Vietnam: banh mi, bia hoi and water puppets in Hanoi

Post 5 of the South East Asian Adventure series. View the rest of the series so far here.

I came to the capital of Vietnam with a check-list of must-dos: eat a really good banh mi, drink really cheap bia hoi and get really into a water puppet show. Across one day and one evening we accomplished every one of these experiences and discovered many more besides. However, we also encountered the challenges of Hanoi: motorbike-filled streets, confusing opening times, impertinent street peddlers and unforgiving heat!

We arrived in Hanoi at around 8pm, via a frenzied taxi ride through beeping cars and swarming mopeds, some of them stacked with entire families. But passing through the glass doors of Splendid Star Grand Hotel, tucked away down a small side street in the Old Quarter, it was like entering an oasis of calm. We received a warm welcome from Tom, the young proprietor, and were brought fresh fruit juices and a platter of melon and dragon fruit. Things only got better when we went to our room and found it surprisingly large and luxurious, holding not one but two large beds decorated with rose petals and swan-folded towels. Can you believe we paid just £20 a night for this place?

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We weren’t feeling particularly hungry, having previously gorged ourselves on the free food provided in the Bangkok Airways lounge and plane. So we decided we’d just take a walk to the lake five minutes from our hotel.

Night at the lake

We found Hoan Kiem Lake buzzing with activity. The pavement encircling it was filled with chattering locals, some selling things, some playing games, many sat drinking on tiny plastic stools. Sausages and kebabs sizzled on disposable barbeques, while plastic cups were filled with fresh beer from metal kegs. Beyond all this clamour the lake sat gently rippling, reflecting the bright lights of various temple-like structures standing in the water. We took in all the lake’s tantalising sights and sounds, then returned to our luxurious room for some much-needed sleep.

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Hot and bothered
The next morning, we were cooked breakfast to order from a largely Vietnamese menu. The deep-fried Vietnamese spring rolls were delicious, but the pork sticky rice was not at all as I imagined – the texture was weirdly fluffy, and the taste unexpectedly fishy.

Afterwards we walked to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the country’s late former leader lies embalmed so that tourists and devotees can gawp at him. The walk was long and hot, and to our great disappointment, we arrived to find it closed – we didn’t realise it shut at 11am. Nevertheless, even from the outside it was a domineering structure to behold.

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Next we headed to the Trấn Quốc Pagoda beside West Lake, only to find that shut too (this time for lunch). We made do with admiring it from a distance while steadfastly ignoring the people trying to sell us baby tortoises, which were cruelly trapped in small cages. It was our first indication that Hanoi’s street peddlers will try almost anything to extract tourists’ money (though it’s worth saying that no-one tried to rob us).

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Quán Thánh Temple

Making our way back south we spotted Quán Thánh Temple, which thankfully was open! We wandered inside and got our first taste of a typical Vietnamese temple: dark polished wood, opulent red and gold decoration, onyx-black statues, and the strong, musky scent of burning incense. It felt like stepping into a sultan’s palace. Outside lay a paved garden decorated with stone elephants.

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Banh mi 25
When we finally reached Ho Chi Minh Museum, it was – guess what? – closed for lunch. We relented to having our own lunch break and I knew exactly what I wanted: the national paté-filled baguette sandwich of Vietnam called banh mi. Following TripAdvisor’s guidance we carefully made our way through the bustling, ramshackle, fairy-lit-hung streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, even passing a derelict railway line, until we reached the Banh Mi 25 food stall.

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It was clear when we reached Banh Mi 25 that every other Western tourist had done come here too. But no matter – it was worth the hype. We ordered the banh mi with everything – pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, sauce, pate, barbecued pork and chicken – and they came to less than £1 each, with cold jasmine tea included. We crouched to sit on two tiny plastic stools, at one of several small wooden tables filling the pavement and devoured our sandwiches greedily. The baguettes were crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside and filled to bursting with flavoursome meat. I only wish we’d had time to repeat the experience before we left!

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Political sightseeing
Bellies filled, we made the long hot trek back to Ho Chi Minh Museum. Unfortunately we got a little lost on the way which at least allowed us to see more of the newer, cleaner, more formal parts of the city where the government buildings stand. It was a treat to see the city’s soldiers in their distinctive dark green uniforms patrolling the grand buildings’ gates and, at one point, piling into an open-backed army vehicle to patrol the streets.

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Ho Chi Minh Museum

We eventually reached the museum with an hour to spare. It was just enough time to walk around the top floor, which told the story of Ho Chi Minh’s life through a series of elaborate and highly conceptual sculptures and displays. We both found it really interesting, and definitely better than if we’d only managed to see his dead body (definitely come here first if you’re planning to do both attractions!) Ho Chi Minh sounded like a really great guy…  or at least that’s the impression we got from this particular museum!

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Trang Tien ice cream
Leaving the air-conditioned museum for the hot, still air of the outside world, we decided it was worth getting a taxi to avoid the long walk back the way we came. We got into one of the several cabs sitting outside the museum gates and asked to go to Trang Tien street, where Tom had recommended we get ice cream.

We were surprised to find that Trang Tien Ice Cream was less a parlour, more a large concrete garage housing dozens of motorbikes and a couple of ice cream counters at the sides. Nevertheless, the cones we bought were exactly what we needed. The vanilla ice cream was noticeably different in texture and taste to that back home – somehow it felt colder and more refreshing, closer to a sorbet than the soft and creamy stuff back home.

Ngoc Son Temple

Slurping up our ice creams, we walked up the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake that we hadn’t yet seen. It was just as busy in the late afternoon as it had been at night, only now hosting more families and tourists. We decided to cross the grand red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple, which is built on an island in the lake.

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The temple was similar to the one we’d seen earlier, only this one was even more splendid and contained a statue of a giant, legendary tortoise that allegedly once lived in the lake. The island’s edge provided a wonderful spot for looking out over the water.

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English lessons

When we returned to the Hoan Kiem Lake in the afternoon of our last day in Hanoi, we were approached by two young schoolboys asking if they could practice English with us. Once we had ascertained that it wasn’t another scam – such as the woman who put her very heavy carrying pole on my shoulder and expected to be paid for the pleasure – we were only too happy to oblige. The boys were very sweet and spoke English so well, asking us about what Vietnamese food we’d tried and which Western pop stars we knew! After a minute or two more students turned up, along with their young teacher who told us about their school. They asked to take a selfie with us before we left!

Bun cha at Restaurant 96
For dinner on our second night we went to Restaurant 96, just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, and it was a perfect meal from start to finish. Sat at a small table upstairs by the window, we savoured ice-cold local beers and shared some delicious deep-fried vegetable parcels as a starter. Our main courses were even better: Steve was brought a sizzling dish of beef and vegetables in a rich sauce, while I had the Hanoi bun cha, comprising skewers of tasty barbequed pork and bowls holding rice noodles, fresh salad and a tasty broth with chopped vegetables. The waitress showed me the correct way to eat it before leaving us to enjoy.

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Although we were quite full afterwards, we couldn’t resist ordering dessert. We both ordered the amusingly titled ‘Fanny’ ice cream – I chose a refreshing mango sorbet, while Steve had a scoop of chocolate with grilled banana slices.

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Bia hoi corner
After dinner we headed to Bia Hoi Corner, eager to finally try Hanoi’s famous, incredibly cheap, fresh beer. The street was thronged with people chatting and drinking, mostly sat on those ubiquitous tiny plastic stools. We excitedly squeezed into a space to sit but were disappointed to find that all the bia hoi, everywhere, had sold out hours ago.

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We remedied this a few days later by returning to Bia Hoi Corner at 5pm. The party atmosphere hadn’t started yet, with fewer people sat around. But this time we did manage to drink some bia hoi and it was both as cheap and as drinkable as we’d heard. It was noticeably weaker in taste than commercial beers but, myself not being a big beer drinker, I liked that about it. We followed our drink with a wander round the night market: it was huge, but its wares were much more commercial and mass-produced than those of the markets we’d seen in northern Thailand.

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Water puppets
Having successfully sampled banh mi and bia hoi, there was one last thing to tick off my list: one of Hanoi’s well-visited water puppet shows. We bought tickets for a show at the original Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, which is fronted by a tower of creepy, baby-like dolls who ‘dance’ to the music emanating from the theatre.

Inside, the theatre comprised a flight of seats facing a pool of water, with a curtain at the back and a platform to the side on which the musicians and singers sat. I have to admit, when the puppets (one of them seemingly on fire) first emerged from the curtain and began whizzing around in the water it was so bizarre that I couldn’t help laughing! But as the show went on I really came to appreciate the beautiful traditional music (the orchestra featured a theramin!) and the fascinating talent of the puppeteers. This was one stereotypical tourist activity that was completely worth doing.

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Between our two hot and hectic days in Hanoi, we had three calm and beautiful days sailing around Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. Make sure you can read about it in my next blog post by subscribing to this blog or following Roam with Juliet on Facebook.

All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.

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