Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hanoi {the end}

Bo and I stayed in Hanoi for three more days after our tour ended. It was probably a day or two more than necessary, though totally worth it since coming home on a Tuesday was a hellofa lot cheaper in skymiles and it was nice to really unwind for a few final days before returning to reality. As much as we thoroughly enjoyed our tour and the amazing group of friends we made, we were definitely ready to be on our own agenda again.

We walked all over the city to do quite a bit of sightseeing. First up, the One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist temple built to resemble a lotus flower for its purity.

We didn't stay there too long since we were really just killing time until the Ho Chi Minh Museum opened. The museum was okay. Almost everything on the first floor was in Vietnamese so I cannot confirm with certainty but it appeared to be the background life story before he took over as President. Mostly historical letters and quotations, and a lot of informational displays that we couldn't even begin to attempt to understand. The very little amount that was in English was mostly propaganda, so we just did a quick lap and then continued on upstairs. Thankfully the rest of the museum was in both English and Vietnamese. There were some really cool artistic displays of Ho's favorite things. One of my favorite displays was a war uniform worn by Ho Chi Minh - I couldn't believe how small he was, just over five feet tall.

Since we didn't spend very much time in the museum, we had some extra free time and decided to walk over to Huu Tiep Lake. The map in our guide book was extremely off-scale so what we thought was right around the corner turned into a 2-3 mile walk through some back alleys. It made for a fun adventure.

Right in the middle of the neighborhood is a small lake where an American B-52 was shot down during the war and the wreckage remains there today. It was one thing to visit the war museum and the cu chi tunnels and to be out in the jungle where most of the fighting was, but to see this in the middle of everyday ordinary life put it in another perspective.  

At this point we were on the opposite side of town so we took a long walk back to our hotel and stopped for a few beers along the way and enjoyed the people watching.

Second to Hue, we thought Hanoi had the next best food. So far I've really only shared the crazy exotic foods we've tried, but for the most part we actually ate really normal food. Lots of fried rice, pho, and various other relatively plain dishes. Most of the local restaurants we went to were teeny tiny and they sure know how to make the most of their limited space.

Cha Ca La Vong is a popular restaurant that has been around for over a hundred years and only serves fried fish, cooked right at your table. It was very good but we didn't really see what all the hype was about. It wasn't until later that we realized there are many other knock-offs, and from all the google searching we've done, we're pretty certain we didn't go to the original one. Ohhh well

We did have one last animal to check off our list before heading home. I'm sure a lot of you will cringe, and it might be hard to believe....but we ate dog. I know, I know. We love our puppies - how could we do this?!  A few of our new friends from the tour group were also still in town and between the five of us we split one order, which came with several dishes of dog cooked a few different ways. It was way too much food since we all really just wanted a bite or two to try it. Thankfully, it was all really awful and we hated it and have no desire to try it ever again. So at least we can cross this one off our bucket list forever. Supposedly, they have certain breeds of dogs that are for eating and others for pets, and I am going to choose to believe that. They only serve it in the second half of the lunar month for good luck, so lucky for us it was available when we were there! ;) We also wanted to try cat, but the "cat district" was outside the city and we would have had to take a taxi - totally not worth it even if the ride would have only been a dollar. At last the "dog district" was within walking distance. Needless to say, we left very hungry and went to another restaurant for a real (normal) dinner.

We ended up at Green Mango, which was so fantastic we actually broke our own rule and ate there again the following evening. The salmon wontons were incredible - I could have eaten an entire meal of them!

The night markets were up every night we were there, so we walked through a few times. All kinds of stuff for sale, and there were people everywhere - it was completely packed all night long. It was fun to browse but we only bought a few small souvenirs.

One evening we went to the Water Puppet Theater to see a traditional show. It was interesting and pretty cool, never seen anything like it before. They operate the puppets from behind the stage while standing in water, and operating the puppets underwater. It was about an hour long show with traditional Vietnamese music and singing. Definitely something different. I'm sure this will sound weird considering how many pictures I take of everything, but Bo and I were both supremely annoyed that photography was allowed during the show. It was so distracting and sometimes hard to see with all the cameras (and ipads!) blocking our view. Sometimes it's better to just sit back and enjoy, though I am guilty of snapping a few photos of my own.

On our last day there, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum - which the American POW's sarcastically referred to as the "Hanoi Hilton". This is the prison where John McCain was kept and they have his flight suit on display as well as several pictures throughout the exhibit. The propaganda here was just as bad as the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. The prison was originally built by the French when the Vietnamese were fighting for their own independence, and was later used by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War to house mostly American pilots. Most of the museum goes on and on about how poorly they were treated there by the French, and even though the exact same torture chambers were used against the Americans, there of course was no mention of this. They made it seem like the Americans were at summer camp - they only showed pictures of them smiling, playing basketball, and decorating Christmas trees. There were also several quotes from POW's saying how well they were treated, which were essentially forced out of them after extreme and brutal torture. Overall very disturbing.


Our final tourist stop was a visit to Ngoc Son Temple, which is on an island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Similar to churches, at this point they all generally seemed the same to us - of course with the exception of the amazing views of the lake.

Legend has it that many centuries ago, an emperor was given a sword by the Turtle God, and one day when he was boating in the lake, the turtle came up and took the sword back from him. The turtle and the sword were never found, and the lake was then named Hoan Kiem Lake (the Lake of the Returned Sword).

There was a cafe right along the lake, so we grabbed a few drinks and some ice cream to hang out for a while. The weather was hit or miss in Hanoi so we had to take advantage of a non-rainy day. We leisurely walked around the city and came up with our own pub crawl. Again all the beers we had were very good and so darn cheap - the way beer should be!

Cheers, Vietnam! Such an amazing trip! The end.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Hanoi {part 1}

Our tour ended in Hanoi, and afterward we spent a few extra days there on our own. Of all the cities we visited, we spent the most time in Hanoi and it was one of our favorites, and again different from all the previous stops. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and is a pretty big city, though it didn't really have a "big city" feel to it, which we liked.

We actually stayed in Hanoi for a night before we went to Ha Long Bay, and did a little sightseeing that day with our tour group. We walked by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for a photo, but it was closed that day so we didn't get to go in. Not that we missed out on much - we thought about going a few days later, but no disrespect, we just really had no desire to wait in a really long line to see a dead guy.

From there, we went to the Confucian Temple of Literature. We walked around for a little while - it was pretty but nothing memorable of note.

The picture below is also the scene displayed on their 100,000 dollar bill (equivalent to about $5 USD). I felt so rich over there! :)  Although their money is called Vietnamese "dong", which was always awkward...

Quick stop for some pho in a random alley...delicious!

We walked around the Hoan Kiem Lake, which is right in the city center and also called lover's lane. Such a nice evening stroll.

Within the city there are several districts, and within each district every street is specialized. For example in the shopping district there is shoe street, dress street, purse street, hat street, pajama street, party street...and on and on.  We all went shopping on pajama street for absurd pajamas (which we wore on the junk boat in Ha Long Bay the next night). A few of us who are the more extremely adventurous eaters went to Highway 4 for dinner where we ate a lot of weird food. To those of you who thought it was crazy/gross that we had rat and snake wine in the Mekong Delta...that will now seem like basic chicken. You've been warned.

There were six of us at dinner and we ordered 11 dishes to share for a total of 12 different animals in one meal. In the photo above, left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Scorpion. It was terrible. Really dry and crunchy. Like when you are grilling chicken and a tiny piece gets completely chargrilled - sort of like that. But worse.
  2. Gecko. Not great. There were a lot of bones still in it.
  3. Ants with beef. Actually pretty good, we dipped the beef in a small bowl of ants.
  4. Fried shrimp. A normal, delicious item.
  5. Crickets with pork. Also surprisingly good. It was served with crackers/chips so we ate it like a dip.
  6. Escargot. Usually we love it, but we didn't think they were cooked properly so did not enjoy this.
  7. Pigeon. We've had squab before so this was "normal" to us. The disturbing part was that they served it on the plate like you would serve a whole chicken, and for whatever reason it's head was just sitting in the middle. Totally not necessary.
  8. Grilled Frog. My favorite! It was a little spicy (though I am a spice wuss) and had a great flavor.
  9. Fried frog. Also very good. 
  10. Ostrich steak. Second favorite. 
  11. Chicken fried rice. Because what's a meal in Vietnam without fried rice??

The next morning we drove to Ha Long Bay where spent the next day and a half. We came back to Hanoi for one last night with the group, and our tour manager took us all to our final dinner together at Little Hanoi. We all went to a bar afterward and out of nowhere it closed and everyone had to leave. Apparently this happens often - there is no official closing time for bars, just whenever the police decide to shut everything down.

 That night was also Sophie's birthday so we had all the more reason to celebrate together.

Our tour manager was on his last tour of a six month stint, so by then he knew all the locals who escorted us to an underground rave party. It was just on the outside of the city, right along the water, and absolutely awesome - such a great way to end our time with all of our new friends!


The bahn mi lady outside made the absolute best that we had the entire trip. She put a lot of different things in it like sausage, steak, eggs and sauces along with the normal vegetables.