Fantastic street food and millions of motorbikes - memories of Hanoi.
A city of great contrasts and lengthy history, the site has been inhabited since the neolithic period and grown through Imperial dynasties, colonial rule and Communist rule.
Hanoi celebrated the 1000th anniversary of its founding in 2010. Originally it was called Thang Long - CIty of the Soaring Dragon (Long means dragon and is incorporated into innumerable place names). It was renamed Hanoi - the altogether more prosaic City in a Bend of the River - by Emperor Tu Duc in1831. Parts of the city were destroyed by US bombing during the American (Vietnam) War which ended with the withdrawal of US forces in 1973.
We spent time on two separate occasions in Hanoi, either side of a trip to the bays of Ha Long and Bai Tu Long.
We arrived at the brand new airport which had only been open 7 months. Our guide (Audley Travel organised all our arrangements for us in Vietnam and Cambodia) waited while we attempted to get some local currency at an ATM but none of them were working so we exchanged 50 Euro for about a million Dong at one of Bureaux de Change.
Mai, our guide was very good giving us lots of information on the way into the city. Hanoi has 7 million inhabitants and 5 million motorbikes, something which became quite evident when we went out into the city!
It was interesting to learn that all meals are made from fresh ingredients so that a woman will get up early to go to market for food for breakfast and lunch. She will return to make breakfast then go to work. On her way home to prepare lunch she will stop by the market to get the ingredients for dinner which she makes after returning home from working the afternoon!
Our first hotel was on the edge of the Old Quarter and we explored a little one evening, walking the busy streets to Hoan Kiem Lake. The name means "Lake of the Restored Sword" - the story behind it being that an Emperor was given a magical sword by the gods to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. Afterwards a golden tortoise swimming on the lake snatched the sword and dove into the lake, thus restoring it to the gods. Apparently there are tortoises in this lake!
The buildings in the city are unusual to western eyes, typically very tall and extending a long way back with a narrow frontage on the road - everyone wants a main street entrance for the huge numbers of retail and food outlets. And the pavements are all occupied with parked motorbikes and mopeds - pedestrians must take to the road!
On our second visit we were closer to the huge Ho Tay - the West Lake. We had plenty of time in an afternoon and evening to walk to the lake, visit Quan Thanh Temple, have snacks at sunset in the rooftop bar of the Sofitel Plaza and walk back through the thronging streets visiting a wonderful night market where no-one spoke any English but everyone smiled.
To get to the Sofitel Plaza we walked across the causeway which separates the West Lake from the much smaller Truc Bach Lake on the eastern side.
We passed Tran Quoc Pagoda - the oldest in Vietnam.
Fortified we set off back to our hotel through busy streets and with not a great map or idea of where we actually were. But confident in the general direction we didn't get lost and enjoyed observing what was going on along the way.
The highlight was the night food market, small, local, and not a tourist in sight with every imaginable foodstuff available, all looking immensely fresh: fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and much that we did not recognise.
The day we arrived in Hanoi, after a quick check-in at our hotel, The Silk Path, we met Tu in the lobby, a food blogger who was giving us a street food tour of Hanoi, along with one other couple. This took place in the back streets of Hanoi's old quarter so as well as having excellent food we saw really interesting parts of the city.
We made an excellent start with deep fried crab spring rolls with noodles - I loved these rolls and could eat mountains of them. They were served with a great fish sauce-based dipping sauce - fish sauce is used a lot in cooking here, very salty and made from fermented anchovies.
On to another street food vendor for sweet and savoury "doughnuts" - preferred the savoury which I think were pork.
Time for coffee!
It was really excellent at Café Nang - strong but not bitter, made from Rubia beans - quite different to the coffee we've had elsewhere.
We passed through narrow streets and alleyways, Tu pointing out interesting food and sights along the way. Many, many small traders come into the city very early each day from their homes in the countryside to sell produce.
Afterwards we walked down a street where several traders were taking a siesta after an early start and a hard morning's work.
I have to say that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers and workers unloading produce and serving in the cafés were women.
Our next food was spicy squid noodles with bean sprouts - nice apart from the chewy bits of squid! We both passed on the extremely hot chilis!
On to a shop selling a sweet concoction of coconut and black sesame wrapped in a rice dough - I didn't much care for the dough but the interior was an interesting combination of flavours.
More coffee - this time a very traditional Vietnamese style.
Tu showed us into a dingy interior and we climbed a dark stone staircase at the back up three floors to a tiny café - I would think it impossible to discover if you didn't know about it. We settled ourselves on low stools and were served excellent passion fruit juice followed by egg coffee which was really good, like a liquid meringue on top of coffee.
Then to another street café in an alley covered with awnings and a truly superb char siu pork. As always the women serving made the dishes in front of us from wonderful-looking ingredients - I wish this one had been earlier in the tour - I could have eaten a lot more!
Our final stop, for dessert, was unfortunately something that none of us liked. A very gelatinous mixture of weird, to our minds, ingredients, both sweet and savoury. Tu asked for a large number of the different varieties in each large glass mug but I think this just made it worse. I intensely disliked the texture and couldn't try more than a mouthful.
However, it was the one failure in an absolutely superb street food tour. The combination of flabours in Vietnamese dishes is just wonderful and I would do this tour again at the drop of a hat - just without dessert!