The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Northern Vietnam

Things to See and Do in Hanoi

 

 

Get Bia Hoi in Beer Corner:

It’s a budget traveler’s dream: beer for $0.25? YUP!

Bia hoi is beer that is brewed in the morning, and is meant to be consumed within 24 hours. It’s yeasty and feels homemade, but it’s the same vibe that so many fancy craft Belgians strive for with their expensive ‘unfiltered, organic’ brews. For a quarter!

The glasses aren’t huge, but for a couple of bucks you can easily get a solid buzz under the twinkly lights that are stretched across the streets in the center of Old Quarter. Hundreds of travelers sit on tiny plastic chairs as glass after glass of the good stuff disappears until it’s sold out.

Want to cheers your new Vietnamese friends? Here’s how: Hold your glass up and say: Mot Hai Ba Zo!

Get the Best Sandwich You’ll Ever Have:

On a narrow side street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a cart stands on the sidewalk. Low plastic chairs are scattered casually around the cart, and tables are nothing more than planks of wood on plastic crates. A young Vietnamese man with a kind face, or his pretty wife will be standing at the cart, asking which Bahn Mi you would like to have. The menu is limited, there are maybe five options. But each one is a revelation of flavor.

I opted for the traditional Bahn Mi: Pork and Pate, with chili (you’ve got to have chili). And everything about it was perfection.

Light, fluffy bread with a crunchy crust. Creamy, savory pate (family secret recipe, the man tells me), beautifully seasoned pork, some daikon, carrots and cilantro for crunch, and just enough spice to keep things interesting.

Banh Mi 25 (this is the name of this ‘restaurant’) is a must-do if you visit Hanoi. Go for the food. Stay for the people.

My first evening in Hanoi, I ended up sitting around one of those tables with two Brits, a Welsh guy, and a newly-married Aussie couple for hours, downing Tigers and swapping travel stories until my train to SaPa was about to depart.

I brought my Dutch friends to try the sandwiches, and we spent time playing with the couple’s adorable son and daughter for an hour.

And when we made a final sandwich run before our bus departed for points south, the grandfather pushed glasses of tea into our hands with smiles and nods in place of words he didn’t know how to speak in English.

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The History: It’s More Than the War

Many American visitors to Vietnam visit the war museum in Saigon, and I understand the reasons why. But I’m generally more interested in a country in it’s own context, rather than only learning how one nation’s history relates to my own country.

So we visited the National History Museum in Hanoi, which tells the story of Vietnam from the times of Feudal Tribes thousands of years B.C. all the way through to modern times. In this context, the war with America is but a blip in a long, storied history. As if sensing that Saigon has it covered, the National History Museum makes but a passing reference to the conflict with the West, and focuses on the art and artifacts from ancient times.

National History Museum

National History Museum

Try the Food: 

I came to Vietnam to eat. I already knew I loved Vietnamese food, and I was excited to get to tasting the real deal. Rather than wade through dozens of conflicting reviews on the various travel sites to find the best restaurants, I simply booked a highly-recommended street food walking tour. There was a daytime and nighttime option, and since I was on my own I figured night would be better, because nightlife.

The Verdict? It was amazing!

A group of six other really awesome people? Check.

The coolest, nicest, most fun tour guide, Johnny? Check.

A night of stuffing my face with half a dozen Vietnamese delicacies until I looked pregnant and vaguely hated myself? Double check.

We tried pho, we tried spring rolls, we tried bahn xeo (hold the freaking phone, that stuff is delicious), we tried duck, we tried bahn mi, we tried everything you can think that’s traditional Vietnamese yummy. And it was all yummy.  Our guide took us to all the hole-in-the-wall spots I never would have found on my own, down narrow alleys and even through the setup of a wedding! He let nothing stop him from giving us the best of the best.

If you want to do the same tour, look for Awesome Travel’s Street Food on Foot Tour (and try to haggle them down a few bucks by booking in person). If he still works there, ask for Johnny. He is awesome!

Cheers! On Beer Corner

Here’s Johnny! On Beer Corner

Culinary Explorations

Bahn Xeo: My New Fave Vietnamese Dish

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum:

One of the more macabre things to do in Hanoi (at least to us Westerners), is to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh (yes, the actual HCM) at his imposing Mausoleum in Hanoi.

The body of Ho Chi Minh is sent to Russia once per year to be re-embalmed, and many Northern Vietnamese visit the Mausoleum to show their respect for their former leader.

I stood in the line with my tall, blonde and blue-eyed Dutch friends, sticking out like sore thumbs amidst the nicely-dressed Vietnamese that surrounded us. Signs posted warned us not to speak or take photos of the body, as this is a sign of great disrespect. Thus, I cannot share with you what HCM looked like in visual form.

But the vision of that small, unassuming, waxy figure lying in repose, his hands folded over his belly and his eyes closed as if in sleep, that vision will probably stay in mind’s eye forever, anyway.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

Bac Ha Market

The only things brighter than the beating sun are the garments of the Hmong.

Wade into the bustle and brightness to watch and participate in the weekly trade. Part shopping center for the village tribespeople, part tourist attraction, nothing will make you feel so foreign as a morning at the Bac Ha Sunday Market.

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Reeling in tourists with the beautiful colors of their dress, tribeswomen do their best to sell a little piece of the color that makes them so unique.

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Puppies, chickens, pigs, even water buffalo — Nothing is off limits when it comes to making some money at the markets.

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Babies strapped to the backs of their impossibly small, impossibly young mothers sleep serenely through the fevered negotiations, the shouts of merchants, the screech of chickens.

IMG_20150419_113047Richly-colored thread — now made in China — is sold to the locals so they can embroider their intricate designs.

How to Visit:

When: The Bac Ha market is only on Sundays, so plan your Northern Mountains Travel accordingly.

How: There are plenty of bus and tour connections available from SaPa. Booking a day in advance is best, since the market is a good 90+ minutes from SaPa town.

Cost: It will vary, but about $19 should get you a day tour to the Bac Ha Market.

The Mountains of Vietnam

I had gotten dropped off at the locals’ train station.

I didn’t even realize it until I was left at the glittery, neon-signed tourist train station when I came back hours later to catch my train in Hanoi. After trudging around the block to the dingy, quiet train station where I had bought my ticket, I realized that this was actually a win.

I had only paid $24 for a trip to SaPa – everywhere else online had told me it’d be $40. I worried about the quality of my bunk, but figured there was nothing to be done.

My room for the night

My room for the night

I was one of the first people on my train car, and I nearly jumped up and down clapping at the sight of the spacious 4-bed bunks. I settled myself in, claimed the charger space, and immediately made myself cozy. Fortunately, my only bunkmate was an elderly Vietnamese man with zero English. Unfortunately for me, he was a smoker in a country with zero smoking regulations.

I finally dropped off into a deep sleep a couple of hours after midnight, about halfway through the train journey. When I fell asleep, we were whizzing through the dark. And now all around us unfolded a misty mountain wonderland. Was I still in the same hot, humid country I’d left the night before?

I was glued to the windows as we passed through rice paddies with farmers already hard at work, their pointed hats bent over their labor, backs hunched. Mountains rose up behind them, the peaks shrouded in mist. Everything was green, bathed in that early morning glow that lights everything up from within.

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As we changed from the train to a van, we wound our way up the terraced mountainsides, pine trees reaching for the sky. Soon, women in rich colors and patterns shuffled along the roadsides, dogs at their heels and children on their backs. They were shorter, their faces rounder, their eyes narrower.  The Hmong tribespeople were a class of Vietnamese all their own, their very garments a celebration of a culture they refused to abandon.

SaPa was a breath of fresh air all it’s own – after weeks of heavy humidity, it was a blessing to breathe in cool mountain air. The Fan Xi Pan Mountains jutted majestically above everything, knifing the sky with it’s harsh crags. Waterfalls fell from the peaks, and trails beckoned. The town was curious mix of Vietnamese exotic and a typical mountain village — perhaps some things are universal, like the towering pines in the village center, or the log-cabin construction.

Perhaps if anything is universal, it’s the mountains and the feeling that they give us. Their forests wrap you in a hug, their peaks remind you of how small you are, and their valley vistas are the closest a human being can get to flying with both feet on the ground.

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I hired a motorbike driver and we took off onto the winding mountain roads, stopping off to explore waterfalls, to gape at the mountain peaks, and to admire the geometric terracing that raced up mountainsides and across valley floors. All around, daily life for the mountain villagers carried on: women trimmed bamboo, a man herded water buffalo down the road, stall owners chatted with each other on the roadside.

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As I descended the mountains a few days later, I knew I would miss the feeling of being wrapped so entirely in nature’s beauty. Little did I know that I was bound for a place where the mountains met the sea.

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