LP to VN

We had an awkward amount of time to spend on our last day in Luang Prabang; we had to leave for the airport at 3:45, for our 5:10 flight to Hanoi, and we had to check out of our room at noon. On the way to lunch we climbed the 190 stairs to get to the big wat that allowed us to look over all of Luang Prabang, then we leisurely walked back to Joy's for lunch for fried spring rolls and one last BeerLao (for me) and ginger beef (for Marc), and then we stopped at a place along the river for an ice cream sundae -- mainly just to have a place to sit and watch the river one last time.

lots of steps, but a beautiful morning
inside the wat at the top
the exterior
and what a gorgeous view of the Mekong as it winds around LP
We headed to the airport a little early and had no trouble, and when we got to the waiting room it was packed with people and sounded like a big party. One group of Westerners started singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight -- they were a little restless because their flight to Siem Reap was delayed, and we didn't yet realize that 'delay' was going to be the name of the game. We were scheduled to leave LP at 5:10 and arrive in Hanoi at 6:10, but our flight finally took off around 8pm after a bunch of semi-frightening shifts in plans. The plane we were supposed to be on was on the tarmac when it was supposed to be, but then they just fired up the engines and let it run for an hour -- and with the doors open from the waiting area too, so it was loud. No one loaded luggage into the plane, and we couldn't figure out why they just had the plane running like that. We couldn't make up a story that felt very good, and then they turned the plane off and the crew left the airplane.

We were finally loaded into a different airplane and the flight was simple, but we had to circle for a good 20 minutes before we were finally cleared for landing. Getting through the visa and immigration gates in Hanoi was simple, and we were completely dazzled by the brand new airport. Oh my, it's ENORMOUS, all glass, as big as any airport in New York. Hanoi has changed rapidly and is so much more modern than it was the first time we came in 2005. Construction processes are modernized, everything seems more modern -- big highways, huge buildings, it is just such a different city. Our cab driver was so busy managing calls on at least two cell phones he kept forgetting to press on the accelerator, and while I love to hear Vietnamese spoken it was starting to work my last nerve, though he did have a nice giggle.

Anyway, we finally arrived at the Rising Dragon Palace around 9:45 and got the same room we had last time, on the top floor. We headed out to get a bite to eat at a little place around the corner, Bun Bo Nam Bo, and truly it was the best Vietnamese food either of us has ever had, ever. I just got fried spring rolls, but Marc got this noodle, grilled pork, and fried spring roll soup-thing that was so filled with flavor, every bite was richer and different and tastier than the one before. TOO BAD we completely forgot to take pictures. Marc doesn't drink and I don't drink much, but when we travel I always enjoy the local beer -- and this puzzles people wherever we are. So I ordered a Tiger beer with my dinner and Marc ordered water, and the waitress found this hysterical. She pointed at me and said, "You the man, he the woman," and then when another waitress brought the drinks, she made an elaborate show of giving me the water and Marc the beer, and then swapping them. It was done with a lot of giggling and teasing, and we prefer to think that they are laughing with us.

Our plan for our one full day in Hanoi is to push ourselves and eat at little spots where local people eat. Marc put together a "street food" tour for us -- the best pho here, the best bun cha here, the best bun rieu cua there, the best xoi, etc -- and we decided to make ourselves just get in there and do what we could even if we had no idea what was going on. We decided we'd order one thing at each place and split it, so we could eat at a lot of different places.

VN coffee without milk, thick and gritty and intense

walking to Hoan Kiem Lake
Vietnamese but still French if you look -- plus, THE BREAD of course
wide streets lined with huge beautiful trees

After coffee in the neighborhood, we headed out for the best pho in Hanoi, at 13 Lo Duc Street. It was intimidating, for sure, because we didn't know how to order, where to order, where/how to pay, what exactly we were buying, where to sit, or what to do. But we pulled it off.

So this was the place. We just kind of stood there, held up one finger, gave them some money,
and then looked to see what others were doing.

A couple of doors away seemed to be the place to sit, so we found our tiny stools and waited.
Pho was created in Hanoi, and this bowl right here must be the exemplar of pho bo -- beef pho.
OH my, it was without a doubt the best bowl of pho either of us has ever had. This bowl cost
50,000 dong, or $2.33.
Then we squeezed in some lime, ladeled in some brick red hot sauce, and spooned in some
seriously hot peppers. Stir, sweat, eat. Moan, groan. The broth was not thin and watery,
it was deep with flavor.
Stop #1: GREAT success!
Drunk on our successful pitstop, we headed back to the lake to sit for a bit and enjoy the gorgeous day. As always, there were Vietnamese people standing around the lake doing exercises, some rotating their arms in giant circles as they walked, young couples with their arms draped around each other's shoulders, families out for the morning. Gosh we love this place. As we sat, we were approached by two young men doing market research (they said something about an economics survey) on a product for tourists -- a small bamboo sculpture of a Vietnamese person with two baskets of flowers on a pole over his shoulders. They were so cute; one had a lisp, and the other was a bit shyer and more serious,and kind of bossy. They asked us lots of questions: bigger or smaller, which do we like more, what would we expect to pay, should they include a little story about it, what about the packaging. They were just adorable, and we enjoyed talking to them.

After that we headed out for our second breakfast stop, at Phieu Yeu Cau for a bowl of xoi xeo -- sticky rice with chicken. It came with a layer of polenta draped between the chicken and the sticky rice, and with a side bowl of vinegary pickled cucumber slices. Very very good -- another successful meal. With water, this was 48,000 dong, or $2.26.

Just so good -- and a traditional fast food breakfast

Even though I'm so full, I literally drooled as this picture loaded into the post.
A pitstop back at the room to cool off -- it's quite warm here, unlike our last visit to Hanoi at this same time of year, when it was cold and rainy -- and then we went out again for some bun cha. Bun cha is a classic Vietnamese lunch, charcoal grilled pork and pork belly in a sauce of fish sauce, vinegar, sugar and lime, and served with a huge platter of cold rice vermicelli and a bigger platter of all kinds of greens: mint, cilantro, basil, a purple leaf that was not basil but so good, a few sprouts, and some lettuce. We also got glasses of iced green tea. I wasn't even hungry but it was so tasty.

The bun cha operations. The woman in the striped shirt is filling bowls with two kinds of grilled pork, while
also managing the spring-roll-deepfrying station to the left of that red bowl.
Behind, on the left of the photo, is a woman piling platters (yeah, that stack with
the dirty towel on top...) with greens, and others with rice vermicelli.
THIS is the glory of bun cha. The pork has leaves grilled into the pieces, and since it's
cooked over charcoal, the edges are smoky/crispy. Lots of different greens to pile in.
One bowl was 35,000 dong, or $1.65. After we ate we had to step out to the sidewalk
to pay a man sitting in a chair -- Marc thought he was like a human cash register, holding a big
wad of bills and doling out change to a bunch of customers at once.
Just don't look too closely at your surroundings. Keep your eyes in your bowl
and everything will be just fine.
You sit crowded into these low tables, sitting on lower stools -- think adult on a tricycle, knees up kind of high -- and when one of the staff was removing empty bowls and glasses from the far end of the table, she sloshed them down my back. Not so great, but this is not a fancy-restaurant tour we're taking. This is the day we eat the way regular Hanoians eat on the run, and all I can say is that they are lucky eaters. Lao food is good but kind of unremarkable; they're landlocked and surrounded by China, VN, Thailand, and Myanmar I think, so the food is a melange of those various styles but perhaps with a bit more lemongrass than others. Good, delicious, but Vietnamese people know how to eat.

After eating bun cha we found another park to sit in and watch the busy goings-on. The streets never stop, ever. We've noticed a big change from our first trip in 2005, and even from our last trip three years ago: the transportation is much better. On our first trip, the air was so very acrid is made our eyes water. Two-stroke engines, and lots of them, equaled bad air. Women wore elbow-length gloves and full face masks to protect their skin. Now the air smells normal, no eye-watering smells anywhere. Beautiful motorcycles everywhere, the occasional bicycle, and lots more cars and airconditioned buses.

But still you see full life passing by on these motorcycles. Beautiful women in gorgeous short dresses and high heels passing by on their motorcycles. Men carrying bathroom fixtures, a dozen cases of bottled drinks, huge stacks of boxes (in fact, one motorcycle upended because the driver put too many boxes on the back). Families of four, two small children sitting between mom and dad. A man drove past dangling a 6-month-old baby in his left arm and steering with his right hand -- no helmets. Young couples, older couples, men in suits, boys in hoodies and flipflops, women with full-face masks and aprons completely covering their bodies, young guys driving and texting, women sitting sidesaddle on the back either in short skirts and heels or jeans and heels. It just never stops.

The fun of getting around Hanoi is crossing the street, and you just have to step off the curb and head across the street, don't stop, don't hesitate, don't step and then step back, keep your eyes where you're going. Traffic is a hive and it all works together and the drivers are watching the pedestrians and somehow it all works. Usually it's fun but once in a while I just get kind of clenched with fear and can't step off the curb. Until I can.

photo shoot in the middle of the street. seriously.
Tonight we'll continue our eating tour, but for now we're too full and kind of pooped from all the walking. I think so far we've walked 8-ish miles, so we're in the cool room, plotting our next move. When you have only one day in Hanoi you've got to make the most of it.

Gorgeous Hoan Kiem Lake near the old quarter, one of our favorite places to sit
Negotiating sweets -- puffy sugared donuts on sticks. She gave us one for free,
then we bought a couple of skewers -- first she said 50,000 dong, which is
what we paid for our big bowl of pho. We went to walk away and she
started negotiating, so this is a shot of Marc doing his thing.
Takeaway iced coffee, in this handy little bag. Strong VN coffee with
condensed milk, poured over ice. Very good.
One more Hanoi post to come.

1 comment:

  1. OH my...it's lunchtime here...and I'm now salivating!
    Photo shoot in the middle of the traffic? Why not! We watched wedding photos being taken in the middle of a street in HCMC once..hilarious! Wedding photography as an extreme sport.


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