Sunday, January 3, 2010


Nick and I arrived in Hanoi a few days before Christmas. Nick’s old friend, Gerry, (actually his babysitter from 40 years ago) has lived there for 12 years and found us an apartment next door to his in the French Quarter near the center of town. Hanoi is a city of about 3 million, but still has the feel of an overgrown village. It's the only city in Asia I've visited that I would call charming. The long years of war and lack of money meant fewer changes in Hanoi than in many places. It has tree-lined streets with colonial architecture, well maintained parks, over 30 lakes, very few cars (although lots of motorbikes), good food and excellent ice cream. The oldest part of town (dating back a thousand years) is called the “36 streets,” representing 36 merchant groups that originally sold their wares in each street—some still do, like the bamboo vendors and sellers of items for decorating Buddhist altars. The streets are narrow and twisting, full of food stalls, ancient pagodas, women in conical straw hats balancing baskets of oranges on long poles supported on their shoulders, and lots of bicycles and motorbikes. It is the most touristy part of town with many restaurants, small hotels, shops selling local crafts (primarily silk and lacquer ware), and kids desperately trying to sell you postcards or shine your shoes. Although a communist country, Vietnam has a bustling air of commerce, dollars are accepted as readily as dong and there's a definite awareness of rich and poor.

One of the first things to strike me about Hanoi is its curious architecture. An old tax system charged by width, so there are lots of very narrow houses—10 feet at most—going upwards to 8 stories. The French ruled Vietnam from 1859 to 1954, leaving an architectural and culinary heritage. Many houses are decorated in pseudo-French style with lots of balconies, balustrades, pediments, columns, and bas-relief decorations, painted in various shades of blue, green or yellow. There is definitely a sense of “keeping up with the Jones’s,” and some of the houses end up looking like Las Vegas bordellos. Hanoi has lots of old temples and Chinese style pagodas. Our favorite was the Quan Thanh Temple on the north side of town, a tranquil and evocative place. If you go, take a taxi and walk back by way of Pho Phan Dinh Phung to see the best examples of French colonial homes, now mostly used as government offices. The restaurant Seasons of Hanoi is in this area (see below)—plan on lunch.

Another architectural highlight is the Hanoi Opera House built by the French in 1911. Gerry got us tickets to hear the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra one night. The place reeks of colonial privilege, but unfortunately you can only see the interior if there's a performance.

Other sightseeing highlights: the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where you can see the embalmed body of the highly revered leader lit up like a display at Tiffany’s. It is a bizarre and worthwhile experience. Don’t miss the nearby street market (turn left when exiting the mausoleum grounds). Don't miss the Temple of Literature, the earliest school in Hanoi with a beautiful series of Chinese style temples and gardens. I loved the excellent Museum of Ethnology with an outdoor section of beguiling traditional wooden houses that you can walk through; the park around Hoam Kiem lake just to look at people; the performance of traditional Water Puppets with live music (the theater, right on the lake, has nightly performances). One day we engaged a car and driver ($45 for all day) and drove around to some local villages. Unfortunately, it rained all day, but it was still worth it to see a bit of life outside the city.

We go to all the markets to experience the energy of daily life. We especially liked the Cho Hang Da market in the old quarter and the whole area around it (great birdcages and street food vendors) and the Cho 19-12 on Pho Hai Ba Trung where you can see roasted dog for sale. Our Lonely Planet Guide said the Cho Mo market on the south end of town was of no interest to tourists, so of course we went. We loved it. There are rows of stalls selling rusty metal motor parts, floor-mat sellers on bicycles, and narrow residential alleyways great for exploring. We ate at a market stall there—just a few low benches around a small wooden table. The meal was a bowl of rice topped with various vegetables which we pointed to (avoiding the questionable meats). Our hostess playfully added one insect larva to Nick’s bowl which he obligingly ate. Unfortunately he smiled at the cook after eating it, so she dumped a big spoonful of the things into our rice bowls. Not bad if mixed with enough peanuts.

Food, of course, is a major focus of attention when Nick and I travel and we like to explore beyond the obvious, and to eat everything in sight. Market and street food in Vietnam is not as varied or elaborate as in Thailand—lots of noodle soups and bowls of rice. The food in general is subtler and less spicy than Thai, a bit more like Chinese. Meals are often accompanied by a bowl of fresh greens—lettuce, mint, basil, cilantro and other flavorful leaves. You pop bits of these into your mouth as you eat.

Because Hanoi has lots of tourists, it’s not hard to find menus in English, even in humble places. We were a bit confused sometimes, wondering about such menu entrées as deep-fried camel flesh with frittled flou, testicle chicken with pergularia, and pumpkin puds. The sautéed deer tendons and cuttlefish stomach made sense but we were too timid to order them.

Restaurants I recommend: The Seasons of Hanoi (95 Quan Thanh), an elegant place in an old house. Lots of good vegetable dishes, including a great banana flower salad and sautéed morning glory vines

Hanoi Gardens (36 Hang Manh in the Old Quarter)—be sure to order the spicy grilled squid and the lotus root salad. The watermelon juice in both places was great.

Quan Hué (6 Pho Ly Thuong Kiet) is a homey place with a big menu of Hué style food, including a big seafood hot-pot that Nick loved.

Cha Ca La Vong, (14 Pho Cha Ca, in the Old Quarter), this funky Hanoi institution serves one thing--a delicious fish dish, cha ca, which you cook at the table, and the more you eat, the better it gets. Be sure to check out the bathroom and kitchen in back. The Clintons ate here, so they say (hard to imagine Hillary using that toilet).

Near the south end of the big lake, look for the French Ice Cream place--ice cream with intense flavor.

Every morning we went to the Moca Café (14 Pho Nha Tho near St. Joseph’s Cathedral) where we drank some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.

Our friend Gerry runs a cinema in Hanoi, now 2 years old, which shows all kinds of great movies and is one of the few night-life activities available. It is called the Hanoi Cinemateque and is located at #22 Hai Ba Trung, not far from the Opera House. There is no sign—just walk down the long dark alley (you won’t think there is anything there, but keep going). The sign on the street is for the Hotel des Artistes which is just next to the cinema at the end of the alley. There is also a nice bar, café and restaurant connected to the cinema.

On Christmas Eve, we met up with our friend Joan from London (we met in San Miguel 10 years ago) and her friend Liz from Australia. We had dinner at the City View restaurant, at the north end of the lake just at the entrance of the Old Quarter. Its 6th floor balcony was a great place to view the Christmas Eve chaos below—like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The streets and parks were packed that night with people walking and buzzing madly on their motos. In one park, a huge Styrofoam Santa attracted lots of family picture-taking. Red Santa hats were on sale everywhere and Christmas songs rang from loudspeakers—we heard “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” every day of our trip—in Vietnamese. We never really figured out what it all meant to them, but everybody seemed happy. After walking around a bit, we escaped the crowds by ducking into the fancy Hotel Metropole and had dessert. There was a little nativity scene in the lobby with figures carved in butter. It looked like Confucius and 2 Chinese guys to me—definitely no baby and no Virgin Mary.

On Christmas day we went with Gerry to a friend’s house—an American lawyer and his wife. We ate turkey and cornbread stuffing with a group of visiting Americans and a few ex-pats, including one former Vietnam War veteran who now works with land mine victims. The only Vietnamese present was a woman doctor who spoke good English. The conversation got around to the war and I asked her why the Vietnamese don’t hate Americans. “That was then and now is different” she answered with a Buddha smile. After dinner we went to another party of mostly New Yorkers, artists and filmmakers living in Hanoi. It seems there is quite a sizeable community of ex-pats, many French, in Hanoi. But, most are working for NGO’s or embassies, or teaching English. Foreigners cannot own property nor have businesses in their own name, so it limits things, but it was interesting to get a hint of the lifestyle.

One noteworthy aspect of life in Hanoi is the traffic. There are surprisingly few cars, but millions of motorbikes (not motorcycles, but that may change soon as a U.S. trade agreement may force the Vietnamese to allow sales of Harley-Davidsons, which should really wreak havoc in the streets). Hanoi traffic creates a new branch of choreography, similar to the way ants move. Luckily, it moves slowly, because, aside from the few major intersections where you find traffic lights, it is a free-for-all, and crossing the street requires bravery, although eventually I began to enjoy the challenge.

We used the Lonely Planet Guide to Hanoi, which was out of print, but available through Amazon. Gerry had an Insight Guide, which was smaller, but I liked it better. I would recommend both, and anything else you can find.

Since we stayed in an apartment I don’t have a hotel to recommend (unless you want to spend $300-a-night and stay at the Metropole). I would NOT recommend staying in the Old Quarter where many small hotels are—it’s too chaotic, fun to visit but not to stay. I did see one place in the French Quarter that looked appealing from the lobby, the Church Hotel (no website, e-mail Look on for good hotel deals all over Asia.

Getting around: we went on the back of motorbikes a few times (scary, no helmets) and also took taxis, which are sometimes hard to find. There are also cyclos, bikes with carts behind, which are fun. Be sure the meter is running or agree on a price with any driver BEFORE you start out—otherwise you are sure to be overcharged. Most destinations in the city will cost 1 or 2 dollars.

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