Hello Hanoi Old Quarter
Just one more stop before heading “home” to Hoi’An is a three-night two-day stop over in the bustling capital city of Hanoi. I’m looking forward to exploring and staying right in the heart of this city’s famous Old Quarter.
Friday: Day #293
Hanoi is the mighty capital of Vietnam. I’ve been here before and this visit marks the third time I’ve been to this vibrant and bustling capital city. But this time I’m on my own. Well that’s not entirely correct. I have four daughters in tow. But I’m having to navigate everything we do once we’re all off the plane. Between Steve and me our roles are usually set to our strengths: Steve seems to do more of the research into and organising of taxis or public transport to our accommodation, finding ATMs or money exchange booths, payment of accommodation and all that goes with that etc and I seem to gravitate to the details of the journey like the places to visit, things to experience; the must dos of a particular place. But Steve’s missing out on this last part of the school holiday journey, as he’s staying in Bangkok until his parents, Sue and Baz, are out of the Bangkok hospital and on a plane home to Australia.
So I take in a deep breath, and ready myself in preparation of the diverse challenges solo parenting travel brings. I will need to be both organiser and experiencer on these couple of days in Hanoi.
First, we need a taxi to take us from the Noi Bai International airport to our hostel accommodation located in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. This may seem like a straight forward task, and it should be, but this afternoon it’s taken an unusual twist. For some reason, which I can’t completely understand, the taxi we’re waiting for outside the arrival terminal is lost! Not a good start when a taxi driver can’t get to the international airport. The man organising the taxi tells us that we need to follow him down to the highway, jump over the wire fence and wait for the taxi there. The girls are looking at me with a look that’s saying, “um mum not so sure this is what we should be doing – dad wouldn’t do this!”. But I go along with it. The taxi for the five of us costs 500,000 Dong (A$27) and at this hour of night we’re taking it!
With the large bright neon lights of the international airport name Noi Bai beaming behind us, we jump the wire fence (it’s not a tall fence) and clamber into the lost taxi. It’s quite an adventuresome start to out stay in Hanoi to say the least.
When we finally arrive to our destination, the taxi driver informs us that he can’t drive us into the Old Quarter, but will drop us off on the outskirts of the Old Quarter and then we can walk through the arched gates of the Old Quarter to our accommodation. His English is extremely limited, and I think I can work out where we are in regards to our accommodation.
At times it’s a matter of having a generous leap of faith mentality. I think to myself I hope he’s right. My sense of direction isn’t that flash, but Charlie’s is. So we use Maps.me (that works without wifi) and we walk through the old stone gates that lead into the Old Quarter precinct as the taxi speeds off into the bustle of traffic. And when we find our accommodation Hanoi Old Quarter Backpackers Hostel, I finally take in another breath and relax knowing we made it.
There’s a lift, but it doesn’t seem to be working so we walk up the steep stairs to the 3rd floor where our dorm room is located. Grumble, grumble from some of the kids. It’s good exercise.
We’re staying in a large 6-person dorm room decked out with bunk beds that have very comfortable mattresses on them. Yay that’s a bonus! There are fluffy pillows, and white sheets, an air conditioning unit plus a ceiling fan, shared toilet and bathroom facilities down the hallway, and we rent a towel each for 20,000 Dong. The place is clean with very friendly staff. We plonk all our things on the beds, after each of us chooses a bed and negotiates for upper or lower deck we check out the bathroom and toilet facilities. All in order. It’s got a good feel to it this place and all for just US$72 (3 nights). There’s a grey upright locker, with six lockable compartments which is handy if you’re sharing the dorm room with other travellers.
We just need to lock the main door, but the lock isn’t working on the main door. I go downstairs to find out if someone can show me the trick to locking the dorm room door, and a woman comes up with me but doesn’t have any luck either. There seems to be something wrong with the door’s alignment and it won’t lock properly. So we end up placing our valuables inside the upright locker compartments and head out to grab something to eat from the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
What does a US$24 per night for 6 people backpacker’s hostel look and feel like anyway (yes that’s US$4 per person per night!)? Take a look at this video to find out.
We stroll to Dong Xuan Market. It’s one the largest market areas in Hanoi and we order a BBQ meat and vegetables dish. It’s DIY cooking at our table and costs us 580,000 Dong (A$32 or A$6 each). The cooking contraption arrives along with our drinks, and a large plate with freshly sliced meat and vegetables on it. The man lights the flame and we start cooking the food on the hot plate. Ash takes charge here and turns the pieces of meat and veggies with chopsticks until they’re cooked. We have enough food to cook a second round of meat and vegetables, but order more rice. It’s delicious and it’s authentically Hanoi style cuisine. The girls love this meal and enjoy the hands on element of cooking at the table. It’s a fun night together.
After dinner, we wander around the streets of the Old Quarter until it starts bucketing down with rain. We get caught in the middle of a storm, but manage to watch a street rock band perform in the middle of the road for a bit. We decide to purchase rain coats for 20,000 Dong each (A$1.10) and head back to our dorm room for a big relaxing sleep.
Hanoi Day 1
Saturday: Day #294
We walk downstairs and see a grey street scene. The rain has set itself in. I happily order breakfast that’s included in the hostel deal – fried eggs and toast. Sure it’s basic, but it’s breakfast and fills the gap. The girls shirk at the thought of ordering the same so I tell them they can wait for lunch then. Grumble grumble from them again. I look forward to the day when it’s their money that they’re having to spend when they’re intrepid travellers!
Our plan this morning is to walk to a café I’ve Googled called The Note Coffee. Using Maps.me we meander through the Old Quarter streets until we reach the tranquil and green coloured Hoan Kiem Lake. I need a coffee, although I do enjoy the sweet Vietnamese coffee on ice, I still need my hot café latte if it’s possible to find.
Before heading to the café, I get the girls to at least take a look at the lake. We’re all wearing our colourful rain protective ‘sweat bags’ as it’s raining slightly still. It’s just an annoying rain that seems intent on staying for the day. If Steve was with us, he would already know the weather forecast. But I don’t do this, and am more than happy to get around in a plastic sheet covering my body.
The view looking out onto the green tinged lake is a peaceful one. But it’s more like a Griswold Family moment, where we take the view in and get going to the real reason we’re walking out and about in the rain this morning.
Two very friendly Vietnamese people stand outside the café and wave to us like we’re old friends. It’s nice, yet corny, and we walk in and disrobe from the sweat bags and the friendly man takes them in his hand and hangs them up for us. This place is called The Note Coffee because every wall, light shade, door, and window is literally covered in small, colourful, square sticky notes. Each has a message written on them by a guest in pen; some are inspirational quotes, others messages to loved ones and friends. This is definitely the kind of place we enjoy to hang out at and the girls order drink and a croissant along with note writing and we start plastering them on any of the vacant spots on the walls. Even our table and chairs that we’re sitting at are covered in sticky notes.
The rain is easing as we sit quietly and comfortably in the café. I lose track of time as we are busily writing notes and enjoying the cafe ambience. As we walk back to our hostel, Ash runs into the two Danish girls who are traveling and we met in the tuk tuk ride out to the waterfall in Laos. We cross the road to say hi. They are spending a month exploring Vietnam, and Hanoi is their first stop.
We then wander up and down Old Quarter roads. Each road is assigned a certain commerce or trade. For example, the street that our backpackers hostel is located in has shops full of tape and rope. The street we’re currently walking on has toy shops. I stop off at the toy shop as I’m searching for a Backgammon board game. They have Monopoly and Scrabble but no Backgammon. Then Dacey sees the extensive range of Lego on the shelves inside. It’s the same brand as home, called Lego Friends but with lots of Chinese characters written on the box. It’s crazy I know but she buys two large boxes that would cost over $200 in Australia, but here both come to a total of A$60. Plus the young man gives me a 10% discount too. She’s excited as this is from Granma and Granpa’s birthday money to her.
It’s a simple way to spend a wet weather afternoon, but the girls happily sit on the dorm room floor building Lego while I disappear with camera in hand to explore the Long Bien Bridge.
Long Bien Bridge
During the French occupation, the Long Bien Bridge, formerly known as Paul Doumer by the French, was built 1889-1902. It was designed by the French but constructed with Vietnamese labour and indigenous materials.
Originally the Long Bien bridge had a total of 19 spans and was the first steel bridge to cross the Red River in Hanoi. Due to the bridge being bombed numerous times by the American army in 1967 and 1972, many spans of the bridge were destroyed.
Today the Long Bien bridge is just one of five Red River bridge crossings in Hanoi. The Long Bien bridge transports bikes and pedestrians as well as trains through its centre. I walked along the bridge while a train passed, and the shake of the bridge was a little unnerving as were the gaps and cracks in the concrete pavers on the pedestrian walk and the view down was quite a long way down. A touch of vertigo ran through my body but I steadied myself and my anxious mindset with a firm hand grip on the railing.
18 years ago Steve and I visited the bridge and the market located nearby. Steve recalls getting a haircut there. And I remember taking a photo of a vibrant coloured market below. Today I look across a sea of green plant life and below a piggery. The view is lovely, but after watching the pigs from above I’m a little put off the thought of eating pork ever again. There are so many pigs in such a small space all scrummaging for the sloppy liquid food that is being poured out into the concrete trough for them.
We go out for dinner (no pork) and drinks at a café in the Old Quarter located up a couple of narrow flights of stairs that overlooks a busy intersection. The constant movement of cars and people is interesting to watch from this high up. We order a terrible pizza for 55,000 Dong and it arrives still frozen in the middle so we cancel the order and decide to move on to another place: Kebabs. They’re much better. But hands off kids: don’t touch the thick electricity wire that twists around our seating overlooking the street below.
The girls go to the market to look at the clothing and sunglasses, while I stay in the dorm room watching two episodes of the latest season of Modern Family. I need a laugh and a lie down. I’m not sleeping all that well lately and we’re all missing Steve being here with us. I check in for an update on when Sue will be going home to Australia. It’s expected that Sue and Baz will be flying back early Wednesday morning with a nurse, who lands in Bangkok on Monday. Fingers crossed this is confirmed.
Hanoi Day 2
Sunday: Day #295
The plan is that I get up really early and walk down to Long Bien Bridge to see the market operating. I set my alarm for 4am. Crazy indeed! But I’m just not sleeping well, and I know I’m getting way too tired to venture out for it. There are loud people on this floor or coming up the stairways. I hear all their laughs like it’s actually inside our dorm room. So as I’m already awake at 3am, I turn the alarm off and hope for more quality shut eye. I get some which is good.
We check out early. Dacey is disappointed that she has to dismantle all of the Lego empire she created yesterday with her sisters, and I’m starting to get a little worried that we have way too much stuff for carry-on luggage only. I also discover that Dacey has smuggled her three soft toys into her carry on luggage…oh dear!
It’s our final day in Hanoi. Charlie and Ash want to get out and about on their own, so they head off with some Dong and a spring in their step (I wonder what that’s all about?), while Billie, Dacey and I walk around the other Old Quarter streets looking for a particular place to enjoy the Hanoi traditional Pho. It’s one of the oldest authentic Pho restaurants in the Old Quarter that’s been serving Pho for as long as I’ve been alive. The girls think I’m obsessed with Pho of all things, and that may be the case, but what’s not to like about tracking down a restaurant to enjoy one of the quintessential dishes of Hanoi? They oblige albeit with eyes rolling and I’m sure they’re saying something under their breath.
And although both Billie and Dacey are inclined to reject the idea of Pho for lunch, they happily (in the end) come along with me and actually order a bowl and enjoy it! Who would have thought that was achievable?
Hanoi Beef Pho story
The national dish of Vietnam is Pho. It’s simply found everywhere. But, according to legend, the best place to experience eating Pho is right here in the capital city of Hanoi. But there is a handful of places that still exist today that were here many moons ago. And in particular there’s one restaurant I want to track down and hopefully eat Pho at – 49 Bat Dan Street. Why? Because this restaurant has been serving up the national dish of beef Pho (also chicken now) since the 1960s at the same place in the Old Quarter.
Unfortunately I’m searching for the photos I took on that day, but at the moment they’re lost in a sea of photos that are sitting on my external hard drive. I think I may have already taken close to a million shots between my LUMIX G7 DSLR camera and iPhone. I think they’ve been lost in the system…
We find the restaurant and bee line it to their front door. It’s full of Vietnamese patrons sitting inside enjoying, of course, Pho. We are warmly welcomed inside, a vacant table is created for the three of us and we sit down on the wooden chairs and take in the atmosphere of this long standing and historic place. It’s an elongated restaurant with a Vietnamese scene painted across its internal walls. It’s obviously been renovated and spruced up over the years. The Pho selling business has been good. It’s a Sunday afternoon and there’s a table of young smoking Vietnamese men drinking shots of clear liquid and eating lots of Vietnamese food. “Yo, Yo, Yo” (cheers) is what I hear. There’s an odd foreign couple sitting here too, and us. We order two beef and one chicken Pho (50,000 Dong each / A$2.80) and it arrives as quickly as my Hanoi beer. The cap is still firmly secure on the bottle of beer and I enquire as to getting it taken off, and I’m pointed to the DIY bottle opener hiding amongst the towering chopsticks container.
The traditional beef Pho is quite different to what I have experienced previously. The pieces of beef are quite thick and generous, and the broth is beautiful dark brown in colour. It’s authentic 1960s style broth I inform Billie and Dacey. They can’t quite understand my excitement over broth. The chicken Pho arrives too but it’s a much clearer coloured broth with plenty of green garnishing sprinkled on the top. We start eating with chopsticks and it’s simply delicious. The girls are also impressed and enjoy it too, reluctantly showing me their enjoyment as they didn’t want to eat stupid Pho did they!
People pay and leave; other people enter and order. It’s the cyclical nature of a Pho restaurant – many customers and many Pho dishes served up each and every day. Just how it works. And all paid with cash into a drawer of millions upon millions of Dong. We are full and satisfied. We watch the Yo table continue pouring the white liquid down their throats while a young girl, the owners daughter, twirls like a ballerina beside our table while her big brother sits at the table behind eating. It’s been a lovely Pho experience in Hanoi.
After our Pho lunch we wander the streets – packing tape street, polystyrene and foam street, fan street. And much to Dacey’s delight there’s a whole section of a street dedicated to selling Halloween costumes and things. It’s funny how ordered the trades actually are here in the Old Quarter. We rest the legs, enjoy a cool drink at a café and the mystery sisters Charlie and Ash meet us at the café too. We walk back to our hostel to collect our bags in the back room and get our taxi back out to the Noi Bai airport headed for Da Nang.
Looking forward to getting back to our Hoi’An home and friends. Also looking forward to being reunited with Steve after all that’s gone on since we left Hoi’An for a family trip to Laos.
PS I nearly forgot to mention the trees located in the Old Quarter. They are super special and ancient trees. They remind me of fairytales and old world charm. Here are some I got the opportunity to see up close.