school, usually if the husband can’t work for some reason or they don’t have enough money. The work is hard, the hours long and the pay ridiculous (maybe a few dollars a day). It certainly made me think twice about buying something from one of them next time I saw one.
The museum is something I haven’t come across before and was definitely well worth the visit.
On my way to find my next museum, I passed by Fanny’s Ice Cream. I double back as the name jogs a twinge of familiarity in my brain. I’ve read about this place too and it’s supposed to be good. I need to find out for myself (of course!) so in I go. It’s much hotter today, so a bit of ice cream is certainly in order.
Fanny’s was created by Jean-Marc Bruno, a French icecream maker who fell in love with Vietnam, and the colours and flavours of Vietnamese fruits. He decided to adapt French icecream making techniques to create the first all-natural Vietnamese icecreams and sorbets and the rest is history.
After much pondering on the menu, I decide on an icecream sundae made from lime sorbet, with choc mint icecream, blue curacao and whipped cream. OMG summer in a glass, so refreshing and light. Thank goodness I doubled back.
Icecream demolished in record time, my next stop is just a little further down the road. Hoa Lo Prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton, was built by the French in 1896. It was built to house 450 inmates, but by the 1930’s, there were close to 2,000.
Although not much is left of the original building and grounds, there are a lot of displays that walk you through what happened and why, and the conditions that the prisoners lived in.
It was never a very successful jail, with hundreds escaping though the sewer systems over the years.
St Josephs Cathedral stands as a blackened ghost against Hanoi’s skyline. You can imagine how impressive it must have one been, its design replicating that of Paris’ Notre Dame. It was closed for two decades once the communists came to power and services only resumed in 1990.
Built in 1882 after the French captured Hanoi, it is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Hanoi.
I climb the stairs to the roof top of La Place restaurant (something I would not have known or been confident enough to do if it weren’t for my food tour the other night), where the view of St Josephs is less imposing and more beautiful, and from here I enjoy a meal of sweet mango chicken and a fresh Hanoi beer.
The afternoon gives way to evening and the streets of Hanoi seem their most hectic. The streets are literally alive with honking, beeping, swerving scooterers sometimes with a helmetless solo rider, sometimes with an impossible family of four crammed on. Coloured lights fill the streets.
Hoan Kiem Lake is lit up with strings of white lights and big golden twirly shapes. Loud Nationalistic sounding music pumps from speakers hidden somewhere in the trees. The constant hum of motorcycles combined with the Chilean white wine I’m drinking makes head thump in time to the music. I’m done for the day and I have an early start to explore one of the most beautiful places in Hanoi tomorrow.