After our breakfast at the Box Hotel, we made our way to another hostel, Hanoi Rocks. Chelsea stumbled on a tour offered by the hostel which would take us through each of the places in northern Vietnam that we planned on visiting. Food, lodging, transportation, tour guides… everything included for about $199 per person (the tour was called the Southern Journey, if anyone is interested). With only one day’s notice, Julia at the Hanoi Rocks Hostel was able to book the trip for us. While traveling without a guide had been an interesting and challenging experience up to that point, we were relieved to have some type of schedule over the next several days.
After getting our trip squared away, we proceeded to see Hanoi. A 15 minute walk south brought us to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church built in the late 1800s by the French during their colonial occupation of Vietnam.
From the cathedral, we strolled another 10 minutes further south to the Hoa Lo Prison. As newly identified prison history lovers, Chelsea and I greatly anticipated the visit to this site. Built by the French in the late 1800s to initially house Vietnamese dissidents, the Hoa Lo Prison has seen its fair share of transformations since its initial inception (which prison hasn’t, right?). We enjoyed walking through the portions of the original structure that remained standing, as a large part of the prison had been demolished to make way for two high-rise buildings. The very pro-Vietnamese videos and articles gave an interesting perspective on the history of the American-Vietnamese relationship. We spent about an hour and a half at the site, and were not disappointed with the visit in the least bit.
Famished from learning, we retraced our steps north and grabbed some lunch at Quan Bia Minh.
Our table on the second floor gave us an awesome perspective of the popular intersection below. While obviously a bit pricier than street food, the plates Quan Bia Minh were delicious and the beer was cold and cheap.
We searched for Old Town Cafe near Ho Hoan Kiem lake, a popular coffee shop known for its delicious egg coffee and great views of the lake. Not finding it and not wanting to walk past the same people for the sixth time, we decided to move on without our sweet, caffeinated drink.
We moved a bit further south to Ho Hoan Kiem, noticing that the large street that surrounds the lake is closed to traffic on Sundays. This made walking around the serene water that much quieter and calmer without the constant honking of horns and revving of engines. For 45,000 dong we visited Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of the lake, across the Cau The Huc bridge. A brief rainstorm stranded us at the temple, though as with most rainfall in the area it died down relatively quickly.
We continued our walk around the lake, eventually shooting off on a side street to see the Hanoi Opera House.
Turning north at that circle, we walked through the outskirts of Hanoi’s French Quarter along Ly Thai To. By this time, a headache induced by my lack of caffeine and Chelsea’s urgent need for a restroom led us to have our first Vietnamese-style coffee. On ice, the sweet drink is a combination of strong, drip-style coffee and sweetened condensed milk. Not one for iced coffees, I thought it was one of the best drinks I’ve ever had (though that could have been the caffeine talking…).
We retreated to the hotel from there, exhausted from our long day of trekking through the hot, noisy streets. Both of us noticed audible growling coming from each other’s mid sections. Before climbing the three flights of stairs to our room, we stopped by a little cart serving Bahn Mi Pate sandwiches. Little did we know, this cart would serve the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam*.
Around 7:20pm we left our tiny hotel room for a 7:30pm tour of the Hanoi Ancient House. Chelsea and I were the only two guests of the house, which is a merchant’s house from the 19th century that was restored by the Vietnamese government. Two local university students studying Tourism and Hospitality Management led us on a free tour of the home. They explained to us the layout of the home, going into detail about each room and the ancient furniture that adorned them. The tour ended just as we caught our second Vietnam rainfall of the day, so we sat in the house and watched other tourists scramble in the street to find shelter.
That night, we wanted to try a local restaurant that we found online. The restaurant, called 14 Hang Ga, was known for a dish called Bahn Cuon. We wandered the streets west of our hotel until we found the place.
It was a sidewalk restaurant, similar to the place where we ate the night before: small, plastic stools where your knees sit higher than your hips, small tables, and a tiny cart from which the chef prepares your meal. We pulled up our tiny stools and sat down, seeing only another party at a table next to ours, and not seeing a cook. We sat for a few moments until one of the members of the other party rose from the table, went to the cart, and poured soup into two large bowls.
The woman who delivered our bowls returned with a plate of noodles for us before heading back to the other table. Chelsea and I looked at each other then down at our soup. It smelled interesting: not sweet, but not savory either. It had meat in it, though even until this day we cannot figure out exactly what it was that we ate.
We were able to finish about half of each bowl before making a gesture to the woman who served us. With no menu, we had no idea not only what we ate but how much it would cost. We gave her 100,000 VND, and she then she showed us another 100,000 VND note. Frustratingly reaching into my wallet, knowing that we were getting ripped off, I began to pull out another 100,000 bill, stopping when the woman and her table shouted “No, no, no! 100,000 dong!” before pointing at the bill that I gave her and giving us the thumbs up. Chelsea and I smiled and returned the gesture before all of us laughed harmoniously. As the laughter died down, I caught the eye of one of the guys at the table. He smiled at me and lifted up what appeared to be a large water container filled with a clear fluid. My face must have shown confusion, because he then grabbed two shot glasses from the table and gestured towards me with the glasses and the bottle. I turned to Chelsea, who shook her head from left to right and politely declined. Looking back at the man, I saw that he did not react at all to Chelsea, and only wanted me to join him. I said no at first, but that created the most disappointed look on his face. I took a moment to think, my mind reeling with all of the negative things that could happen from drinking from this bottle. Another woman at the table took the shot glasses and bottle from him and poured two shots. I reluctantly agreed to drink with him and, after clanging our tiny glasses together, I tilted the glass against my lips. The liquid flowed into my mouth and I winced, expecting a rough taste and a memorable burn. What I got instead was a smooth flavor that went down easily. We smiled at each other after, happy to share that one moment in time over moonshine from a plastic bottle.
I used Chelsea as a crutch for a few blocks before we saw a sign offering bia hoi for 9,000 VND at A Phuong Ha Noi (for those interested, the place takes up three corners at the intersection of Hang Vai and Bat Su. Look for yellow canopies with red and black writing). Feeling pretty good from the earlier activities, we sat down on the familiar plastic stools on the sidewalk in front of the establishment. Before we could straighten ourselves up on the stools, a young man was handing each of us a small, glass mug filled with cold beer.
We took a sip of the $.40 drink, pleasantly surprised by its flavor. We sat at that corner for two more drinks each, noticing only before the last glass how the drinks were filled. A man sat beside a large, metal keg suspended above him. A clear tube led from the keg to his right hand, the thumb of that hand plugging the end of the tube. His left hand held his own beer glass, which he sipped in between conversations with other patrons. Once a drink request came to him, he placed his own glass down and removed his thumb from the tube to fill empty mugs. We looked at our own glass mugs and, shrugging, gulped down the cold beverage before paying our bill.
We walked through a night market nearby our hotel, purchasing only a sweet, tapioca and jelly filled drink. Back to the hotel we went, stopping though for one last Bahn Mi from our new friend.
*Purely opinionated on my part, Chelsea doesn’t even agree with me. A combination of hunger, cost, accessibility and friendliness of the vendor play into this too.
If you are interested in finding this sandwich, head over to the Box Hotel. Looking at the hotel, there will be a small cart immediately to the right of the hotel entrance. The cart will be placed in front of a restaurant: ignore the restaurant, go to the cart. Order the Bahn Mi Pate for 15,000 VND. If an older gentleman is sitting out front and he pulls a stool up for you to sit on while you wait, you’ve found the right place!