Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Hustling through Hanoi

Taking the overnight train immediately after the Hang En caving trip was the only way we could fit Hanoi into our itinerary, and it was well worth it - we managed to pack lots of fun into a single rainy day! If we return to Vietnam, I'd like to spend more time here. It was raining as we pulled into the Hanoi Railway Station at 0600. I had booked a hotel for two nights, to be sure that we would have a place to take our grimy selves immediately upon arrival. Believe it or not, we had no specific plans for what to see in Hanoi, so as we took turns taking a real shower and cleaning up, we kicked around ideas and formulated a plan.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum...definitely no hot sauce allowed on the grounds
First, we decided to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. This is where the enbalmed body of Uncle Ho is on display (which Juli said looked exactly like Lenin's in Moscow). At the entrance to the entire place, security flagged Juli for carrying a dangerous substance - a bottle of hot sauce (she had purchased it to add to food that wasn't spicy enough for us) - and made her leave the hot sauce at the checked luggage counter for the duration of our visit. From there we waited in various lines, were directed to march two by two around a courtyard (felt like I was back in JROTC), and right before entry to the mausoleum we had to check in our cameras & phones. Once inside, we walked into a square room that contained the body. We had to keep walking along the wall of the room, no stopping, but we got a 270 degree view of a well-preserved body, lying on his back and encased in a glass box.

We wandered around the rest of the grounds for an hour or so, along with hundreds of other tourists. Some of the walking paths were insanely crowded with tour groups. We unintentionally ended up on a path that led out of the residential grounds fairly quickly, so we decided to visit the museum. The museum had many floors, I felt the top one had the most interesting artifacts from Ho Chi Minh's life. Unfortunately due to an afternoon cooking class that we had reserved, our time in the museum was cut short and we had to head back to our hotel.

Market trip as part of cooking class
The Apron Up was able to accommodate us with a last-minute reservation (even though when we initially called they said they were booked). The class began with a trip to the market, with each of us wearing the obligatory rice hat/conical hat. Our instructor Nhi led us around as we purchased meats, veggies, and herbs. Despite the rain it was nice to have a guided walk around the old town center of Hanoi (which is one of the most disorienting places I have ever been, as proven by my 45 minute quest to find the ATM that google maps indicated was just 'around the corner').

The class eagerly anticipated Siera's reaction to tasting fish sauce
Back at the cooking school, we began making some delicious traditional Vietnamese food. Of course, one cannot eat a meal in Vietnam without eating spring rolls, so those were on the menu. We also leaned how to make beef pho, a soup that is very popular in San Francisco. The star of the meal for me was bun cha - sweet barbecued pork with vermicelli noodles, eaten with herbs and dipped in some sauce. Most all of the recipes were very simple, so hopefully we'll be able to give some of these dishes another try at home. The tough thing about the class was that we didn't sit down to eat until 2:30pm, at which point we were ravenously hungry, and proceeded to eat until overstuffed!

Eating the yummy lunch that we worked to prepare
In the early evening we set out wandering for Hanoi Happy Hour. In certain cities across Vietnam they make 'Bia Hoi', a light draft beer without preservatives that gets delivered daily, and (perhaps most importantly) is really cheap, about 35 cents a glass. After a few twists and turns, we found a good looking bia hoi place to sit for a while and enjoyed our streetside view of people and traffic passing us by. After a few cheap ones, we continued our self-guided city tour through various Old Quarter neighborhoods and streets, often nearly all shops on a given street sell the same category of goods (flowers on one street, auto parts on another, etc.). We stopped for another drink at a second level pub, enjoying the view of competing bun cha eateries on opposing sides of the street.

Bia hoi on a corner in Hanoi (NOT the famous 'Beer Corner')
After a couple more stops including some snacks (no big dinners necessary on this day), we stumbled across the Hanoi Backpacker Hostel, which seemed to have a pretty popular bar night going on. Advertised as "ladies night", it became clear once inside that the "ladies" in question were mostly bearded young Brits & Kiwis, with dresses, wigs, and balloons stuffed into their chests...there was some kind of cross-dressing "competition" happening, complete with a runway, dance-offs, and boisterous fans of each "lady." The funniest part of the scene for me was that the bar was in the hostel registration area, so every few minutes somebody new would open the door and roll in a suitcase. While I'd think most of the folks who booked this place knew what they were getting into, there must have been a few who arrived after a long day of travel only to be surprised by a raging party, complete with many guys walking around dressed in wigs and balloons, right next to the hotel reception desk.

It's a bar with hotel reception...or is it the other way around?
After we'd reached our party limit, and a "lady of the night" had been awarded, we moved along, thinking to find one more spot to wind down our night out. However the Hanoi Old Quarter streets continued to confuse, and before we found another place for a drink we found our hotel, and decided to call it a night. Tomorrow was yet another travel day, hopefully just 3-4 hours to Cat Ba Island.