Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hanoi Day 1: Nightscape

Hanoi is a charming Indochinese city that is still very much untouched by the breakneck speed of development Vietnam has experienced since opening up to free-market economics twenty years ago. It's the capital city of Vietnam and is the commercial and cultural heart of northern Vietnam. Often called the Grand Dame of Asia, this is a city of contrasts. From shady tree-lined boulevards to narrow alleyways, from serene Hoan Kiem Lake to chaotic traffic in the Old Quarter, and from flavourful bowls of pho to aromatically strong Vietnamese coffee, this is Hanoi!

I went on a last-minute very expensive holiday to Hanoi during the 5-day Deeparaya holiday. It was supposed to be a diving trip off southern Thailand but that plan got scrapped because my friend's parents freaked out when they found out about it. To put it in his own words, "they were worried I would get killed by either the terrorists or the tsunami!"

Anyway, back to Hanoi. We got on the 5.00pm Airasia flight from KLIA, wondering what was up with the completely silly flight time. Well, like they say, when you pay peanuts.... :-) However, I would like to say that I'm glad they've finally put the tuna sandwich back on the in-flight menu. I know, K, I need to get a life.

Arriving in Hanoi at 7.00pm local time, it was already dark. and we were tired. And extremely hungry. So, the moment we got checked in at our hotel, we hit the streets of old Hanoi to find some of the famous 'pho', the vietnamese noodle soup.

The hotel receptionist recommended us to go to a rather posh restaurant that served western dishes. But looking through the menu, there was not a 'pho' in sight. So we politely declined the maitre d' and hopped across the narrow street into a half-lit alley and promptly found a stall where everyone was squatting down busily chowing down on some delicious soup noodle. Well, we were hungry and what a great way to appreciate Hanoi - through her food. Bon apetit!

It's been called the dish that built a nation. It's made of the local version of kuay teow called 'bahn pho' which is thin and long. It is doused in a hot and tasty broth filled with onions, garlic and slices of beef or chicken. Some of the locals would ask for extra ingredients like bamboo mushrooms, innards and liver. Me? I just stuck to good old fashioned Pho Ha Noi - the chicken meat variety. No gizzard for me, merci.

With our stomachs now satisfied, we decided to take a walk around the Old Quarter since it was such a lovely cool evening. We promptly found ourselves in a street market which was a bit like our pasar malam, except its way way bigger and loooonger. I think the entire length of the market was two to three kilometres long - which was fine by the female members of our touring group.

Anything and everything you can think of is sold here. From the usual suspect like t-shirts, handbags and shoes, and hawker food like Hanoi kebab and fresh fruits to more unusual ware like Russian hats and tattoos, it's all here.

Speaking of t-shirts, if you think Petaling Street was the epitome of cheap knockoffs, you ain't seen nothing yet. There is this entire section in the night market here that is devoted to all things branded. Adidas, Nike, LV, Chanel, even local brand Samuel & Kevin is not spared as you see their logos on t-shirts, pants, handbags and even phone pouches. Hmm... I didn't know Giorgio Armani made bras.

My favourite stall was this one manned by this lovely young girl who spoke very little English. She was not shy and was eager to communicate with us using whatever means possible, be it in writing, a calculator or grabbing the resident translator next door. I think my friend was smitten with her. He ended up buying a whole bunch of stuff from her. And he's never one to splurge on trinkets.

She sells small homemade souvenirs that are very unique and colourful. The one that caught my eye was this wooden little souvenir that looked like a dragonfly that balances itself on its erm... beak. It was exquisite and was available in many colours, designs and sizes.

One of the ladies in my group decided to get her portrait drawn by a street artist who I thought was extremely talented. He only needed to look at his subject once and and in fifteen minutes, sketched out a very lifelike and graceful picture that brought out the best in her.

After a full two hours of walking and browsing and spending money, Yeoh suggested that we try the local coffee, which he said was world famous. So we went to a very nice al-fresco restaurant at the balcony of the top floor of a colonial french building. It was great to wind down after a long day, sipping aromatic and sweet Vietnamese coffee amongst good company.

Vietnamese coffee is served in a small glass with the coffee still dripping from a metal strainer perched on top of the glass. Basically you had to wait for at least fifteen minutes for the coffee to slowly percolate down into the glass before you can enjoy it either black or au lait. And enjoy it, we did. Very aromatic and very strong. Oh great! I haven't slept since six this morning, and now I can't sleep. Well, at least there's CNN on TV. And that never fails to put me to sleep. Bon nuit!


AG said...

you didn't have the vietnamese poh piah meh?

sbanboy said...

wah the table to makan is so so small ...but the food looks yummy

Asther said...

I love reading your pic blog here. You've such flair in writing your traveling experiences. Thank you so much for sharing.

By the way, what do you mean by very expensive trip? I'd really like to go for such tour with you next time! Call me, ya!