There is so much to do in Hanoi, there are numerous temples and shrines, there is a vibrant life and culture, an old town with loads of hidden treasures to explore and, a city centre lake with a walkers only weekend market around it, but the one thing I will always remember about it is the food. The wonderful taste, amazing variety, the fresh aromas and the passion with which it is served.
I could write a full blog about a bowl of Pho, but I will try control my feelings here. I had tasted Pho before, but it tastes heavenly in Hanoi. Imagine a large bowl full of fresh herbs and some recently boiled noodle. This is topped with a few ladles of aromatic broth that has been on a flame for hours and finally some meat is added for the effect. It is not surprising that this features in almost ever list of best foods in the world. We had it nearly everyday for breakfast and then missed having it for a few weeks after the trip.
First day in Hanoi was more of settling in and walking around. We soon discovered that the streets around the central Hoan Kiem lake were blocked off for traffic and were home to a wonderful street festival with people playing games, some stalls selling their wares, some young folks involved in RC car races and demos and needless to say, street food. The walk around the circumference of the lake was full of festivities but was also home to a number of monuments, churches and a wonderfully lit bridge to a small island in the lake. This walk would be our go-to place for the remained of our stay in Hanoi, though post the weekend the vehicular traffic was back and the charm had diminished a bit.
One structure that caught our eye on these walks was the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre. It is a unique cultural attraction in Hanoi showcasing a 11th century tradition of a modified version of Asian puppet shows. While not mind blowing, the show was quite entertaining, despite being in a language we did not understand at all. If I remember correctly, there was not English show but then just the art was amazing and the stories told were based on folklore and most folklore is not that different across countries. We actually could get a lot of it.
One of the top to-dos for Hanoi is its food tour and while it has a touristy angle to it, the food was delicious and the shops we ended up visiting were not large ones, but local hole in the wall fare. We soon realized that most guides are college students doing this for pocket money and have their own unique set of restaurants they take you to. Our guide chose some amazing small places with complex soups, dim sum, Vietnamese rolls and dessert of black gelatin among other things. The food was absolutely delicious and unique and at none of the places did we feel that there was anything special being done for the tourists, except for the attempts to speak in English.
For one of the days, we decided to ask our hotel to get us a car to show us the temples and shrines that were more than walking distance. The hotel receptionist offered to be our guide for a nominal amount of money, since it was his day off and he really wanted to practice his English. While it seemed worth the money he asked, he actually knew very little and couldn’t articulate it well anyway. He had memorized in English the list of Vietnamese festivals and whatever we asked him got connected to those festivals quickly. He was a pleasant and helpful person though, so we did benefit a bit from his being around.
The self created semi-professional tour did take us to some of the top sites in Hanoi. The One Pillar Pagoda was kind of cool but nothing to blow your mind – but then the stories and the relevance of the place is interesting. The Ho Chi Minh Museum in closed Monday and we went there on a Monday, so we only could appreciate the beautiful building from outside and take a walk around to the mausoleum, which wasn’t accessible (Monday) but was an impressive structure. The West Lake and the temples and pagodas that surround it where the pick of the tour. There were shrines where the children come to take blessings for graduations and other celebrations. The Tran Quoc Pagoda has a peaceful backdrop of the lake and many tranquil structures that make for a memorable experience. The area also hosts a number of good restaurants with a modern touch.
Tuesday morning was time to wake up early and start our 3 hour drive towards the highlight of the trip, HaLong Bay.