Archive for the 'Hanoi' Category

Hanoi Highlights II

Whereas our first couple of days in Hanoi were spent leisurely walking around town and eating in the Old Quarter, our final day in the capital city was crammed with a bevy of tourist activities. We started our day with a bowl of wonton noodles (mi hoang thanh) on Mai Hac De Street, which was touted by Rough Guide as having excellent local fare. The street had a handful of restaurants, but I definitely wouldn’t classify it as a culinary hot spot. In addition to wontons and noodles, the soup contained slices of barbecued pork, fried wonton skins, chives and a quarter of a hard boiled egg. Overall, a good soup, but it lacked the oomph of its southern counterpart. I say, more fish sauce and more black pepper.

Unsatisfied with our bland bowl of wontons, we headed a few doors down to a bun rieu establishment. Our zesty bowl of vermicelli noodles with tomatoes and crab was solid, and dare I say, nearly as good as Saigon’s beloved Thanh Hai. Fried tofu is the greatest flavor soaker there ever was.

After lunch, we hopped on our rented motorbike and went on a drive by greeting (similar to a drive by shooting, but more peaceful) to Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. One of these days I’m gonna wait in line and see Ho’s mummified body.

The Hanoi Opera House.

After site seeing on the motorbike for twenty minutes, The Astronomer and I were ready for a snack, so we stopped at a shack near the Opera House that sold ice cream and small bites. I ordered sweet sticky rice topped with French vanilla ice cream and toasted coconut (kem xoi). I give it three snaps in “Z” formation.

The always-savory Astronomer ordered a portion of nem ngot ran—slightly spicy meat that’s breaded and fried.

Properly fueled, we zoomed to check out the One Pillar Pagoda—Chùa Một Cột—an iconic Buddhist temple.

While in the neighborhood, we briefly considered going to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Pros—air conditioning, cons—shame. The Astronomer was shaking in his boots posing outside the museum. After deliberating, we decided to put our dong to good use elsewhere.

Although the Ethnography Museum was not air conditioned, it was definitely an educationally stimulating and guilt-free way to spend the afternoon.

The multi-story museum contained all sorts of colorful and interactive displays featuring Vietnamese minorities. Exploring all of the exhibits got me really excited about heading to the mountainous town of Sapa. Plaid neon-colored do-rags are awesome.

We also saw a plethora of ancient carvings. One part Home Alone, one part The Thinker.

Outside the museum are a number of life-sized models of minority dwellings.

This one was our favorite.

Here’s another shot of the ancient Mccaulley Caulkin / Auguste Rodin hybrid.

After a couple hours in the museum, we headed back to the Old Quarter.

A trip to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without a water puppet performance.

A water fairy prancing about.

The cast and crew take their bows. Farewell, Hanoi!

Halong Hype

If I were given a penny for every time I read the words “Halong Bay: Seventh Wonder of the Natural World”  while in Vietnam, I’d have at least 10 bucks in my wallet. I visited this “wonder” back in 2000 with my mom and Ong Ty and thought it pretty, but no prettier than La Jolla Shores. The memory that sticks out the most from that first trip to Halong Bay was my idealistic, 18-year-old self being pissed that my Vietnamese shipmates were throwing their garbage into the The Bay. I’m no hardcore environmentalist, but geez, plastic bags floating in the water is unacceptable.

I would’ve been perfectly content to see Halong Bay once, but The Astronomer would have be devastated  if he left Vietnam without visiting the hype that is Halong. Halong Bay, or Vịnh Hạ Long as the Vietnamese call it, is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Quảng Ninh Province in the city of Haiphong. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes.

We booked a one-day tour from our hotel in Hanoi after shopping around in the Old Quarter, which is chock full of tour companies (most of which are unoriginally named Sinh Cafe). Not looking for a historic junk to cruise around in, a sleepover under the stars or a one-of-a-kind adventure, we went with a basic package that scooped us up in the morning, showed us around Halong Bay, fed us lunch and dropped us off in the evening.

The ride from Hanoi to Haiphong was long, but expected. We boarded our simple junk at around 11 am and set off to cruise and explore The Bay. Feeling especially festive, The Astronomer kicked off his Halong experience with a cold can of Halida beer. Woot.

Halong Bay looked just how I remembered it, but maybe a bit more crowded.

Hey look, it’s a boat and a tour group just like the one we’re on! Similar to our experience in the Mekong Delta, most tours of Halong Bay travel the same beaten path. Whereas this crowdedness may bother some folks, we’re cool with enjoying nature with others.

More tour groups! Tour groups are definitely not for those seeking intimate experiences. The Astronomer and I have signed on for many tours in our Vietnam days because it’s logistically easier and the company of strangers doesn’t diminish our personal experience.

Now, if this isn’t a karst limestone tower, I don’t know what is.

More limestone, more karst.

And before we knew it, it was time for almuerzo. Idle sightseeing sure does work up an appetite. Although these cha gio were of the frozen variety, The Astronomer said they were pretty decent. The taste of Ba Sau’s homemade cha gio was fresh in my memory so I couldn’t bring myself to eat a lesser version yet.

Crinkle cut fries.

Fresh skinless cucumbers and carrots.

Fresh but bland clams.

My favorite—fluffy scallion omelet.

Whole fried fish with tomatoes and scallions.

Squid. Not Phu-Quoc tender.

This cutie from Japan (and her mom and aunt) sat at our table during lunch. She was an AMAZING eater. I love kids that aren’t picky about their diet. She was also a big fan of the omelet so we had to duke it out for the last bit.

After lunch, we boarded a small boat to explore a secluded isle, which was supposedly the setting of a scene from the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies.”

We sailed into this small inlet.

This little excursion was the most peaceful part of our tour.

Halong Bay residents.

Our last stop on the Halong Bay express was the Thien Cung grotto.

Thien Cung grotto is a fabulous cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites. I could have done without the rainbow glow, but Vietnam just wouldn’t be Vietnam without the constant abuse of neon lights.

Hanoi Highlights I

The first stop on our long road back to America was the capital city of Hanoi. It’s hard to believe that I spent an entire year in Vietnam without venturing further north than Hue, but it’s probably because I knew I would be heading in this direction before peacing out. The Astronomer, on the other hand, spent quite a bit of time in Hanoi for business and definitely knows his way around town.

We flew from Saigon to Hanoi on Jetstar Pacific and arrived after the sun had set. We dropped off our bags in our hotel room located in the Old Quarter and headed off to find some good eats. Since The Astronomer knows the Old Quarter (and all of its secrets) like the back of his hand, he led me to Xoi Yen because I am a sticky rice fiend.

I went for the classic xoi xeo (7,000 VND)—sweet sticky rice topped with fried shallots and sheets of mung bean paste that resemble Parmesan cheese. The Astronomer ordered a portion of xoi ngo (15,000)—sticky rice with corn topped witdh cha mo (pork forcemeat), mung bean paste and fried shallots. The two orders of sticky rice were served with a bowl of pickled cucumbers on the side. The spicy and sour cucumbers contrasted nicely with the sweet sticky rice.

Still a bit hungry after our sticky rice snack, The Astronomer and I stumbled upon a woman serving up an impressive number of Northern dishes in a cramped street side set up. We ordered three pho cuon (3,000 VND each) and two nem chua ran (3,000 VND each). Unfortunately, both the pho cuon (grilled meat and herbs wrapped in rice noodle sheets) and nem chua ran (deep-fried fermented pork) turned out to be ho hum. I don’t think it was the cook’s fault that these dishes didn’t rock. When it comes down to it, pho cuon and nem chua ran aren’t innately brilliant dishes. Pho cuon lacks a proper dipping sauce (neon orange chili sauce from a squirt bottle doesn’t count), while nem chua ran needs a good punch of fresh herbs.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel room and crashed. I had a hard time sleeping my first night away from Saigon—there’s something about the people and the spirit of the city that tugs and pulls at me. I’ve moved around quite a bit in my adult life so it was really a novel sensation to actually yearn to be somewhere. Although it took a while, I eventually caught some much-needed Zs.

The next morning didn’t begin as bright or as early as we had hoped. I was a bit bummed about missing our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, but my frown was quickly turned upside down with one wiff of cha ca. Cha ca is hands down the greatest dish to come out of Hanoi. Hearty chunks of white fish marinated in tumeric are fired up tableside with a forest of green onions and fresh dill. The fish and greens are eaten with an assortment of accompaniments including vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, herbs, fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste. The dish is so good that I don’t mind reeking of fish and dill for the rest of the day.

Even though Cha Ca La Vong receives all of the accolades and press (including a visit from Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats), those in the know head to Cha Ca Thang Long (80,000 per portion) for this local delicacy. And let’s set the record straight—there’s nothing bizarre about fried fish with dill.

The rest of the day was spent buying train tickets to Sapa and walking around Lake Hoan Kiem.

Two scholars—The Astronomer and Ly Thai To.

Shady trees and winding paths—two lovely non-edible Hanoi offerings. After exploring the city scape, The Astronomer and I went on a run that consisted of multiple laps around the lake and dodging tourists in the Old Quarter—a pleasure compared to our options in Saigon.

For dinner we stayed in the Old Quarter and noshed on barbecued pigeon (chim quay - 45,000 VND) and  rice noodles with beef (pho xao – 20,000 VND). Pickled cucumbers and dish of kalamansi, chili and salt were served on the side.

The barbecued pigeon was succulent, but a bit too oily. We dipped the meat in a simple sauce made from kalamansi juice, chillies and salt to combat the oiliness. The pho xao was a solid plate of carbs—it’s hard to mess up stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat smothered in a light gravy.

Because dinner never ends with just one eatery for us, The Astronomer and I jammed over to the street side vendor we discovered the previous evening  and ordered a plate of mien xao cua Thai Lan (20,000 VND). The vendor recognized our faces and quickly wok’d up a heap of glass noodles with crabmeat and fresh beansprouts. Whereas the mien xao cua served at the Crab Shack in Saigon contains lots of fresh crab meat, the crab in this dish tasted strangely crunchy and not at all fresh.

The following day we met up with “Teddy,” a former editor of mine, at Dac Kim for a lunch of nem cua be (crab-stuffed eggrolls) and bun cha.

The Astronomer was impressed with this eatery on an earlier visit, and Teddy guaranteed that the place was great, so it really wasn’t a surprise that both the bun cha and nem cua be were executed outrageously well. Along with Cha Ca Thanh Long, Dac Kim is definitely a not-to-be-missed stop during a trip to Hanoi.

We took Teddy’s advice and hit up Banh Cuon Gia Truyen in the Old Quarter for dinner. This woman makes each banh cuon fresh to order.

Banh cuon—delicate rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms—are another one of Hanoi’s specialties. Even though the banh cuon here was comparable to what we’ve eaten in Saigon, a portion cost twice as much.  We also had to fork over some extra dong for cha (pork forcemeat) because it wasn’t included. Not cool, Hanoi. Banh cuon without cha is like Oreo cookies without the cream in the center.

Street side roastie.

After our puny plate of banh cuon, The Astronomer took me to an eatery specializing in eel. The first time he ate here, The Astronomer ordered a bowl of noodle soup with crunchy fried eels and glass noodles, which were good but not great. On this occasion, we listened to the waiter and ordered stir-fried glass noodles with eggs and topped with the same fried eels, which turned out to be really spectacular.

Our third course of the evening was a bowl of bun thang at 12 Hang Dieu Street. Compared to stellar Vietnamese noodle soups like bo kho, bun rieu and bun mang, this Northern-style chicken soup just left me bored. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good bowl of soup, but it can’t hit the spot like the big dogs can.

For  dessert, The Astronomer picked up a plate of profiteroles from a random French bakery in the Old Quarter. Although they looked appetizing, the cream tasted like bubblegum. The Astronomer ate one and we gave the rest to a street vendor. Bubblicious puffs just ain’t our thing.

The following morning we cruised the bay of Halong.

Bánh Kem Flan

Flan, also known as crème caramel and caramel custard, is a egg and milk-based dessert with a layer of caramelized sugar on top. What’s particularly notable about flan is its global reach. This dessert is embraced by the French, Spanish, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Japanese, Argentinians and Uruguayans, to name a few.

The dish has spread across Europe and the world. Both ‘crème caramel’ and ‘flan’ are French names, but have come to have different meanings in different regions. In Spanish-speaking countries and in North America, ‘flan’ refers to crème caramel; this was originally a Spanish usage, but the dish is now best-known in the United States in a Latin American context. Elsewhere, including in France, ‘flan’ usually means a custard tart, often with a fruit topping. In Europe and many Commonwealth countries, the dish is generally known as crème caramel.

In Saigon, banh kem flan are sold in sweet shops that usually also dish up che. The flan are made in small plastic containers and refrigerated until served. Once an order is placed, the flan are inverted onto a plate and topped with crushed ice or small ice cubes. A plate of two banh kem flan goes for 4,000 VND. Once, I ate a banh kem flan that was topped with a shot of espresso in addition to ice. It was too bitter for me, but I can definitely see the appeal for a coffee lover. Banh kem flan can also be purchased from road side vendors and consumed at home. Inverting is completely optional.

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