HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hanoi on Foot

We awoke to clear skies on our second day in Hanoi. Tin, Rhona, and Jen decided to check out the Ethnology Museum, while I opted to save a few dong and simply walk around the city for several hours. 

The Lake
My first stop was Hoan Kiem Lake, which sits at the southern end of the Old Quarter. This scenic lake is surrounded by trees, a walking path, and small cafes. Couples canoodled on benches, and children enjoyed their Sunday. A building called Turtle Tower sits on a small island in the lake, a tribute to the mystical turtle that supposedly lives in the murky water.
A young Vietnamese woman wearing a KFC uniform approached me and asked where I was from:
"Huh? You come from Saigon?"
"Well, I live there. I'm from America."
"Oh, it's very hot in Saigon!"
"It sure is."
She pulled out a card showing that she was a volunteer with the Red Cross, and said she was trying to get donations to help the poor.
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Do you have a wife?"
"Definitely not."
"How old are you?"
"Ah! I'm 23 too! I think you should have a Vietnamese girlfriend or wife."
"Yea, yea..."

Vive le France
I didn't have much cash on me, so I was only able to give 30,000 dong before moving along. I walked a few more blocks before coming across the Metropole Hotel, which has been in operation since 1901 and is one of the most well-regarded hotels in all of Asia. Sofitel revamped this legend a few years ago, and it is nothing short of stunning. The huge building looks like a grand French villa: wedding-cake white, with dark green shutters on nearly every window.
Hanoians obviously appreciate the beauty of the Metropole as well: dozens of couples were taking wedding pictures in the area. Some were posing in front of BMWs, others stood in front of the storefronts of the hotel's arcade - Versace, Chanel, etc. - and still more simply used the architecture as a background.

There is a busy traffic circle on one side of the Metropole, and upon first glance the area reminded me of Europe. The circle was ringed by a flagship Gucci store; the elegant, French Opera House; a small park; and a Hilton hotel with a large fountain in front. This was beautiful, although I quickly snapped out of my reverie when a motorbike almost ran me over.
the Opera House

Remove the motorbikes and I'd be convinced this was taken somewhere in Europe
I continued on to the National History Museum, which is set inside a beautiful building, but the ticket booth was deserted and I couldn't find a single worker, so I just kept walking. I accidentally ended up on a dusty ring road that ran for a couple of miles without any streets branching off back into the city, forcing me to go a lot farther than I had intended. It was pretty hot by now, and by the time I made it back into a neighborhood I was drenched in sweat. I picked my way back towards Hoan Kiem, passing several more striking French buildings along the way. Apparently, Vietnam's war-era Soviet minders had intended to tear down every colonial building in the city, but they couldn't afford such an undertaking, and Hanoi is much prettier as a result.
the history museum

More couples were taking wedding photos around the lake, and people of all stripes were enjoying the weekend on the shaded paths and benches ringing the water. There simply isn't anything like this in central Saigon.
The iconic footbridge leading to the Ngoc Son Temple, on an island in the lake
This is Asia
I strolled up to the north end of the lake, and dove into the Old Quarter. Constantly buzzing with commerce and motorbikes, the narrow, cramped streets of this ancient neighborhood are an example of Southeast Asia at its chaotic best. This is the area where Hanoi began. In the 13th century, the 36 guilds of the city set up shop in the Old Quarter, and each street became specific to a certain craft. The names of the streets reflected which guild used which street; for example Cha Ca was home to a number of roasted fish restaurants; Hang Cot was where bamboo lattices were fashioned; and Lo Su was where coffins were sold.

Although the street names haven't changed over the centuries, the modern Old Quarter doesn't stick too strictly to this system. Many of the guilds have disappeared, and mass tourism has led to the establishment of dozens of hotels, hostels, travel agencies, and restaurants throughout the area. That being said, there are still some examples of street-specific stores: one street was lined with shops selling door handles and window fixtures, while on another hundreds of bamboo poles were leaning against buildings. The crumbling architecture of the Old Quarter is fascinating, though it is difficult to stop and take pictures because of the sheer density of traffic. You really have to be careful when walking around this area.
Old Quarter building
a typically narrow alley
bamboo street
Dogs Beware
I came to the street that forms the western edge of the Old Quarter, and I noticed signs advertising thit cho. This phrase rang a bell, but I couldn't quite place it. Suddenly, the definition was right in front of me, in revolting detail: dog meat. Entire cooked dog carcasses were stacked onto carts; teeth bared in a grimace. On other carts butchered dogs were on display - ribs, haunches, etc. I absolutely love dogs, so this was horrifying. Expats in Vietnam often joke about the popularity of dog meat here - for example, if someone complains about a barking dog near their house, a friend will say "Don't worry about it, he'll be in the cooking pot tomorrow." -  but few of us have actually seen the hard evidence. I've lived here for over a year and have never even seen it on a menu; but I was now presented with the gruesome reality: there was clearly a market for the meat of man's best friend. Utterly repulsed, I hurried down the street, thankful when I took a left onto the next one.

I stopped at a cafe near a park to regroup, catch up on notes, and refresh with an awesome sin to xoai (mango smoothie) before continuing to wander. I headed towards the Citadel, a former fortress that is now an important military area. The broad, tree-lined streets and sidewalks running through and around the complex were absolutely beautiful, not to mention quiet. I passed the Heroes Memorial, which sits next to a massive construction site and is perfectly aligned with Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.
monument and construction
I then rejoined Tin, Rhona, and Jen for lunch at a place specializing in Hue food. Delicious.

We then explored the Temple of Literature, a complex of numerous buildings including the Imperial Academy, Vietnam's first national university,. Originally built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, and is now a national icon. An image of it is even featured on the back of one of the dong banknotes.
The final stop on this hours-long walk was West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi. Along the way we passed through Ba Dinh Square again, just north of which sits a row of imposing government buildings protected by security cameras, high walls, and armed guards. West Lake has 17 km of shoreline, and is an extremely popular place for relaxing and people watching. The only off-putting thing was that there were a number of dead fish floating on the surface. The lake is ringed by several luxury hotels and some swanky expat housing, and sky cranes indicated that this area was at the center of Hanoi's building boom. The recently completed Landmark Tower, Vietnam's tallest building, loomed in the distance.

The distant Landmark Tower
My feet were killing me, so I was glad to return to the hotel room after checking out the lake. We rested for a bit and then had dinner at Anthony Bourdain's favorite pho place in the city; where slabs of beef at the entrance beckoned diners in. We had to wake up early the next morning to catch a bus to Haiphong, so nothing noteworthy was done after dinner.

As you should be able to tell, I really liked Hanoi. There are far more historical places of interest than in Saigon and, as I've discussed at length, the city is far more visually attractive than its southern rival. I don't think I would want to live in Hanoi, since the enforced midnight curfew puts a serious damper on the nightlife, but it's a great place to visit. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Next stop on the trip: on island just off the coast.

1 comment:

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