Experiencing Hanoi

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WE stood in the middle of a five-way crossing at the front of Hoan Kiem Lake, barely steering clear of a taxi inching its way by us. Right in front, about two dozen motorcyclists had come to an almost halt as another dozen or so were trying to cut across from the street on our left.

All the while, my companion and I were told to just walk straight at a steady pace, through a throng of bicycles, motorcycles, trishaws, taxis and all types of other cars.

Welcome to Hanoi — the city on the inside of the Red River. The picture (in our minds) may have been of a scenic riverside town and the expectation of a quieter holiday, but the cacophony of horns blaring incessantly jarred us out of that quickly enough.

There is an indescribable charm, however, to the capital city of Vietnam. From the uniquely narrow buildings in the old quarter, where ruinous glimpses of its French colonial past are still evident, to the ladies wearing their Nón lá (Vietnamese conical hat) and peddling their produce, walking with a swift steady gait under the weight of traditional bamboo shoulder poles.

The French style cafes on the broad sidewalks of Hanoi’s administrative and business district are a striking mark of its post-colonial identity, but there is nothing quite like sitting down on one of the numerous tiny low stools on the street sides of the old quarter, a setup of many conspicuous small stalls that serves cups of coffee in the afternoons, or a glass of bia hoi (light draft beer) and lemon teas in the evenings, which the locals are fond of.

Wandering around the approximate 36 streets — which are named after the guilds or crafts that were once systematically located e.g. Hang Bac, the famous silver street, with ‘Hang’ meaning merchandise or shop — soon enough the ears and senses will acclimatise to the city’s daily hustle and bustle, allowing the imagination to wonder what the city would have been like in days past.

Here are some things you should do or experience while in the northern city:

1. Hanoi’s true ambassadors
Hanoi’s university students started giving free tours to tourists in exchange for an opportunity to meet new people and practice their English skills. We booked an afternoon tour and met two girls — both studying for a degree in English — who between the usual tourist sights, also took us to the most popular ice-cream shop in town (it’s really a warehouse), helped us fend off unscrupulous souvenir store owners, enlightened us as to how “romantic and responsible” Vietnamese men are and most important of all, taught us how to cross the road! There are many groups operating now, but the Hanoikids Club is the most established and a five-star Tripadvisor certified organisation for student tours. Book online at www.hanoikids.org.

2. Drink Egg Coffee
The initial picture we had was a raw egg being added into a cup of cà phê. The real product is a very indulgent and dessert-like concoction with a rich, creamy texture of egg yolk mixed with condensed milk, butter and even cheese. According to the famous Giang Café Hanoi, whose late owner (now run by his son) was said to have created it, the drink was formulated by Nguyen Giang, who was a bartender at the five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel, when he thought of the idea as a means to supplement a shortage of milk. As to why they are the best, the secret is in the amount of egg yolk put in, which many have failed to replicate. Do your homework beforehand though, the hidden upstairs café is not the easiest to locate.

3. Street-side Pho, Bia Hoi and lemon tea
You haven’t experienced Hanoi until you try to eat your chicken or beef pho bent over a low table while trying to maintain a semblance of poise (a slight bout of indigestion may also occur after). From late morning to late at night, small mobile stalls can be seen everywhere in the old quarter — enjoy a lemon tea at the St Joseph’s Cathedral square, apparently a popular hang-out for Vietnamese students, or squeeze yourself into one of the rows of low stools jam packed with foreigners and locals on the weekend, and sip bia hoi in short glasses and Hanoi’s very own ‘333’ beer, while munching on sunflower seeds.

4. Hoa Lo Prison
A little history — and some indoctrinating — at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” is a worthwhile trip, even though much of the interior of the prison has been converted into a museum. The recorded narrative guide tells the tale of how and why Hoa Lo came to be built, as well as the area’s past. Much of the narration, and an entire section of the museum, is dedicated to the barbarity of the French colonial empire and the contrasting kindness of the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War. It is up to you to discern its accuracy.

5. Hanoi Ancient House
One of the most intact and well-kept ancient houses in the old quarter, No 87 Ma May Street was once a rather affluent Chinese family’s home, now open to visitors for a small fee (comes with a guide). An opportunity to step into a traditional home, much of the antique furniture is original and the Western influence can be seen in one of the bedrooms. But the highlight is the structure of the home itself, especially the airy upper level.

6. Eat, eat and eat
Beef and a very tasty chicken pho aside, there is also bún cha, a mildly sweet broth for rice noodle and grilled meat, or the fragrant but greasy Vietnamese grilled snakehead fish at Cha Ca Thang Long. Then there is the casual banh mi (French baguette), where the ones sold with French cold cuts and pâté are mouth-watering. Street food is relatively safe to eat in Hanoi, though each stall or restaurant usually only serves a particular type of food or dish. An exception would be the popular Quan An Ngon, a reasonably priced restaurant loved by foreigners and locals alike for its wide-ranging menu. Both its branches are almost always full, but service is swift.

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This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 17, 2014.