Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Crossing the street in Hanoi--it's like Frogger, but with Pho
Today kicked off our first no-travel day of the trip and we hit the ground running. We woke up and watched the bustle of Hanoi's morning traffic from our balcony (credit to the Golden Lotus hotel) before we had a quick breakfast provided by the hotel.
Because on this trip the only thing to do when not eating is to spend money in other ways, our first stop was Co, a tailor who had been recommended to us on Nha Tho street near the cathedral. Though likely a little pricier than some of the other tailors in the area, we believe (or at least have convinced ourselves sufficiently) that Co does a better job with nicer fabric and so is worth spending a bit more money. We'll see. On Sunday they should be delivering two dresses for me (EB) and three shirts and pants for Josh.
Our first major spending of the day under our belt, we set off for an exhaustive tour of Hanoi's Old City (with just a brief visit to a French pastry shop to get us started). We began at St. Joseph's cathedral and walked roughly the lonely planet suggested walking tour in reverse, though with lots of diversions to interesting side streets and markets. The Old City in Hanoi is fascinating. It feels like one enormous outdoor market where each street is a different department specializing in one incredibly specific thing. There were individual streets for towels, tape, shoes, kitchen products, herbs, tin boxes and other metal stuff--basically you name it and there's a street in Old City for it. The streets are very narrow and you have to walk in the road because the sidewalks are filled with some combination of wares for sale, people cleaning and cutting meats and veggies (think chickens losing their heads and crabs losing their legs everywhere) or parked motorbikes.
Early into our walk, we were drawn into a little street food-y restaurant that made soup with noodles, meat of some kind and greens. It was yummy, though we required much help from our Vietnamese neighbors in ordering and figuring out that the little lime-like things you squeeze in the soup are actually oranges. Who knew?
Continuing along our walk we found several multi-story enclosed markets selling clothes, fabric, veggies, meat, china, shoes, electronics--sort of like a vertical version of the Old City around it. Also, much like the rest of Hanoi, it was sweltering hot inside the markets, so it wasn't hard to understand why the vendors were sleeping in every possible configuration (on the wares, under them, leaning up against the wall, prostrate on the meat counter) whenever they could. It certainly gave the shopping experience a more relaxed feel, with no one awake at the helm.
For lunch, we wandered over to the famous Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that serves only one dish--a fish fried with turmeric and greens (scallions, dill, etc.) in oil that you eat over noodles and peanuts. It was absolutely delicious. It was served to us at our table over the flame so the oil occasionally spattered out and blinded Josh, but I think he'd agreed it was worth it for the yummy meal.
Back out on the street, I must make an aside about walking around in Hanoi as it is clearly bringing out the New Yorker in both of us. On any given street, red light or not, motorbikes will be whizzing by with minimum 1 maximum 4 people on each going in all directions at top speed. They are mixed with cars, taxis, bicycles and the ubiquitous cyclo, the 3-wheel bike seemed designed exclusively for transporting touristas like us around. Every so often a bus enters the fray, and all in all it does give one an on-the-ground sense of what frogger feels like. Brave little road crosser guy.
After a stroll through a great food market, and a taste of some sort of duck spring roll thing and some jack fruit, we headed over to the lake and to the water puppet theatre for an early evening show. Water puppet theatre, invented in Vietnam 1000 years ago, consists of telling puppet stories in the water with the puppeteers hiding behind a screen. Though clearly a tourist magnet, the show was great fun and we are now huge fans. We're bringing water puppetry to Boston this fall. Plus how could you not love something that is described as follows in the guide book: "[The puppeteers] stand in the water behind a bamboo screen and have traditionally suffered from a host of water-borne diseases -- these days they wear waders to avoid this nasty occupational hazard." The use of waders--genius.
For dinner, we left the Old City and wandered just slightly further afield to Cam Chi, a street with lots of outdoor restaurants, most of which specialized in lau, or Vietnamese hot pot. We ordered one and as became painfully apparent to our teenage waitress, unlike the restaurant Josh and I do not specialize in hot pot and so she quickly took the reins and cooked, prepared and served the food. We did a fab job of feeding ourselves though--that we didn't need any help with. Dinner was yummy and included our first Vietnamese beer (though tomorrow we will go in search of bia hoi--local draft beer).
After a walk back through Old City and to our hotel, our first full day of turbo tourism was complete.