Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hanoi: How to Make a Place Memorable

“A guest never forgets the host who had treated him kindly.” - Homer, The Odyssey, 9th Century BCE

I was reminded of this statement from the over 3000 years ago  following my recent visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.  I was there for a conference that brought together 60 Fulbright Scholars (professors and PhD students) from throughout Southeast Asia.  It was the most Americans I think I had ever seen in one place in Southeast Asia, which is generally not on the travel map of people back in the US!  I opted to stay two additional days as I had never really spent much time in Vietnam and I had heard that Hanoi was an especially interesting place.  I was not disappointed.

Our first stop for the Food on Foot tour was for dumplings.  The temperature was maybe in the low to mid 70s  -- enough for down coats in Hanoi. (click on photo for a larger view)
Prior to our visit, my wife had read about a "Food on Foot" tour on  Being an amateur "foodie", this sounded like the kind of tour that we would be particularly suited to so we gave Vietnam Awesome Travel a call when we got to Hanoi (their website,, had been hijacked and was not accessible).  Mr. Anh came to our hotel and we arranged to do the three hour Food on Foot tour for dinner that night (US$20/pp).  It was a great introduction to the city's Old Quarter, and especially to its food.

Pho Bo (beef pho noodles). A bit blurry, but in the background, upper right corner, hangs the semi-dried beef  for the pho.
Based on our interests, which border on the more exotic, we at a variety of dishes, each at a different restaurant.  In fact, each of the restaurants specialized in particular dishes, and several only sold that one dish.  The restaurants were mostly on the sidewalks, where we sat on small step stools and ate on slightly taller step stools.  We had dumplings, deep fried fermented pork, fresh jicama and green guava as vegetables, eel soup, pho bo (beef pho noodles), and a fresh fruit cocktail with thick cream as a dessert.  We ate so much!  It was great!
Hao Qua (what I called "fruit cocktail" in the blog) is fresh fruit, jelly (the white thing) and and avocado slice on top, with thick cream.  Ice is an optional topping.  This was sold on a side street with about four shops all selling this one dessert.
We stayed near the southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, which put us just outside of the core of the Old Quarter, but within a very easy walk.  During our Food on Foot tour, Mr. Anh introduced us to some of the major sites and interesting back alleys of the area, where some of the restaurants were located. Hanoi's Old Quarter is such a great walking area -- compact, lots to see on every street, Some of the most narrow buildings you'll ever see, easy to get lost and then re-found, and very easy on the wallet (be sure to bargain).  There are also lots of small hotels and tourists everywhere.

Hoan Kiem Lake, with its turtle island.  The core of the Old Quarter is in the background.
Downsides? Well, there are a lot of motorcycles, which the government encourages by charging a fairly low licensing fee compared to cars.  Some of the streets near the Dong Xuan Market were among the most crowded I had ever seen --- with motor scooters.  It is actually a very intense experience, almost overwhelming at times, but also quite memorable.
In Hanoi's Old Quarter. There are some pedestrian-only streets, as well.  (click on photo for a larger view) 

A dense street near the Dong Xuan Market.
The other downside that we experienced was our day trip to the famous Halong Bay limestone islands.  After a 3.5 hour bus ride with off and on rain, we got to Halong Bay to find that none of the boat tours had been allowed to depart.  All of the tours were standing around waiting to see if the port authority would allow them to go.  After awhile we went to a restaurant for a long lunch, and then finally, giving up, we returned to Hanoi.  At least we got to see the Vietnam countryside -- and why Vietnam is a major global rice exporter.  And we also met a very international crowd at our lunch table: China, Netherlands, UK, Italy and Thailand.
Rice and vegetable fields north of Hanoi, on a rainy day and through a bus window.

Tour boats at Halong Bay.  With so many boats, it is understandable why they would ground them all due to the fog.  Could be like bumper cars in the relatively small space between the limestone islands!
For us, at least, it was not a total loss since we had seen Halong Bay a decade earlier on a Star Cruise from Hong Kong. We felt bad for the others, though, who have yet to see this remarkable place. We did, however, get a full refund on the tour.  Mr. Anh, who had arranged this trip for us, said he works with this particular tour company because they share his high service values, as evidences by the 100% refund.  Other tour companies only gave a 50% refund for canceled tour boats.
Fruit and vegetable sellers on the street behind the Dong Xuan Market.
Everywhere we went in Hanoi we met such friendly people. You can find foods at international level restaurants with international prices, but you can also find great foods at really low prices, like about US$1 for a bowl of pho bo.  I really liked the ice cream cones for 6000 to 10,000 Dong (US$0.30 to 0.50).

Uncle Ho's Mausoleum. We joined the very long morning line here (guided tourists get to cut the line) to go into the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh's preserved body.
Also food related, we booked a private city tour (USD$55/pp) on a Sunday, our last day in Hanoi. We decided to do the private tour, rather than a group tour, so that we would have more control over our time and places where we went.  We did some of the standard city tour sites, such as the Ethnology Museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and home, and Temple of Literature -- all of which were very interesting.  And we also did the top of the Sofitel Plaza Hotel, which a friend told me had the best view of the city and Red River -- and which was a first time visit for Mr. Anh.

At Mr. Ahn's apartment.  (click on photo for a larger view)
Yes, Mr. Anh was again our guide for the city tour and he gave us the option of either having lunch at a restaurant or with a private family.  We chose the family option, which turned out to be with his family and sitting on the floor in his apartment.  He said 90% of his guests choose that option, which he usually only offers on Sundays because of the family's work schedule.  Meeting his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and toddler aged daughter and nephew was another highlight of the trip!

Lunch on the floor at Mr. Ahn's apartment. 
We left Hanoi feeling really good.  We thoroughly enjoyed the city and felt like it was a place that we both wanted to visit again some day.  Part of that was the great walking and exploring opportunities of the Hanoi's Old Quarter.  Being able to "explore", "discover" and be "surprised" is a really important part of a good tourist experience.

The other key to our very positive experience of Hanoi, however, was the friendliness and hospitality of the people we encountered.  Not just one person, though Mr. Anh really stood out, but also so many of the other people we encountered.   Homer was so right when he wrote that “A guest never forgets the host who had treated him kindly.”
This has to be among the thinnest functional buildings in the world -- just wide enough for a door. Hanoi has many narrow buildings  because taxes are based on street frontage -- the more narrow the building the lower the tax (or so I was told).  (click on photo for a larger view)