A Day Away from Hanoi

Nam greeted us early Tuesday morning; his brother, Viet, was busy that day (his joke, not mine…and I’ll sadly admit that it literally took me until the end of the day to get it). We jumped into a van and headed towards the Van Long Nature area. The day promised to be a busy one.

Our first stop, after a two-hour drive, was a small village. An older gentleman met the three of us with…bikes. Now, if you know me, you also know that I am not a particular fan of bikes. I have tried to get over my small, irrational fear, but with no success. Bikes = potential death to me. But, I promised Sunia I would at least try the death machine since she doesn’t have the same thoughts on biking as I do. So, with reservation (on my part), off the four of us rode through the dirt and gravel pathways of this small village. Kids looked at us, motorbikes passed us, and I held on for dear life to my rackety bike. I stayed in the back and prayed for the hour or so we were on those death traps. Along the way, though, I will have to admit, that I could understand the appeal of riding the bike through the vibrant green rice fields. It was peaceful…well, except for the few choice words I muttered under my breath when I saw my life flash before my eyes…because I was on the death trap.

Along the way, we saw a Buddhist pagoda. The nun allowed us to enter and pray. I always have enjoyed the tranquility of Buddhist architecture; I always feel a sense of calmness when I enter one. Only after about 10 minutes, though, we had to get back on the bikes and continue our ride.

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Soon, we found ourselves entering a gate of a home within the village. The older gentleman lived there with his wife and daughter. They invited us into their home. Sunia and I were outfitted with baskets around our waist and we followed the daughter and gentleman to a muddy pond. As Sunia and I watched the man roll up his pants and step into the slush with a net, a water buffalo watched us with a look one can only describe as humor. I could almost read his mind: “What do these two idiots think they’re doing?” The man shook the net, but unfortunately no fish had been caught. He then lifted some submerged baskets up to check them for any creatures. This time, snails and crabs filled them. He gave the “goodies” to us to place in our baskets. I noticed you had to be quick to put the lids back onto the baskets because those crabs were quick little buggers! We were offered the chance to climb into the mud slush to try our hand at fishing, but we both declined.

After arriving back to the house, we washed our hands and the daughter instructed us to sit down near a camp stove (well, that’s the best I can describe it). She had some cut up sweet potatoes and batter. With chopsticks, she showed us how to take the slices of potatoes and dip them into the batter. Next, we placed them in hot oil until they puffed up into a nice golden brown. Now, I generally am against all things sweet potato, but this snack was tasty and enjoyable. In fact, if I could remember the exact recipe for the batter, I would attempt to make this snack on my own. Next, we were taken into the open kitchen. We were given knives and cutting boards. Together, the three of us chopped up the ingredients for spring rolls. Once the filling was combined with the mushrooms, pork, egg, cucumbers, and carrots, the daughter showed us how to filled the round delicate pieces of rice paper. I mastered the process pretty quickly. And again, this is something I could totally make myself! Who knew? Once they were all fried up, we enjoyed eating them. But before I could eat all of them, we were shown to the family’s dining area. We were served about five different dishes. By the time we were done, we were stuffed! Both of us had no idea the tour would include so much food! Soon Nam told us it was time to go, but instead of riding bikes back to the meeting point, he arranged for our driver to pick us up (yay!).

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Goodbye, death trap!

We drove about a half hour and then stopped at a little area where we could see limestone mountains jutting up from water. This was the Van Long Nature Reserve…the inland HaLong Bay. Nam arranged a boat for us, a sampan boat steered by a beast of a small, old lady. Sunia and I climbed down into the boat, and we sailed through the mountains. The ride was peaceful…we saw birds soar around us, heard the pitter patter of drips inside a cave, and admired the limestone formations. We only passed one other boat during our time. But like most things, our ride ended. We met Nam and the driver, and then drove back to Hanoi.

Here’s the thing about Hanoi…it’s a busy city. A city that is colorful and full of life, so it was nice to be able to get out of the noise and chaos of it for the day, and to learn about another way of life.

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Hospitality in Tho Ha and a Food Tour

As with travel, hiccups can occur, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing all the time. It was our second full day in Vietnam when we found ourselves starting to wonder if our tour was going to come pick us up in our hotel lobby. Both of us were excited to go on this particular tour; it was a chance for us to leave Hanoi and learn about making rice paper, a staple in many Vietnamese recipes (especially in one of my favorite dishes: spring rolls!). Finally (and luckily), a consultant for the travel company (Viet Dan Travel–Travel More Asia) arrived and explained the mix up. She was very apologetic, but told us our tour would go on once the driver came. Duong now worked in the office of the tour company, but was once a guide, and so she would guide our half-day tour. The drive to the small town of Tho Ha was just about an hour outside of Hanoi; it probably wasn’t even that long. It was nice to get out of the hubbub of Hanoi and see some of the other towns. The farther out of the city we went, the streets weren’t as filled with motorbikes or cars. Soon, we got out of the car and proceeded to follow Duong down a small hill to a ferry. I wasn’t sure how old the vessel was or if it would even hold up, but other people (who were staring at us…okay, me) were trusting it to get them across the small river so I figured I would do the same.

Two minutes later, we got off the ferry (not before a couple of men on a passing boat whistled and yelled at me) and walked along the small path leading through the center of the village. Duong told us we had to first walk through the villages gates to be welcomed into the village properly. Next, we took a right and then left, passing rows of machine made rice paper drying on straw grids, before reaching the traditional Vietnamese home of a couple who would shower us with warm hospitality.

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The gates of Tho Ha Village

Our enthusiastic hostess welcomed us into her courtyard. In the corner was a stove of some sort, with a pedal and pulley system hooked up to it. Sunia and I watched intently as the woman demonstrated the method she uses to make her rice paper. She uses the pedal to lift the lid, takes a ladle of rice milk (I think it was rice milk), spoons the liquid on the bottom of an upside pot that is on top of the concrete stove, lowers the lid by lifting her foot, and counts to 10. At 10, she lifts the lid—pushing the pedal—and takes a wooden roller to catch the edge of the congealed circle of rice milk. She then lays it on a straw screen to dry. After one more demonstration, our guide took a turn to try her hand at it. She did well! Next up was me! I was excited to try this. There is something to be said of an old tradition, especially in an era where machine produced items reign.

I felt like it was my chance to take part in a traditional custom of Vietnam. I sat down on the tiny stool and followed the steps. The woman was very encouraging. And I have to say, if teaching doesn’t work out, I may have a future in making rice paper. Sunia took a turn before we were ushered into the woman’s home where we met her husband.

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The moment we sat down, we were offered a shot of some rice wine. We all downed our shots and then we were offered tea as the husband grabbed some traditional string instruments (they looked like a banjo and small guitar). He played and sang for us. He had Sunia tap a beat with a wooden frog with a thick dowel. I simply watched because I have no rhythm and didn’t want to ruin this moment. Soon, Sunia graduated to the banjo looking thing and I was allowed to try keeping the beat. I am happy to report that I did NOT ruin their musical interlude.

But like all things, our time with the Tho Ha rice making couple came to an end and Duong took us back to the ferry so we could meet our car and make our way back to the city. Along the way, Duong asked if we would be interested in a complimentary food tour to help make up for the snafu earlier in the morning. It was a gracious offer and we decided to take the company up on it, even though everything had worked out.

Around 6pm, Emilie, a manager with the tour company, met us in the lobby. She informed us that we had three stops on the tour, the first being a popular place with the locals for pho. We followed her through the streets and traffic. The three of us sat down, and Emilie ordered our pho. I’m telling you, I was never a fan of pho thanks to the one restaurant I went to in Shenzhen, but I was quickly becoming one during this vacation. It was great. Instead of chicken, this pho had beef and was just as flavorful. Our next stop was for a tasty treat! It was like a frozen fruit cream (sorry, foodies, I know I suck at remembering some details!). Mine was watermelon and delicious. The night was warm in Hanoi and this certainly helped cool us off. As we ate, we sat on low plastic stools in a dark alley, watching people go by. It was a nice serene moment, even if it was in the center of Hanoi’s pulse, or Old Quarter. And our final stop on the tour was one Sunia and I had been to before. It was the place that served egg coffee! Knowing our way up to the seating area on the second floor, we climbed the stairs and sat at the low table once again. I asked Emilie if I could perhaps try the egg with chocolate this time and she said that would be fine. I am telling you, if there is one thing I must insist anyone try in Hanoi, it would be the egg with chocolate. It is one of my most favorite things I have ever tasted during any of my travels. I hope I can replicate the taste of the egg cream one day. It was creamy, and frothy, and so so smooth. Clearly seeing how much I was enjoying the warm goodiness of the egg with chocolate, Emilie asked if I wanted to try it with green bean. Now, I know what you are thinking: green beans? Yes, green beans. I was skeptical at first, too. But on both days, Sunia and I had been offered sweets made from green beans so I knew they had potential. So, I agreed to try the egg with green beans drink. And it was okay. Not as good as the egg with chocolate (again, it is a must—I mean, seriously, it was like a liquid Cadbury egg), but still sweet and creamy. Once we were done with this last treat, Emilie walked us back to our hotel.

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Perhaps the tastiest thing in all of Vietnam!

I would personally like to thank the hospitality of the tour company, Viet Dan Travel—Travel More Asia. The services they provided, plus the warmth, were wonderful. I would not hesitate at all contacting them for tour services if I ever find myself in Hanoi or northern Vietnam again. And so for a day that started out with a few bumps, it certainly ended on a sweet note.

Welcome to Vietnam

We (Sunia and I) landed in Hanoi during the early evening on Saturday. Coming off the plane, we went to the customs/immigration area. It was not marked clearly which line we were supposed to get into, so we used our context clues and followed the crowd that had paperwork similar to ours. That was a good call on our part. We handed over our visa application and passports, then waited for our names to be called…about 15 minutes later. Then we were off to meet our driver who would take us to our hotel, Hanoi City Palace, in the Old Quarter. We could immediately tell that the Old Quarter was the place to be due to the overwhelming amount of scooters dashing every which way through the narrow streets. I was starting to wonder how we would ever be able to cross the road!

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This is NOT an accurate depiction of how busy the roads were!

Upon arriving at our hotel, we learned that our room had some electrical problems and that we would be transferred for the night to their sister hotel, just a block away. I’m not going to lie, my first thought was, “How the hell am I going to cross the road to get there?” But we went with it. The doorman carried our bags and we followed him, avoiding the scooters the best we could by following his every footstep. We got situated at the Lotus Boutique hotel, which was quiet and seemed nice. But we were hungry, so being the adventurous women we are, we ventured back into the bustling streets in the attempt to find some food. As we were leaving, we asked about getting SIM cards (while living in China, certain sites are blocked and then you have to turn on you VPN which doesn’t always work or slows your phone down and so I always try to get a SIM card in whichever country I’m in to take advantage of their internet/data). Usually, I would just go to a 7-11, but I had not seen any on our way in, so the doorman for this hotel (the doormen are really friendly) walked us back to a main street and helped us purchase our SIM cards. He was super helpful as we didn’t speak the language and neither did the person selling the cards. Finally, armed with super fast data, we went on our hunt for food. But we were both tired and decided to just hit a sandwich stand near our hotel. Besides, the tour we were scheduled to go on the next day would take us all over the city and provide a good lunch. We called it a night early so we would be in top form for our all day tour.

We woke up and headed down to breakfast early the next morning, our first official day in Vietnam. While eating, our tour guide, Huong from Bravo Indochina Tours, met us and laughed. Apparently our tour included breakfast (which was fine with me since I had just settled for toast). She was also concerned over what I was wearing: a tank top and shorts. I guess we would be going to a few places that required you to cover your knees and such. So, I quickly went upstairs and changed shirts and grabbed a pair of pants I could pull on over my shorts. We jumped in our private vehicle for the day and drove to a restaurant that served pho. So, for our second breakfast, we dined on chicken pho. Now, I wasn’t initially excited or looking forward to all the pho I knew I would have to eat. I had eaten it once before months earlier at a Vietnamese place in Shenzhen and it made pho my foe let’s say. But this was amazing! The broth was light and flavorful; the noodles and chicken were filling and just perfect for a morning breakfast, especially with a squeeze of lime. When Huong went to pay, one of the guys working there came up and sat next to me on the little bench/stool. He whipped out his phone and said he wanted a picture with me. I thought maybe of Sunia and I, but no. He meant us—him and me. So, I smiled and let him have a picture.

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Early morning pho

Our guide returned and we followed her a few shops down to a place that served egg coffee. Yes, as in a real egg. Café Giang is known for having the best egg coffee in town. Now, I don’t like coffee but I was willing to try it. We climbed up the narrow stairs to an open area with tables and stools (when I say stool, I mean low, to the ground sort of stools). The coffee was served in a mug, which was in a shallow bowl/cup filled with hot water. This allows the beverage to stay warm. I took a sip and wow! Amazing it. The egg cream was frothy and smooth. I drank it all, until I started to taste the coffee part that had been hiding underneath the egg goodiness. I saw on their menu that they also offered egg with chocolate—I was definitely going to come back to try that! Sadly (sad only because of having to stop drinking the egg cream), it was time for us to head out again and see more of the city.

The first official stop on our tour was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, built to honor the late beloved leader of Vietnam. I was instructed to put my pants on before getting out of the vehicle. We went through metal detectors upon entering the gated area and guards patrolled the entrance. As we were joining the line to enter, tons of school kids were there for a field trip. The majority of them said hi. The line took about 20 to 30 minutes, but Huong stayed with us and shared some information about Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh with us. For example, he never had kids of his own, but he loved children so he would have a day once a year that kids could come and fish in the huge pond at the palace. As the line inched closer to the actual mausoleum, the crowd waiting got quieter. Once we entered the building, the temperature dropped considerably due to the marble it was built out of. Inside the dim room, Ho Chi Minh’s body rested in, the line kept moving, all remaining respectfully quiet the entire time. Also within the complex was the palace (where Ho Chi Minh never really stayed), a traditional stilted home (where he did stay), a huge pond of fish, trees, and a pagoda. We saw it all and then returned to the vehicle (where I quickly took the pants off) where we went to a place that had helped people affected from Agent Orange. The victims create these beautiful pieces of art with silk thread. They usually cannot talk and will have some physical deformities. Throughout the week, we came across a few places similar to this, but this particular place was special. It wasn’t trying to exploit the workers like a few of the other places. Plus, the prices were much lower than the “tourist traps”.

Next we drove just outside the Old Quarter to the Ethnic Tribes Museum of Vietnam. There is something like 84 (or around that number…I shamelessly admit that I don’t listen all that well at times) different ethnic minority tribes of this country. Huong was quite knowledgeable and informative, pointing out certain things in the museum. We saw artifacts and models from the majority of the tribes represented at the museum. One thing I did take note of was the Love Market that was mentioned—it is something to keep in mind if I remain single.

Lunch followed the museum. We started off with a shot of rice wine before being served the set menu. The food was delectable and included: fried spring rolls (a must in Vietnam), papaya salad, pork with chili, grilled chicken in a banana leaf, fresh stir fry vegetables, fried rice, and fruit kabobs. It was all fantastic, but my favorite was the pork and spring rolls.

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CHEERS to Vietnam!

But the tour didn’t end there! We drove to the Temple of Literature next. I wish I could tell you all about the history of this particular place, but I can’t. I do know it is beautiful and you can feel its history as you walk through the paths. I did notice a lot of statues of cranes standing on the backs of turtles (turtles are considered sacred in Vietnam). This statue represents the relationship of the sky and earth.

One of my favorite parts of the tour was getting to see a water puppet show. As you may know by now, I am a bit of a Samantha Brown fan. When she was in Vietnam, she also went to the water puppet show and I loved how different it was than the traditional idea of a puppet show. So, now I was in the same theatre. The show was beautiful! You forget they are puppets and look at them as separate entities. The puppet masters bring them to life, with the traditional music playing a supporting role. I would’ve liked to have ended the tour on this high note.

But we didn’t. Instead, we went on a cyclo ride around the Old Quarter. Sunia was in a separate cyclo and I was in my own—not by choice. I found it to be slow, and made me stick out even more than I already did. While watching everyone pass us, one man did walk by and sang to me, “Sexy lady, oooo, sexy lady.” I was not amused. But after the cyclo, I threw the pants back on for a walk over to the Jade Temple. Crossing over a red bridge, we can to the Temple. It was beautiful! Surrounding the Jade Temple lake was the Old Quarter, lit up. The temple was intricate. Inside is a huge stuffed turtle. There is a legend with the turtle and the king’s sword from hundreds of years ago. The king had his sword but the turtle took it.

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After a full day, our tour was over and we were taken back to Hanoi City Palace (to try again; our luggage was transferred for us during the day). Huong was an awesome tour guide. She knew so much about the history and people of Vietnam. I totally recommend this tour (minus the cyclo) if you are going to Hanoi. I feel like it offered a good primer to the city.