On our first morning in Hanoi, walking out of our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn (that’s right: we are staying at the Hanoi Hilton), we couldn’t help but be charmed by the street scenes. Hundreds of scooters crowd the streets, and at busy intersections they move in an effortless chaos that resembles choreography, all to the soundtrack of beeping horns. In and near the Old Quarter, pavement cafes cook up delicious smelling food and customers sit at small tables enjoying tea and a meal. Vietnamese ladies wearing traditional conical hats move through the area pushing carts laden with vegetables or other items for sale, and scooters move about the crowded streets with loads we would leave to pickup trucks at home.
We arrived for our obligatory first-day-in-a-city walking tour right on time. The group for the tour was just us and a German couple. Our tour guide could be the star of a TV show about a plucky Vietnamese college student with amusingly imperfect English and a side hustle as a tour guide. She was knowledgeable, charming, and funny. She goes by the Western name, Sara, but her real, Vietnamese name also happens to be the same name as her two siblings, only the name of each sibling is pronounced differently in the Vietnamese tonal language. She demonstrated her name and her siblings’ names which sounded something like this: Leh-anh (pitch raised at the end of the word), Leh-anh (first syllable raised in pitch) and Leh-anh (pitch lowered at the end of the word) – or at least, that’s the way I remember it. Sara’s name was the first of the three. We thought her demonstration was so charming that we asked her to repeat it, which she did, with a big smile.
We first toured Temple of the Jade mountain, a pagoda where people go to honor their dead ancestors. In Vietnam, communing with ancestors is a big deal. Most homes in Vietnam have an altar used for honoring ancestors, and the community temple is also used for this. Small paper replicas of items that the ancestors may be able to use in heaven are burned at the altar to send to the deceased relatives. These include small paper versions of cars, money, and even smart phones. Fruit is also given to the deceased relatives but is not burned. The benefit for the living in honoring ancestors is, in Sara’s words, to “bring us more lucky.” There is also a belief that the ancestor’s deeds, either good or evil, will affect the luck of the descendants.
We moved on and visited a traditional home of a wealthy Vietnamese person from the late 19th century. The house was designed with Feng Shui principles, including a staircase of 17 stairs, since even numbers are unlucky, with the exception of the number eight, which is very lucky.
In the Hanoi of more than one hundred years ago, women and children were relegated to the kitchen and men held sway over pretty much the rest of the house. The women (plural, as there were often several wives), slept downstairs, unless one was invited upstairs to sleep with the husband. Imagery, depicted as three men, of prosperity, happiness, and long life, the three goals of Vietnamese life, are depicted around the house.
We moved on to the Long Bien bridge which, with Sara’s accent, sounded confusingly like she was saying the London Bridge. This bridge was built in the early 20th century and is famous for being built by Gustave Eiffel, as in the Eiffel Tower, and also for being blown up several times during the Vietnam War. It has recently been rebuilt and is used by trains and mopeds, with a pedestrian lane. Sara walked us over to stand on the train track, which we and the German couple agreed would have gotten us arrested in our home countries.
Sara also took us to several places to sample typical Vietnamese food, including doughnuts, which are fried up fresh daily in pavement kitchens, candy, and the confusingly named “egg coffee.” The doughnuts were delicious. The candy came in a wide variety of flavors. One in particular, which Sarah told us would make us say “OH, MY GOD!” was simultaneously sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. It did make us say “OH, MY GOD.” I haven’t been that motivated to get something out of my mouth so quickly since I took a taste of Durian fruit in Penang.
Our last stop on the tour was Café Dinh, where we went for the egg coffee. Egg coffee is prepared by beating egg yolks with sugar and coffee, then extracting the coffee into half of the cup, followed by a similar amount of “egg cream” — egg yolks which are heated and beaten, or whisked. The drink is served either hot or cold with ice, and both are delicious. Even if it hadn’t been delicious, it was well worth it just to visit Café Dihn. To enter the café, you must first know where it is. We walked off the street and passed through a luggage shop, sidestepped into a dark hallway, and then climbed two flights of steep stairs, entering a single room packed with locals, featuring a small counter where the coffee was prepared and customers enjoyed, in small, low-to-the-ground chairs around the room.
Dinner in Hanoi
In the evening, we were excited to try some of the great food we had heard about in Hanoi. The gracious people at the desk of our hotel recommended a restaurant just a block away called Nha Hang Ngon. The restaurant was charming, featuring open-air space with plenty of tropical plants and French touches in the architecture. We ordered local beer and three dishes: spring rolls, a fish pie, which consisted of fish prepared in a sauce and served with vermicelli and fresh vegetables on the side that we were instructed to mix together, and a pork and fish “hash” served with herbs and vegetables and that we wrapped in rice paper and dipped in a sauce. It was a feast of tasty and fresh food. When the bill arrived, the six-figure amount looked like someone’s life savings, but the conversion rate to the U.S. dollar showed that we had really spent less than $30.