In addition to the buffet this morning I had some pho. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t the best. My general experience with the Vietnamese food at these buffets is that it isn’t as good as on the street, but I was still very glad it was an option.
After breakfast we headed to the market to see if Jenn could find some coffee. I have been to markets outside of “the developed world” a bunch now and they are roughly similar no matter what country I’ve been to: they are cramped and hectic and they are not places I really enjoy. (Though I found some dried fruit in Saigon which made me very happy.) This one was slightly less chaotic than some, and actually had places on the floor where you could stand and not feel like you were in everyone’s way. But we had trouble finding coffee that wasn’t completely bulk, meaning you were relying on the vendor to tell you about it. (And keep in mind we can’t speak Vietnamese and most of the people in this market, if they spoke English, it was a few words.)
The market is near Hanoi’s famous mural. The mural is the longest ceramic mural in the world and we thought it was something we needed to see. We walked out of the market, walked a block and looked across the street and there it was.
Crossing streets in Saigon and Hanoi is something. It’s easier in smaller cities but it’s still hard. But it’s very hard in Saigon and Hanoi. If I haven’t mentioned it before, this is how you cross the street. If there’s a streetlight – which is relatively rare depending on the city – you wait until it changes and cross and hope that no motorbikes rip by you but they do anyway; you still have to look both ways the whole time you cross. If there is no street light, you walk directly into traffic at a slow, steady pace, with your arm extend to the side and back, and you cross the street. Nobody will hit you. It might look they are going to but they won’t. We never saw a pedestrian hit while we were there and we were never hit. (And we never saw an accident despite the sheer chaos of the traffic.)
But this street – this street was something else. 6 or 8 lanes with a median in the middle and faster speeds than regular city streets (it’s a thoroughfare). We just didn’t have it in us. So we walked on the other side of the street for a long while, looking at the mural periodically from afar.
Also, it wasn’t entirely safe.
The neighbourhood changed drastically as we walked and we soon found ourselves outside a liquor store. We went inside and saw the largest collection of scotch I have ever seen in my life. And, you guessed it no Vietnamese products to be found. I guess rich Vietnamese like their scotch.
This brought us to West Lake, the richest neighbourhood in Hanoi. We walked to the lake and could tell things had changed, immediately. Prices in the cafes facing the lake were just outrageous for Vietnam. But it was pretty.
I must say, part of the charm of Hanoi is all the lakes.
We crossed the causeway that separates Ho Truc Bach from Ho Tay (West Lake) and headed to the pagoda there. We hadn’t really planned to go there and were not dressed for it so we couldn’t enter. (This was the hottest day while we were in Hanoi, and so I was very happy I didn’t wear the pants I would have needed to visit the pagoda.)
So instead we headed over to a temple at the edge of the lake which we could go into wearing shorts.
It’s the oldest temple in Hanoi, I believe but it was also not very impressive compared to both other temples in Hanoi and throughout the country. (Perhaps because of its age.)
Both Jenn and I had discussed going to see the Museum of Ethnology, about Vietnam’s numerous ethnic minorities. But we weren’t sure because it is super far outside of the downtown (7km). But once we saw how small the temple was, and realized we had a ton of time left for the day and that it wouldn’t take us very long to go souvenir shopping, we decided to go. It was a good decision.
We took a Grab, sort of like the southeast Asian Uber.
The Ethnology Museum is a tiny bit like Black Creek, or maybe Sainte Marie Among the Hurons – you start out indoors, looking at some artifacts, and that’s very interesting, but after a while you are outside and there are a bunch of houses from different ethnic groups from around Vietnam. The houses were all assembled by craftsmen from various tribes, or were houses that people actually lived in which were bought by the museum and moved to Hanoi.
One of the most impressive things about the museum was how different the houses were from culture to culture, tribe to tribe. Some used wood and thatch, some used clay (or something similar), some even used stone. the variety was kind of incredible. It also felt like you could tell where they what region of the country they were from by the style.
At the end of the path through the houses, there were some interesting statues. Apparently they are traditional.
After the houses, we decided not to go to the addition to the museum, which focuses on southeast Asia outside of Vietnam as it was already relatively late in the day. Instead Jenn headed over to the souvenir shop, which was extremely expensive (relative to Vietnam) and more in line with, say, a souvenir shop in Amsterdam, ostensibly because the products are ethically sourced (unlike, probably, everything else in the country).
There was an Aha cafe on the grounds – Aha cafes are everywhere in Hanoi, and there is one intersection where there are two – so we stopped there for a drink. Here I got to try the green tea ice cream milkshake I didn’t try at the Highlands Coffee in Hue. (Instead I jealously watched someone else eat one while I had an iced tea.) It was fantastic and I should make one.
We took a Grab back to our hotel because it’s so much easier than hailing a cab. (And, as I might have said before, the cabs in Hanoi are notorious for their attempts to scam tourists with fixed rates and even running the metre fast.)
Somehow, Jenn had not had pho since Saigon, so we went to the pho place we attempted to go to the previous Friday. It was late in the afternoon at this point so we were lucky to find it half full. It may have been the best pho we had in Vietnam; it certainly had way more stuff in it than the one I had next door. (It was slightly more money than some places but it appears to be all they do and it’s a bit of an institution, as it was half full even at a time of day when the Vietnamese normally aren’t eating.)
Immediately afterwards we found our local supermarket, which we had already visited two times previously, to go souvenir shopping. We picked up coffee for our families, some Vietnamese wine for my father and a whole bunch of Vietnamese candies. (Though some of them may have just been Asian. The way you figure that out is by looking at the alphabet used. The Vietnamese use Roman whereas China and Japan use their own.)
At this point, it was already the evening. We eventually went out for dinner and we didn’t know what to eat. We were both pretty tired of noodles because, aside from our sticky rice meal, that’s basically all we were eating. We walked towards the heart of the Old Quarter, unsure what to do, when we saw a Vietnamese BBQ place we noticed the night before. (Which I erroneously thought was a Hot Pot place.) We both immediately said we wanted to eat there, so that’s what we did.
You approach a massive spread of uncooked skewers, pick what you want and put it in a basket and hand it to them. They then BBQ it lightly and bring it to your own stove on your table, where you can keep cooking it if you like, or eat it. It’s entirely ala carte, and we had no idea what the prices were when we picked ingredients so we accidentally picked two of the most expensive things shrimp and crab. It ended up being our most expensive meal in Vietnam (only topped by our fancy dinner in Cambodia). But it was excellent, including some of the best crab I’ve ever had.
The other thing that made the meal our most expensive is that I accidentally ordered two litres of beer instead of one. This was more of Hanoi’s famous “fresh beer” but it tasted very different than the stuff we had the other day for lunch. In fact, it made me think that the “fresh beer” we had the other day was just Bia Ha Noi in glasses. (That’s the local brand, in case it wasn’t obvious.)
Are most expensive meal in Vietnam cost, um, CAD$30-something total. And it included two litres of beer.
For our last night, we decided to walk around the lake one last time. (For some reason I never took a picture of the most famous lake in the city.) We tried to find some “gelato” Jenn had seen which took us a little while. Eventually we found it and it was super small and cheap. I don’t remember what we had – did I have chocolate? – but it was decent enough for dirt cheap ice cream. (Ice cream in Vietnam, like all food in Vietnam, is cheaper than seems possible.)
We walked around the lake and still felt like we should treat ourselves. So we headed back to the “roti” place for second dessert. (I mean, the gelato was really small.) We tried different flavours and found them as good as last time. If ever see these Vietnamese sweet buns, they are a must try.