We had two main aims for our brief stay in Hanoi: to try Vietnamese noodle soup “pho” and to see as much of the city’s sights as possible. Needless to say, we were more successful with the first.
Being back in a large city meant many things. Incessant honking, cramped pavements (mainly because their main function is as a scooter parking space), chaotic traffic, pollution and shops selling everything you can possibly think of. However, we were excited about the reappearance of dilapidated street kitchens and stalls selling brightly coloured fruits, weirdly shaped vegetables, Vietnamese baguettes, barbecued meat and the ubiquitous rice-based foods.
As usual our first priority after dropping off our bags was getting some food. Astrid had led us and a French girl who had mistakenly put her trust in Astrid on a bit of trek across a motorway a couple of times in an attempt to find our hotel. On the way to our restaurant we were constantly sidetracked by street stalls selling alluring food, such that by the time we got to the restaurant we were already full.
Our first stop was at a stall selling bunh bao, which are steamed doughy dumplings filled with pork and quail eggs. We were stopped yet again by the sight of a woman carrying two baskets of jackfruit, which we had yet to try. One of the biggest regrets of the trip is not having this fruit sooner, for it was delicious. It tasted like a sweeter and crunchier mango, yum.
Falsely confident after a winning streak of street food we spotted what looked like tasty rice pancakes with peanuts. Instead we got gelatinous patties with unsalted peanuts in a bitter, salty sauce. They ended up in the bin.
By the time we got to the restaurant our appetite had diminished significantly, but we were still able to enjoy our catfish spring rolls with dill (apparently a common north Vietnamese ingredient).
Sufficiently satiated, we headed to the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake. It is dedicated to a Vietnamese general who, according to the bizarre information sign, is universally considered one of the most important military figures in world history. Either we are ignorant or some delusions are at work. The next stop was St Joseph Cathedral, a Catholic neo-Gothic structure which sticks out in Hanoi.
Our evening was spent swilling beers on a Hanoi street corner where our street food curiosity got the better of us again. It started off well with fresh springrolls, soaked peanuts and rice cakes in spicy sauce. However, my insistence on finding out what was wrapped in the banana leaves succeeded in getting Astrid to treat us to raw pork with fatty gelatine pieces. The Vietnamese friends we had made were shocked we did not appreciate this strange variant of a sausage. We washed it down with plenty of beer.
On our walk home Astrid’s shoe broke so she proceeded first to limp rather gawkily to the amusement of passersby. After tripping several times on the loose sole of her shoe she decided that it would be easier to walk backwards (although no less amusing for the rest of us) and took my hand so that I could guide her along the cluttered pavement. We must have been quite a sight: one girl laughing uncontrollably leading another girl walking backwards ever so gracefully.
So excited by street food, we decided that our last day in Vietnam would be dedicated to trying new culinary delights. We first sampled Bu bo nam bo (dry noodles with beef, bean sprouts, garlic and lemongrass) in a street kitchen that goes by the same name and only serves that one dish. Hungry for pho, we sat down at another street kitchen where we gracefully ate a plate of noodles in a hot broth with chili, pork, celery and lime.
For dinner we went to a restaurant which ostensibly only serves grilled fish, however when our waiter came bearing chunks of breaded fish and dipped them in the hot pan with the sizzling water spinach and dill we realised this was a different version of “grilled” fish than we had expected. Served with raw onion, parsley, peanuts and noodles it was nevertheless tasty.
We spent our final evening in Vietnam enjoying the cheap beer on tiny plastic stools while people-watching.
Tomorrow we head back to Bangkok where we will meet Gideon and his brother.