2. Once again Scooters, streetfood & Bia Hoi in Hanoi

05.05. – 08.05.2016

Getting off the airport bus at Cao Long Bien bridge it was instantly clear where I was. The amount of scooters, the heat and humidity – yes , this was Vietnam and Hanoi.
After finding my bearing I was approached as usual by taxi drivers if I need a lift. Feeling like a rookie once a day is enough so I avoided them all and made my way what I thought would be the right way into the Old Quarter. Surely enough I saw one of the gates, and after a bit confusion it was dead easy to find Ma May Road where my accommodation was: the Hanoi Guesthouse. It was recommended by a fellow traveller, and he was hopefully right otherwise he would hear my complaints very soon over a beer. But thankfully the Guesthouse was very nice in a perfect location in the middle of the Old Quarter.

After freshen up, which was really needed after a long flight without a lot of sleep, I headed down to use my time in Hanoi straight away. You can sleep when you are dead! I was actually interested if the person who recommended the place had arrived as well. What perfect timing, Mr. Mark (as he was called in the guesthouse) was sitting outside already. I know Mark from Australia through Tripadvisor, and we both decided it would be a good idea to catch up. Well, I thought I should be able to handle an Australian fireman if needed. No need to worry about that though. From the start I got on with Mark, his wife Sandra and his two friends straight away. And thankfully Mark has a similar way to travel, so first stop was going to the restaurant opposite of the hotel to get some food and drinks. To be honest, anyone who suggest going for food and a beer is always in my good book straight away. It really felt good to have a Bia Hanoi and a lovely noodle soup with crab meat. How much have I missed Vietnamese food and beer. It really felt like being back home…and not on holiday.

After lunch it was time to head to Hoan Kiem Lake. Scary as it is, I found my way through the Old Quarter straight away, and without getting lost we were at the lake. And during the little walk it hit me, except of more cars on the street not a lot has changed here since my last visit 1 1/2 years ago. The city was still full of noise from the traffic, the wonderful smell of food and the loud chatter from tourists and locals on the busy roads. It was just amazing. I JUST LOVED IT.

Though arriving at the lake I was shocked to see my fellow intrepid traveller Mark getting onto one of these tourist buggies. Seeing his reputation in danger he pointed out that he was forced by his wife and friends. The relief visible in his face when sitting down told a different story!!!

Instead of joining them I walked a bit around the lake, that was busy with mainly locals enjoying the shades the trees along the lake were providing. With the sun shining it looked even better than during my last trip back in December 2014. However, as usual as soon you sit down one or two younger people will join you to practise their English. This is always an enjoyable conversation, as you learn more about their life as well. I could easily sit here all day long to enjoy the atmosphere and chats while watching the world goes by.

After another little stroll through the Old Quarter I was glad to take a little break in the room. I still needed some energy in the evening to have one or two bia hoi. For that I met my Australian friends and we went to maybe the most famous beer area of Hanoi. Along  Luong Ngoc Quyen you will see little plastic chairs and tables everywhere, in front of the food places and bars, or just rows and rows of chairs all over the pavements. At the corner with Ta Hien there is a beer place in each four corners, the chairs marking the road for cars and scooters. The little alley that is the extension of Ta Hien is so packed with chairs of the food places and bars, you can hardly walk pass them. Between all the chairs scooters missing any obstacles on the road, vendors selling food from their little carts or offering to clean or repair your shoes, while locals and tourists alike trying not be hit by the vendors or scooters. This area is mayhem in the evening – it is loud, the smell of grilled meat, fresh popcorn and other food and drinks is everywhere, it is chaotic – in short is amazing. The perfect place to experience Hanoi. If you like people watching or meet new people – you will love this place. I could sit there for hours (which I probably did). Another advantage is the cost of the beer – ranging between 5.000 to 20.000 Dong.

The cheap one is locally brewed – and it is ok for 10.000 Dong or less. If the beer is too warm (and it gets warm here) you just add ice to it (I know – I might go to hell for that crime. I really would never do that in Germany). Sitting here you will also experience some strange but entertaining things. For example to sit down with your beer, than being asked to get up, and suddenly your chairs and table are carried inside into the building. So you drink your beer while standing until chairs and table appear again after a few minutes after the police is gone. It never gets boring there, and it is such a great place to enjoy the local life despite being in the middle of the main tourist area of Hanoi. For newbies it might be a bit much, but Mark’s friend enjoyed it as much as we did. However, after a few drinks I had to bid goodnight as they decided to visit a restaurant near the hotel (the reputation of the intrepid traveller disappearing faster than the beer in front of me!!!).

I stayed a bit longer as I was supposed to meet my dive buddy Lynn (aka Nguyen) from my dive in Hoi An last year. She offered me to catch up in Hanoi if I ever stay there again – not sure she actually thought I would contact her – careful what you promise!!! Instead of staying at the noisy beer corner we headed to one of the places overlooking the Hoan Kiem Lake lightened up and the busy roundabout. It was a nice place to have a beer and to talk, and it was great to catch up. Unfortunately after a while the lack of sleep and the difference finally caught up and it was time to head back to the hotel.

However, one more thing was needed. I didn’t have my dinner, so I walked into a little place on Dinh Liet where I saw a few locals. I wanted to try omething new, so I ordered My Kho, an instant noodle dish with vegetables, meat and a nice sauce. It was simple but tasty. A perfect late night dish to finish the day. I went to bed with a big smile in my face.

 

Even though I was tempted to have a sleep in the next morning, I had to be up for 9am, as I managed to get a 1/2 day tour with HanoiKids. This is an organisation offering free tours, which proves a good opportunities for students to practise their English. My guide, Huyên or Aril (her English name based on the month of her birth) was on time…and for a change so was I. First order of the day was to confirm what I want to see. I decided to visit the highly recommended Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Some might be surprised that I would be interested to visit such a museum, but it really sound interesting. Huyên (April) mentioned that this is museum tat could be easily visited without a guide, but I made my mind up. To my horror we just grabbed a random taxi (not a Vinasun or Mailinh), but for her it was the normal thing to do – and who am I to correct anyone (this is a rhetorical question!!!).

A short ride to the southern part of the lake we arrived at the museum -that thankfully had A/C, as it was already quite hot – even Huyên agreed, though she wore jeans and a jumper!!! I will never understand Vietnamese women….ok, women in general. I must admit, the museum was indeed very interesting. And while I could have really visited the museum without a guide (the signs around the different areas were great), it was still great to be there with Huyên. Not just because she was able to add a few things to the exhibition, but more about the general life of Vietnam linking to the museum, for example how it is the task of the mother to take care to honour the dead (something she was worried about to learn from her own mum) or that they could only have to children without being fined. AOverall it was a very informative morning.

After the museum Huyên took me to a special cafe in the Old Quarter. I knew the street the cafe was on, but I would have walked past that specific cafe all day – it was such a tiny entrance that led to a tiny alley that again led into a little cafe. Why was this little cafe so famous? It was the first one selling a Hanoi speciality – egg coffee. Yes, coffee with egg instead of milk. So I had to try it – and this ice coffee with egg tasted great. The egg gave the coffee a bit of a custard taste, but still different. I definitely recommend this cafe. It is located on 39 Nguyen Huu Huan.

To finish the tour I invited Huyên for lunch, and she took me to New Day on Ma May. I heard about it, but was surprised that at lunch time it is full of locals. We had to go onto the 2 1/2 floor to get a table. As usual I let the local choose the dishes, and the selection of spring rolls, chicken curry and pork ribs was just tasty. Over lunch Huyên continued to explain about life in Vietnam, while I had to tell more about life in Germany. It was a very interesting lunch as well. Everything I heard about HanoiKids is true. If you have a chance to get a tour – do it. There is no better tour in Hanoi. They do not accept money, but the guides are happy about little present. I realised too late that I forgot to give Huyên some souvenirs I brought from Cologne. A clear signs of old age!!!

I had the afternoon for myself, and did my favourite thing in Hanoi – getting lost. I aimless wandered around the Old Quarter, passing the old medicine section of it, and slowly made my way back to the lake, with the usual stop for a ca fe su fa and some little snacks that looked interesting, including the tasty buns filled with pork I love so much. You really need no map here…just two legs that can carry you away. And around every corner you can find another interesting road or small alley or old building. The Old Quarter itself can keep you busy for a few days – it is just something special.

Late afternoon it was time to catch up with Mark and his Australian gang, and we headed back to the beer corner to have another few Bia hoi (obviously) – it is too much fun to miss it, followed by dinner at New Day (again) – I never been to a place for lunch and dinner at the same day, but this place deserves it. It was Friday night and the night market started, but it also meant that the Old Quarter got busier, so we only got seats outside. Despite the fact that people warned on the Internet not to eat fish due to environmental issue in central Vietnam I couldn’t resist having the local river fish. And it was a good decision as the fish was just wonderful – barbequed on the table.

Instead of heading back to the bia hoi corner we spotted a group of young musicians getting ready to perform next to the Hanoi Guesthouse. Lucky enough we managed to get seats at a little beer place (which apparently is a great place for Bun Cha in the morning!!!), and having a few beer with front row seats. And boy, the group containing a drummer, guitarist, violinist and one playing he saxophone could play. The impressive part was that they did not just play rehearsed items  a few times one of them start playing a song, and you could see how the others were thinking how to join in. This really is a sign of good musicians. We stayed here for an hour until they stop playing. considering the large crowd we were not the only ones enjoying it.

Unfortunately it was then time to say bye to Mark, Sandra and their friends, as they headed off to Halong Bay the next day. I was not tired yet, and instead of going to bed (which would have been the wise choice) I headed to the Bia Hoi places for a few, well, Bia Hoi. Sitting on a little plastic chair I was involved in a few Mot Hai Ba Yo shouts with the locals, followed by more drinks with some Vietnamese in one of the bars in the beer alley (aka extension of Ta Hien). Another thing that has not changed in Hanoi was the fact that bars had to close after midnight. But I remembered from my last trip that there was a bar that was hiding customers inside, with the shutters closed. So I led our group along Ta Hien, only this time the bar open was on the other side of the alley same owner, bigger bar, and still open all night. Here I realised the disadvantage drinking with the locals –  they empty their glasses fast. So I was “forced” against my will to have quite a few beer while enjoying the lovely atmosphere. In the end I managed to escape just before 3am. A long but great night out.

 

The next morning I was punished for the long night – with a sore head. Any motivation to get up early to visit a local market was gone, and I finally managed to get out of the room after midday. Well – the heat and bright light didn’t help. But I had a task to do. When organising your own trip things will always change – you hear stories from other travellers, you see something that interest you. You hardly every stick to the plan you set up. In this case, I saw a motorbike shop in the Old Quarter who rented proper manual bikes – with the option to get the bike north by bus. Perfect option if you do not want to ride the 250 km one way between Hanoi and Cao Bang. So I spoke to one of the Western guys from the shop and he got a Vietnamese manual bike ready. Now I was allowed to do the fun part – going for a test ride through Hanoi. Even though you see it every time you walk through Hanoi and hear all the stories – driving through Hanoi is different. Traffic lights are not that important, even though the light is green for you you still have to avoid the traffic coming from right and left. It is not something for the weak. I still survived and enjoyed the 20 minutes ride. Happy with the bike I thought I have a great option – then came the Vietnamese owner. No, the bike I tried could not be transported, but he could give me this older semi-automatic. Aehm, all the hassle of getting a bike onto a bus for that? No thanks. I was slightly disappointed as the bike I drove was good, and with the rack at the back of the bike there was plenty of space for my bag. At that point I was actually tempted to buy the bike for $500, but as I was planning to fly to HCMC the same day I returned to Hanoi I was not sure I could sell it again. Though in hindsight, that would have been the best option.

Slightly disappointed that the new plan couldn’t happen I decided to get a Xe Om to the Western lake. Strangely enough, the Western lake are in the… WRONG…north of the Old Quarter. It looks actually very nice there, the big lake divided at the south by a long road. The area is the home of some of the larger hotels, and quite a few modern tall buildings, a slightly new view for me. After being dropped off I went for a little walk along the lake and onto a little island in the south-east of the lake. It was a pleasant walk, with some little parks and some little deserted streets.

With the help of Google Map I found what I was looking for – the Ailu Cat Cafe. I visited a cat cafe for the very first time last year in HCMC, and it was a lovely set up. Well – it was literally a cafe with cats roaming around. So I read that there was  similar cafe in Hanoi, and decided to visit it. After all the hard work to get there (xe om and walk), it was a disappointment. It was a large room with a few tables but no chairs (instead you sit on cushions), and cats roam around. It didn’t have the same nice interior and eye for details as the one in HCMC. In addition you had to pay 35.000 Dong entry, and the coffee was not good. At least there are plenty of cats, and it is nice to play with them, but it is definitely not worth a visit to the West Lakes because of it.

With that disappointment I decided to walk back to the Old Quarter. I mainly followed a busy main road (well – I was unable to see a Mailinh taxi), but at least I got more glimpse of the typical Hanoi scenery – walking on the pavement I suddenly passed a few chairs opposite a wall with a few mirrors / the work station of barbers. The barber and his customers must be a bit bewildered that the foreigner was watching them – but the scene next to the insane traffic was just surreal. It still makes me smile when thinking about that view. This was just one of the little things that make travelling so worthwhile.

After making it back to the Old Quarter late afternoon I realised that a) I didn’t eat anything so far, and b) had not one Bun Cha during my stay. Both was absolute unacceptable so following the advise of my guesthouse I headed off to  Bún chả hàng mành on 1 Hàng Mành. Apparently it is one of the best Bun Cha places in Hanoi. So I thought the walk would be worthwhile. This place is directly at the corner, with only two tables inside…but there are more seating upstairs. They are clearly specialising on Bun Cha, and the dishes come out very quickly. I was really excited,as I didn’t have a Bun Cha for 1 1/2 years, and it is one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes. And it was good, but with the recommendation I expected more. I thought the one served at a little stall next to the Temple of Literature was much better. Still, if you are nearby, it is worth a visit.

After a little walk through the Old Quarter and a little rest at the hotel it was time to enjoy the Hanoi on a Saturday night – something new to me. And wow – it is great. First, during the weekend part of the Old Quarter is closed for traffic for the Night market, instead it is full of stalls selling anything from souvenirs, cloth for locals to food and drinks. I enjoyed the market during my first stay, and this was no difference. However, the whole area was packed, the parking slots for scooters were full – I really don’t know how they managed to get all the bikes into that tiny parking area. I was waiting to see if someone was driving a bike on top of the others. Fascinating to watch.

In addition of strolling pass all the stalls I also managed to get myself a required T-Shirt for the motorbike trip (for only 50.000 Dong – no bargaining needed). Getting off the main road onto Hang Buom I came across a familiar looking stall. That was the one where I tried nearly every single snacks on offer the previous year. And it was the same woman selling the same food again. After showing her the picture I took 1 1/2 years ago she pointed straight away to the place I was sitting last time – I was more than impressed. It was once again nice to sit down in a little chair and trying several of her little dishes. Unfortunately the gridle cake was sold out.

After the delicious food I followed my usual routine and headed to the bia hoi corner. It was always full before, but on a Saturday night it reaches another level.It was nearly impossible walk between the chairs on the pavement, more scooters than ever drove past me. It was difficult to decide where to look. The beer places were packed, and it turned out I was the only foreigner in that specific place, so soon I was bombarded with the usual questions from the locals, while I impressed them with my limited Vietnamese and for some reason a new bottle of beer appeared whenever the old one was empty. It is strange to have such an experience when in the middle of the tourist area of Hanoi. The young Vietnamese clearly love this unique atmosphere of the Old Quarter by night as well, so they come here for drinks too.  Thankfully they do – as it turned out to be another great night. This time I only stayed or 2 beer in the usual end of night bar after everything else closed.
It was a fitting end of my stay in Hanoi, as I had my bags packed, ready to leave Hanoi for my adventure in the far north the next morning.

You might hear a lot of stories about Hanoi – about the great architecture, the crazy traffic, the lovely atmosphere, and you wonder if this can all be true. Yes, it can, and it is. It was my second trip to Hanoi, and I enjoyed it as much as my first one, even though I expereinced it differently this time (the first time you just walk around with your mouth open, looking from right to left and right again). But once again I enjoyed every minute of my stay. It is a special place, and it should not be missed on any itinerary when visiting Vietnam.

 

Recommendation

  • Try to get a tour with HanoiKids. You will hardly a better tour. You need to contact them far in advance though. http://hanoikids.org/
  • The Vietnamese Women’s museum is surely worth a visit
  • Other museums are worthwhile a visit as well – though they are covered in my previous Hanoi blog
  • Visit the Bia Hoi place at least once – a great way to experience Hanoi
  • Try the famous Egg Coffee on 39 Nguyen Huu Huan
  • Do not miss the delicious food served in the little food stalls or food places

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