Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Evening in Ha Noi

revised December 3rd)
Tomorrow we join the Smithsonian for the next phase of our adventure. Tonight we rest after much walking, considerable afternoon humidity, and lots of good food. Highlights of the past couple of days...with more details to follow later.

Hidden Hanoi. A great "culture company" for lack of better words. They provide walking tours, cooking classes (hands on), and language lessons. We availed ourselves of the first two services: a tour of a large market in the Hai Ba Trung district and a delightful 3 hour cooking class (and introduction to the "philosophy" of Vietnamese food). The market tour was just the two of us and a guide (for a very reasonable $30 US) for about 1 1/2. She met us at the hotel and we took a short taxi ride (cabs are metered, no bargaining necessary) to the market area.

First, there are hundreds of fresh markets all throughout Ha Noi...small and big, legal and "illegal" (people from the country that sell there products on the sidewalks and in the streets). The reason for so many markets is that Vietnamese insist on VERY fresh ingredients (and can tell the difference) much so that they will go shopping for produce and meats/fish/poultry several times a the market can't be very far from their where they live and cook.

There are dry and wet markets...the wet markets is where they sell fish, poultry and meats and is referred to as "wet" because they often wash down the floors and the tables to keep things clean. Dry markets are well they sell produce, fresh rice noodles, herbs, etc. Some produce was familiar some completely foreign and others a variation of what we are used to (pineapples for instance are smaller and have more "cavities" inside...quite pretty when cut up). Some are familiar only if you shop at asian markets or have asian friends (such as leechi nuts in their bizarre prickly casings). We finally ate durian (that tropical fruit that smells so bad when cut open and supposedly tastes so fine...we think you have to have been raised on it to find it "so fine"...however, the smell also wasn't so bad either.

All parts of animals are sold including the "innards", feet, etc. (okay didn't see any pigs teeth being many not ALL parts). Snakehead fish are very popular (and don't look like snakes). We saw live frogs and live green turtles for sale (farm raised both). Freshly killed chickens with heads and feet attached. One definitely knows where all their food come from here!

There are also many restaurants in Ha Noi as well. Fancier air conditioned (or fan-conditioned) restaurants serving fine food of all types. Also, smaller "plastic stool" sidewalk cafes...where fresh pho noodle soups are made and served to locals who seat on small plastic stools over plastic tables....spilling onto the sidewalks.

In fact sidewalks for the most part aren't used for walking in many areas of Ha Noi...if people aren't using them for market or for eating, they use them to park the thousands and thousands of motorbikes that buzz around Ha Noi. Apparently, the Chinese started making really inexpensive motorbikes of good quality and exporting them to VietNam about 8 years ago...its never been the same since. They instituted a helmet law not too long ago and about 95% of the people wear helmets...and like most people...don't like to. So now you are seeing decorated helmets and helmet covers that make the helmets look like stylish hats!

Back to Hidden Hanoi ( . Yesterday we took two cyclos (bicycle powered rickshaws...and we needed two because they are built to house two skinny vietnamese not two robust americans) out to the West Lake District of Ha Noi for a cooking class where we were joined by 3 lively folk from the UK...workmates from London. They were a real hoot and we had a great, great time. i highly recommend this group....Hidden Hanoi. We had a lovely teacher who gave us an introduction to the yin and yang of Vietnamese cooking. And then it was to the kitchen...a big open space with a large area in a square with woks and work surfaces...very clean and very well prepared. We cut, we scraped, we chopped and we put together a delightful soup, green papaya salad, sweet and sour stir fried prawns, and fresh spring rolls in rice noodles (not fried). yummmmmeeee! Then it was back by cyclo to our hotel via a short tour of the Old Quarter (which we have also walked...more about Old Quarter in another post).

Let me tell you...a cyclo ride is really something. Can't wait to post the pictures I took....although only a video would really tell the story. There were a few times when I just closed my eyes...but other times when it was so nice to be able to stare up at the old and new buildings without having to worry about stepping into a pot hole (you know me!).

so for future for our tales from the Old Quarter, our lunch at Au Lac, the Press club, and just how lost one can get (twice) without a detailed map to guide you!!!

By the way...we find the Vietnamese to be extremely patient and polite people. Friendly in a quiet way. Quite beautiful. And they have the ability to sit and enjoy life, to find a quiet spot within themselves in the midst of hustle and bustle. Quite admirable.

added on December 3rd

Au Lac was one of our favorite restaurants in Vietnam. We are their twice for lunch. We came across it quite by accident and had to return by necessity. Here's the story. Jerry and I had walked quite a bit in the late morning hours (when it was hot and humid) we were starting to get hungry so we decided to walk to an area south of our Hotel where there is a cooking/restuarant school for locals. They are supposed to have a good meal at a reasonable price. I say supposed to because we never found it. Even with a map (and I'm good with maps). But maps in Hanoi just don't seem to have all the streets on them (I understand no alleys...but named streets???). We asked some women who worked in a pharmacy but they appeared to not understand the concept of the we wearily starting walking back towards the hotel (Jerry on very low blood sugars). I saw a pretty colonial building and remarked on its beauty...Jerry in single track fashion said "Is it a restaurant?"...and it was! So Au Lac became a wonderful oasis of good food and cool shade for two very weary travelers. (here is a URL to a good review of the restaurant that also contains the address and phone number: . We ended up back at Au Lac the next day when we realized that Jerry had left his camera there. We had the hotel call and yes...the camera was there for us to pick up. The least we could do to say "thank you" was to eat there again...don't you think???

We also ate lunch at the Press Club (right near the Metropole Hotel) as well as dinner. The lunch is a buffet and a very good value for price and quality. The dinner was very good. Continental with a few nice twists. More expensive than lunch time. Comfortable wood paneling and wood floors...rooms within rooms...quiet without being dead quite. Reservations are a good idea...but we didn't have any and they found a table for us anyway.

Bike Helmet Covers. Bike Helmets for motorcycle/scooter riders became required by law last December (but not for bicyclists). Being either very law abiding or heavily fined (or both) we'd estimate that 99% of cyclists where the helmets. These arent' the huge heavy duty helmets we see in the US...but something of a cross between a US mototcyle helmet and a snowboard helmet. And what is becoming fashionalbe in the cities is to where helmet covers (with or without brims) in all types of fabrics and designs. Nothing like seeing a young Vietnamese woman in a skirt, stilletos and a burberry helmet cover to make you wonder just country are we in anyway?

Hilton Hanoi Opera not the Hanoi Hilton. The Hanoi Hilton of POW fame during the war is no longer a hotel. In fact only a small portion of that building (in the form of museum) still stands. We stand at the Hilton next door to the Hanoi Opera house (hence its name). New, modern, well located, and very, very nice. Good food, good service.

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